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What is a Bract?

By J.S. Metzker Erdemir
Updated May 16, 2024
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A bract is a part of a plant that may resemble a leaf or a petal. Structurally, a bract is most similar to a leaf, but it usually is slightly different from the plant's leaves. Some bracts are green while others are colored. Colored bracts can be quite brightly colored and are often mistaken for petals.

Bracts can be many shapes, sizes, and textures. They can be larger or smaller than the leaves and petals, and they are generally tougher. Their main function is to protect the flower from pests and harsh weather. When a flower first blooms, it is surrounded by the thick, green bracts. Some plants have two bracts while others have several. The flower blooms and grows out of the bracts, which remain on the plant and form the base of the flower.

A common bracted plant is the poinsettia. On plants like poinsettia and bougainvillea, the bracts are often referred to as “false flowers” because the plant's true flowers are so tiny and hard to see. Bracts that surround flowers in a cluster are called involucre. Poinsettia flowers are small and light green, and the grow at the center of the red involucre. Bougainvillea flowers are white, and about the size of a lentil.

Brightly colored bracts serve to both protect the flower and attract pollinating insects. Other common plants with colorful bracts and insignificant flowers include the dogwood, the vase plant, and the lollipop plant.

On flowers such as daisies and sunflowers, the bracts are the green part that holds the flower to the stem. Bracts of this type are called phyllaries. On grasses and grains, there are two types of bract. These types of plants grow with long clusters of flowers, called florets, at the top. Each floret eventually contains a seed. The flowers are surrounded by two thin, scaly bracts, with an inner bract called the palea and an outer bract called the lemma. The whole floret is surrounded by green leaf-like or spiky bracts called glumes.

Some bracts are adapted to very specific functions. The bracts of the passion flower are coated with a sticky, acidic substance that traps insects. The acid then breaks down and digests the insects to provide nutrients for the flower. On the Lobelia telekii, a tall, conical, furry-looking plant native to cold alpine regions of Africa, the blue-green fur is made up of bracts that act as insulators.

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Discussion Comments
By orangey03 — On Aug 18, 2011

@StarJo - I know what you mean. I was fascinated to learn that the flower of the dogwood tree is actually the tiny mass of yellow stuff in the center of the white bracts, which I always thought were petals.

The bracts of the dogwood stay closed until the danger of freezing temperatures has passed. When they first open, you can see tiny yellow structures with smooth tops. In the area where I live, this usually happens in April.

These yellow flowers eventually blossom. The smooth petals curl open, and then you can see the greenish-yellow pistil surrounded by stamens holding up the yellow pollen.

By StarJo — On Aug 17, 2011

That is crazy that poinsettia flowers are really the things in the center of the plant! Those light green parts look more like berries than flowers.

I knew that the red bracts were not the true flowers. I guess I just assumed that poinsettias had no flowers and were made up of only leaves.

Those red bracts look so much like flower petals because they are so bright, and their shades match perfectly. Their position also adds to the flower effect.

Whatever you call them, they make the plant the perfect living Christmas decoration. Banks, department stores, and offices use them as part of their holiday decorations right after Thanksgiving.

By Perdido — On Aug 16, 2011

I had no idea that passionflower bracts trapped insects! This flower is very exotic looking, like many of the jungle plants that trap and eat things, so maybe it is related to them.

That’s kind of scary that it contains an acid strong enough to break down the body of an insect. I often played with these flowers as a child, and I also ate their fruit. Apparently, no harmful substance exists inside the fruit, because it never hurt me.

My mother called these flowers ‘maypops,’ like many older people in the area do. She is the one who told me I could eat their fruit. I bet she doesn’t know that we are eating part of a plant that consumes insects!

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