Epicuticular wax

For the whitish buildup on oil paint known as "wax bloom", see efflorescence.

Epicuticular wax is a coating of wax covering the outer surface of the plant cuticle in land plants. It may form a whitish film or bloom on leaves, fruits and other plant organs. Chemically, it consists of hydrophobic organic compounds, mainly straight-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons with a variety of substituted functional groups. The main functions of the epicuticular wax are to decrease surface wetting and moisture loss. Other functions include reflection of ultraviolet light, assisting in the formation of an ultrahydrophobic and self-cleaning surface and acting as an anti-climb surface.

Chemical composition

Common constituents of epicuticular wax are predominantly straight-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons that may be saturated or unsaturated and contain a variety of functional groups. Paraffins occur in leaves of peas and cabbages, alkyl esters in leaves of carnauba palm and banana, the asymmetrical secondary alcohol 10-nonacosanol in most gymnosperms such as Ginkgo biloba and Sitka spruce, many of the Ranunculaceae, Papaveraceae and Rosaceae and some mosses, symmetrical secondary alcohols in Brassicaceae including Arabidopsis thaliana, primary alcohols (mostly octacosan-1-ol) in most grasses Poaceae, Eucalyptus and legumes among many other plant groups, β-diketones in many grasses, Eucalyptus, box Buxus and the Ericaceae, aldehydes in young beech leaves, sugarcane culms and lemon fruit and triterpenes in fruit waxes of apple, plum and grape[1][2] Aromatic compounds have been recorded in epicuticular waxes but are generally minor constituents.

Physical properties

Epicuticular wax crystals surrounding a stomatal aperture on the lower surface of a rose leaf.

These compounds are mostly solids at ambient temperature, with melting points above about 40 C (104 F). They are soluble in organic solvents such as chloroform and hexane, making them accessible for chemical analysis, but in some species esterification of acids and alcohols into estolides or the polymerization of aldehydes may give rise to insoluble compounds. Solvent extracts of cuticle waxes contain both epicuticular and cuticular waxes, often contaminated with cell membrane lipids of underlying cells. Epicuticular wax can now also be isolated by mechanical methods[3] that distinguish the epicuticular wax outside the plant cuticle from the cuticular wax embedded in the cuticle polymer. As a consequence, these two are now known to be chemically distinct,[4] although the mechanism that segregates the molecular species into the two layers is unknown. Recent scanning electron microscopy (SEM), atomic force microscopy (AFM) and neutron reflectometry studies [5] on reconstituted wax films have found wheat epicuticular waxes; made up of surface epicuticular crystals and an underlying, porous background film layer to undergo swelling when in contact with water, indicating the background film is permeable and susceptible to the transport of water.

Epicuticular wax can reflect UV light, such as the white, chalky, wax coating of Dudleya brittonii, which has the highest ultraviolet light (UV) reflectivity of any known naturally occurring biological substance.[6]

Epicuticular wax crystals

Epicuticular wax forms crystalline projections from the plant surface, which enhance their water repellency,[7] create a self-cleaning property known as the lotus effect[8] and reflect UV radiation. The shapes of the crystals are dependent on the wax compounds present in them. Asymmetrical secondary alcohols and β-diketones form hollow wax nanotubes, while primary alcohols and symmetrical secondary alcohols form flat plates[9][10] Although these have been observed using the transmission electron microscope[9][11] and scanning electron microscope[12][13] the process of growth of the crystals had never been observed directly until Koch and coworkers[14][15] studied growing wax crystals on leaves of snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and other species using the atomic force microscope. These studies show that the crystals grow by extension from their tips, raising interesting questions about the mechanism of transport of the molecules.


  1. Baker, EA (1982) Chemistry and morphology of plant epicuticular waxes. In: The Plant Cuticle(eds DJ Cutler, KL Alvin, and CE Price), Academic Press, London, pp. 139-165
  2. Holloway, PJ and Jeffree, CE (2005) Epicuticular waxes, Encyclopedia of Applied Plant Sciences, 3, pp. 1190-1204
  3. Ensikat, HJ, Neinhuis, C, & Barthlott, W. (2000) Direct access to plant epicuticular wax crystals by a new mechanical isolation method. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 161, 143-148
  4. Jetter, R, Schäffer, S, and Riederer, M (2000) Leaf cuticular waxes are arranged in chemically and mechanically distinct layers: evidence from Prunus laurocerasus L. Plant, Cell and Environment, 23, 619-628
  5. Pambou E, Li Z, Campana M, Hughes A, Clifton L, Gutfreund P, Foundling J, Bell G, Lu JR. 2016 Structural features of reconstituted wheat wax films. J. R. Soc. Interface 13: 20160396. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2016.0396
  6. Mulroy, Thomas W. (1979). "Spectral properties of heavily glaucous and non-glaucous leaves of a succulent rosette-plant". Oecologia. 38 (3): 349–357. doi:10.1007/BF00345193.
  7. Holloway, PJ (1969) The effects of superficial wax on leaf wettability, Annals of Applied Biology, 63, 145-153
  8. Barthlott, W & Neinhuis, C (1997) Purity of the sacred lotus, or escape from contamination in biological surfaces. Planta 202, 1-8
  9. 1 2 Hallam, ND (1967) An electron microscope study of the leaf waxes of the genus Eucalyptus L'Heritier, PhD thesis, University of Melbourne
  10. Jeffree, CE, Baker, EA, and Holloway, PJ (1975) Ultrastructure and recrystallisation of plant epicuticular waxes. New Phytologist, 75, 539–549.
  11. Juniper, BE & Bradley, DE (1958) The carbon replica technique in the study of the ultrastructure of leaf surfaces, Journal of Ultrastructure Research, 2, 16–27
  12. Jeffree, CE (2006) The fine structure of the Plant Cuticle. Chapter 2 In: Riederer, M & Müller, C, eds (2006) Biology of the Plant Cuticle. Blackwell Publishing. pp 11–125.
  13. Riederer, M & Müller, C, eds. (2006) Biology of the Plant Cuticle. Blackwell Publishing
  14. Koch, K, Neinhuis, C, Ensikat, HJ, and Barthlott, W (2004) Self assembly of epicuticular waxes on living plant surfaces imaged by atomic force microscopy (AFM). Journal of Experimental Botany, 55, 711–718
  15. Koch, K, Barthlott, W, Koch, S, Hommes, A, Wandelt, K, Mamdouh, H, De-Feyter, S and Broekmann P (2005) Structural analysis of wheat wax (Triticum aestivum, c.v. 'Naturastar' L.): from the molecular level to three dimensional crystals Planta, 223, 258–270

Further reading

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