Our Love For Blue Flowers: It’s Complicated

Posted on May 22, 2019
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With Memorial Day coming up and the Fourth of July not all that far away, the red, white and blue decorations are starting to appear, including garden and floral displays. Commercial garden centers and big box stores are putting their red, white, and blue flowers and plants front and center.

Forty years ago when I sold flowers downtown, the only option I could offer to patriotic customers were red, white and blue carnation bouquets. I’ll let you in on a secret: those blue carnations were NOT found in nature.

Red, white, and blue carnations make popular patriotic flower displays, but the blue variety needs a little help from artificial coloring. Photo: Faye Mozigo, Flickr - Creative Commons LIcense

Red, white, and blue carnations make popular patriotic flower displays, but the blue variety needs a little help from artificial coloring. Photo: Faye Mozigo, Flickr – Creative Commons LIcense

Naturally blue flowers aren’t just rare. They don’t exist. True blue pigment doesn’t exist in plants of any kind. When you see a “blue” flower or plant, other pigments and plant minerals combine with light to create the color you see as “blue.” The most common is one you might be familiar with as an antioxidant supplement sold in health food stores, cyanidin-3-glucoside which is sold as C3G. This is how plants like delphiniums, morning glories, and cornflowers develop blue flowers.

Plenty of flowers called “blue” are actually a blue toned purple, lavender, or even a cool toned red. But there are options besides the artificially colored type of flowers I once sold.

Pretty blue flowers spill out of an ancient wall in central Europe. Photo: Jim Mumford

Pretty blue lavender flowers spill out of an ancient wall in central Europe. Photo: Jim Mumford

The Holy Grail of blue flowers is producing a blue rose. One hundred and thirty years ago, British author Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about the futility of finding blue roses for his true love to symbolize seeking something unattainable.

Roses red and roses white
Plucked I for my love’s delight.
She would none of all my posies –
Bade me gather her blue roses.

Half the world I wandered through,
Seeking where such flowers grew;
Half the world unto my quest
Answered me with laugh and jest.

Blue orchids might be popular, but they are dyed, not grown this way naturally. Photo: Nikodemus Karlsson, Flickr - Creative Commons LIcense

Blue orchids might be popular, but they are dyed, not grown this way naturally. Photo: Nikodemus Karlsson, Flickr – Creative Commons LIcense

Japanese distillery company Suntory, working with Australian biotech company Florigene, produced a “blue” rose in 2009 using gene splicing. It took researchers 20 years of work using pansy flower genes to produce the blue pigment Delphindin in a previously white rose. The price of a single stem in Japan at the time was 3,000 yen, about $27 for ONE flower.

Consider these flowers which are close enough to blue and far more available for your patriotic floral displays.

In a previous blog post, I explained my affinity for hyacinths thanks to my grandfather. Grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.) are long-lasting, naturally blue flowers in shades from very pale powder blue to a deep purplish navy blue. They are a springtime bulb but they can grow indoors too.

When you see a “blue” flower or plant like these cornflowers, other pigments and plant minerals combine with light to create the color you see as “blue.” Photo: TD Lucas, Flickr - Creative Commons License

When you see a “blue” flower or plant like these cornflowers, other pigments and plant minerals combine with light to create the color you see as “blue.” Photo: TD Lucas, Flickr – Creative Commons License

Bachelor’s buttons, also known as cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), have intense little blue flowers and grow from spring to fall. This is a European flower. There are a lot of interesting hybrids created by seed companies so you can find many interesting varieties in nurseries.

Delphiniums (Delphinium spp.) produce naturally blue flowers thanks to the plant pigment delphinidin. This is the substance Suntory used to create its blue rose.

Purple is the common color of Iris flowers, but it can be bred to trend toward a blue-purple. This Iris was at a European flower market. Photo: Jim Mumford

Irises are more commonly lavender or purple, but where there is purple, breeders can push the flowers toward a blue-purpleThis Iris was at a European flower market. Photo: Jim Mumford

Irises are more commonly lavender or purple, but where there is purple, breeders can push the flowers toward a blue-purple. Irises are bulbs and they come in a tremendous amount of shapes and color patterns.

Agapanthus are a popular landscaping flower, and come pretty close to a true blue. Photo: Ali Eminov, Flickr - Creative Commons License

Agapanthus are a popular landscaping flower, and come pretty close to a true blue. Photo: Ali Eminov, Flickr – Creative Commons License

You’ll often see Agapanthus in Southern California yards. They are hardy and don’t require much water. They tend toward lavender, but there are varieties very close to blue.

Buddleia, or “Butterfly bush,” has beautiful flower spikes that can produce blue. Butterflies love them, and hummingbirds do too. The company Michigan Bulb produced a buddleia that is red, white, and blue on one plant!

Lobelias produce color saturated flowers in various shades of blue and they are an easy-to-grow garden favorite. Photo: MB Grigby, Flickr - Creative Commons License

Lobelias produce color saturated flowers in various shades of blue and they are an easy-to-grow garden favorite. Photo: MB Grigby, Flickr – Creative Commons License

Lobelias produce color saturated flowers in various shades of blue and they are an easy-to-grow garden favorite. Lobelia is actually an herb, which used to be called Indian tobacco. It was used as an herbal remedy for asthma, bronchitis, and cough. Native Americans smoked lobelia to treat breathing disorders. There are 415 different species of lobelia around the world.

Petunia come in nearly an infinite variety of colors and patterns, including "blue." Photo: Zirguezi, Wikimedia Commons

Petunia come in nearly an infinite variety of colors and patterns, including “blue.” Photo: Zirguezi, Wikimedia Commons

Petunias are one of the most popular flowers to grow in the U.S., partly because they come in such a wide range of flower colors, shapes, and patterns – including blue or blue-tones. They are easy to grow and have few pests. Petunias are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and tobacco.

Petunias were first discovered in South America 200 years ago. European breeders experimented with crossbreeding to develop larger flowers and more colors, and American breeders have continued to develop new colors every year. They are available in shades of white, yellow, pink, blue, purple, red, and even black, as well as bicolors, and as single or double flowers. Many have a light, sweet fragrance, especially the blue petunia varieties. Petunias will last four to six days as cut flowers too.

With so many colors to choose from, petunias are fun to combine into designs. This is why they are the go-to favorite in many patriotic flower arrangements and in the color bowls sold at this time of year in many garden departments.

However you celebrate, all of us at Good Earth Plant Company wish you a safe and colorful Memorial Day weekend as you honor our service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our nation free.