Although you may think you’ve seen or even own blue flowers in fact, after 13 years of research scientists in Japan have announced the first ever true blue flowers – the Royal Horticultural Society has also verified the work. A bunch of blue chrysanthemums were successfully grown after DNA was extracted from the Butterfly pea and the Canterbury bell, then transferred into a common plant bug. The microscopic bug then carried the blue genes into a chrysanthemum and when seeds were taken from the plant a year later, the flowers grew with blue petals. The project was reported in Japanese journal Scientific Advances by the National Agriculture and Food Research Organisation and its lead author Dr Naonobu Noda said that the technique used to reach the result “could be applied to other plants not possessing blue flower cultivars for example roses and dahlias.” This may come as welcome news to the rose growers who for years have been trying to grow a blue species.
As the news of the experiment was announced, Dr Helen Czerski a physicist and presenter of the BBC Four series Colour: The Spectrum of Science, explained to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme how colour is created in nature and why blue doesn’t technically appear in flowers already. “There’s two ways of making colour in nature and the way that plants do it is they use pigments, which is what we think of as typical for a colour. The class that’s most common for really colourful plants are Anthocyanins. They are reddish, purpleish, they come in a range of colours and the plant keeps them in a little pouch. By tweaking the chemical conditions in that pouch the flower can shift the colour along the pinky-purple spectrum but the problem is there’s no blue without getting really alkaline and plants don’t like getting really alkeline. So the pigment itself could go blue, but the flower biochemistry won’t let it get there.”
Although many of us might argue that there appears to be many blue plants already in nature, these are technically variations of purple and no plant up to now has had a proper blue pigment. This hasn’t prevented plenty of debate surrounding what you can call blue, but this experiment marks the first time a true blue flower has been certified.
“You’d think it was simple as we do have blue things in nature,” Dr Czerski told Today. “A lot of the things we see, the blue in birds wings for example, comes from a different type of colour. It’s a bit like the iridescence on a CD, it’s the shape of the surface itself which gives you a colour so it’s not the pigment. To get the right pigment into a plant and keep it in the right condition – because that’s the other thing, plants cells are all little biochemical factories that are constantly controlling their environment – you not only have to get your molecule in the right place, you have to make sure the environment it’s going to sit in isn’t going to disturb it or change its colour.”