Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Case for Remaining Unattainable: The Blue Rose

by Shayla Carey

I hope you all had a wonderful Valentines Day yesterday—full of requited love and romantic times.  Today, though, I’d like to focus on love unattainable, as symbolized by the blue rose.  Like the black rose, this color is not produced in its purest form by nature in roses.  Florists have their methods of turning white petals to bright or deep blue (example, at left), but gardeners and poets must still pine for happy blooms the color of the sky they smile under.  Rudyard Kipling evoked the blue rose when he wrote a short piece that serves as a warning to suitors with high maintenance sweethearts:

Blue Roses by Rudyard Kipling
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.

Home I came at wintertide
But my silly love had died.
Seeking with her latest breath
Roses from the arms of Death.

It may be beyond the grave
She shall find what she would have.
Mine was but an idle quest—
Roses white and red are best!

According to Landis Valley’s resident garden historian, Dr. Irwin Richman, for centuries, gardeners used hybridization to tease hints of blue out of red petals.  It didn’t matter if the parents were white, red, or in between, but, because of the more complex chemistry in red petals, they were used more often.  Having said all of that, though, their results were mixed.  “Their results were incredibly subjective,” he says.  “A violet to one skeptical gardener is the elusive prized blue to another.”  He points to a listing in the Heller Rose Company of Indiana catalog from 1916:  “The Wonderful Blue Rose – Violet Blue.”  The description is not a flattering one—especially for a cultivar that the growers are trying to sell—but their honesty proves valuable to posterity.  It is a follows:

“This is the famous ‘Blue Rose’ which is a remarkable variety and endorsed by every leading Rose authority here and in Europe, but in our estimation it has not come up to the recommendation of its introducers.  We have seen it bearing flowers that were very blue and very beautiful, and we have seen it again in other soil bearing flowers which were more of a lavender than a blue, so we think it is largely a question of the soil it is grown in as to whether it develops the color claimed for it by its introducers—cornflower blue.  It is of the Rambler type, a beautiful grower, and even if it never bore a flower it is worth a place in the garden because of its rampant growth and beautiful foliage.  The flowers are produced in great clusters, are semi-double, of medium size, and as a rule are a delicate beautiful blue, but we do not guarantee the color.  It is hardy everywhere; a grand grower; a marvelous bloomer and is one of the most popular Roses in our entire collection.”

image of "Vielchenblau" rose from the Composer in the Garden blog
This variety is still around today and is known as “Veilchenblau,” which is German for violet blue.  According to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s website, this nearly-thornless hybrid multiflora rose was bred by J. C. Schmidt in 1909 from ‘Crimson Pirate’ and ‘Souvenir de Brod.’  It does best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade, and can ramble to 10’-15’.  It is hardy to zone 4 and likes a slightly acid, well-drained, loam soil.  It will bloom in late spring, but won’t re-bloom, and the flowers start off as deep magenta, then can fade to a gray-lilac color.

It is interesting that the description above mentions soil.  Some flowers, such as hydrangeas, will turn blue in acid soil.  According to the article, “The Color Conundrum,” by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, in the Spring, 2009 issue of Master Gardener magazine, the red and blue hydrangeas have pigments called anthocyanins in the vacuoles of their petals.  Vacuoles are balloon-like cells filled with organic acids and dissolved salts, minerals, and other chemicals.  Sometimes, these pigments can be manipulated by adjusting the soil acidity, which effects the availability of aluminum to the plant (if there is aluminum in the soil—many soil-less mixes have none).  There are many other factors involved, but many blue flowers produce the anthocyanin delphinidin, and the blue hydrangea—for example—requires this pigment, plus a co-pigment, and aluminum to turn a beautiful shade of blue.  Without all three of these, it will revert to pink.  It’s very complex.

Image of "Applause" courtesy of Wired magazine
Roses, however, do not produce delphinidin naturally, which means that the best that breeders can do is get the faded blue-ish violet colors of cultivars such as “Veilchenblau.”  Scientists at a Japanese company called Suntory have recently genetically engineered a blue rose called “Applause.”  It is touted as the first true blue rose and, thanks to a delphinidin-producing gene inserted from a pansy into “Applause’s” parent, “Cardinal de Richelieu,” it does, indeed produce the blue pigment, though not to the same extent as that of other coveted blue flowers, such as the blue poppy (Mecanopsis grandis, see image below).  "If your soul truly aches for the ultimate blue flower, find the rare and elusive Tibetan blue poppy, Mecanopsis.  Just don't expect to find it at a florist near you," Richman says.

Comparing the two flowers, it is obvious that nature figured out long ago how much delphinidin to pack into vacuoles to produce blue and “Applause” falls a bit short.  The company does cite shortcomings with “Applause” and continues its quest for a more pure blue rose, honing nutrient and aluminum absorption, as well as zeroing in on flavones (a yellow-producing co-pigment) found in other pure blue flowers such as Mecanopsis.  Richman also points out that the real money for Suntory is not in the roses, but in the genes and processes used to engineer the blue rose, as they have patented these from the start to limit competition.

Meconopsis - the Himalayan blue poppy

Is this really the blue rose that Kipling sought or is this cheating?  Would his sweetheart have been satisfied with a rose that, according to Wired magazine (“World’s First Blue Rose Soon Available in US," by Danielle Venton, 09/14/11), sold for 10 times as much as other roses when it was introduced or was she just after the unattainable?  Shooting for the moon and landing among the stars is more than just a saying by Norman Vincent Peale; it accurately describes the challenge of trying to obtain the unattainable blue rose and creating something almost as great—the “Vielchenblau” rose, for example.  Suntory used sheer will and billions of yen to engineer a blue rose but, in the process, it may have ruined the romanticism behind the quest for the unattainable by taking away one of its most prominent symbols.  Maybe it’s good that the company holds patents on its rose.  It makes it unattainable to most of us and, in the meantime, gives us back the challenge of accepting, and loving, the roses of red and white we already have.

The blue rose, and its equally elusive black counterpart, will be featured in Richman's book on roses and ray flowers, co-authored with Michael Emery, due out in 2018.