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Blue Roses?

by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


December 8, 2002

I’d like some blue roses, for a blue lady
Mister florist, take my order please.
We had a silly quarrel the other day.
Hope these turquoise flowers chase her blues away.

Wrap up some blue roses for a blue lady,
Send them to the sweetest gal in town.
And if they do the trick I’ll hurry back to pick
Your best black orchid for her wedding gown.

(With sincere apologies to Sid Tepper, Roy Brodsky, Bobby Vinton, et al.)

jdRoseBlue.jpg (17650 bytes)Blue roses? Black orchids? Could it ever happen? Absolutely, if biotechnology has its way.

A recent story on the internet and in various North American newspapers caught the attention of rose-lovers everywhere. It related how Dr. Elizabeth Gillam (of the School of Biomedical Sciences at Australia’s University of Queensland) found a protein in the human liver that turned bacteria blue. Along with her former professor Dr. F. Peter Guengerich of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee (with whom Dr. Gillam collaborates on studies to determine how drugs metabolize in the liver), she has recently been experimenting to see if the same alchemy can occur in roses.

Said Dr. Guengerich: “I would have called you crazy five years ago if you told me I would be pursuing a blue rose. It’s not something we set out to do.” Recognizing that blue seems to be the holy grail for this type of gene transference, he mused about creating blue cotton, among other things. So far, though, their experiments to introduce the liver protein gene into roses have resulted in just a few blue spots on the stems. “It’s not as easy as you may think”, says Dr. Guengerich. Nonetheless, the pair is talking to biotechnology companies about helping them develop a blue rose.

Florigene’s Blue Rose Research

Before this news, genetic research to produce blue flowers has involved more conventional research with plant genes and a pigment called delphinidin, which creates the blue colour in flowers. Alas, delphinidin-blue is that most temperamental of pigments, which appears to be why scientists with the Australian biotech company Florigene have been having a little trouble coming up with the much-ballyhooed “blue rose” they promised the world in 1996. At that time, company president Stephen Chandler delivered a paper to the Australian Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering Council that stated: “New and novel colours add considerable value in the marketing of flowers. As many of the world’s most popular flowers do not have the necessary gene(s) they can never produce the pigment responsible for mauve/blue colour. Florigene has developed technology to produce this pigment in the top selling flowers, rose, carnation and chrysanthemum.”

Never mind that no naturally-occurring rose species in this whole wide world has ever had the slightest inclination toward being blue. Red, yes; white, of course; yellow, orange and pink, mais oui! But no blue. Nevertheless, as we learned with Dolly, the ba-a-a-ad-news-sheep, a little nature never stopped anybody, especially gene-splicers (and cut-flower producers) bedazzled by the tantalizing economic prospects of blue blooms.

Florigene found the two metabolic genes necessary for delphinidin production in the petunia and successfully transferred them into carnations. Along with Tesselaar Flowers of Australia, five new carnations have now been released, including the three latest cultivars Moonlight™, Moonshade™ and Moonvista™. (If your floral blue-meter includes Himalayan poppies, delphiniums, monkshoods and gentians, these “blue” carnations might look decidedly violet-purple in hue, but I suppose even violet is a brave new world for carnations….)

However, despite test plantings and years of research, roses stubbornly resisted being blue. (Something about a missing ingredient to accomplish the necessary “hydroxylation of the purple anthocyanin precursors”. Don’t ask -- that’s why I’m a gardener, not a geneticist.)

According to a story by Clare Granger in the June 2001 ISB Report published by Information Systems for Biotechnology ( - jun0104), blue roses may now be closer than ever. Seems a group of scientists published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reporting discovery of a third “blue gene” that may enable biotechnology to “generate much higher levels of delphinidin in transgenic roses”.

There’s one more stumbling block. Flower colour pigments are contained in cell vacuoles, and those of roses tend to be acidic. In an acid environment, delphinidin is pink. Carnations are alkaline, therefore the new delphinidin is expressed as a purplish-blue. (If you remember the story about altering soil pH to produce blue or pink hydrangea flowers, this will all sound familiar.)

I’m not sure where I stand on blue roses, but I do know one gene transfer that Florigene should definitely try: replacing the yellow carotenoid pigments in dandelion petals with bright green chlorophyll.

Just imagine that. A green lawn with matching green dandelions!

I’d never be a blue lady in spring again.

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