In pursuit of blue heaven Garden: Whether it's sky blue, steel blue or sapphire blue, the color is wildly popular among gardeners.

September 13, 1998|By Carol Stocker | Carol Stocker,Boston Globe

Blue is the color most pursued by gardeners. Yet blue is a mysterious hue with as many personalities as uses. Blue flowers can be tranquil or melancholy, dark as denim or light as the sky, restful as twilight or restless as the sea. They blur boundaries, suggest distant horizons and make gardens look larger.

But above all, blue flowers are sought-after.

"Blue is always the most popular color because it goes with everything," theorizes garden store owner Kathy Tracey. "And because it seems hard to find."

Nursery owner Brian McGowan says blue is the most requested flower color at his nursery. He is puzzled by this. "Is it psychological? It's amazing. Almost everybody loves blue. It must be human nature. Blue, that's the thing people die for. I don't know why."

Let us, then, try to deconstruct the mystery of blue in the garden.

Blue words

Everyone loves blue, but not everyone can agree on which blue (( they love or what to call it.

It can give linguists the blues.

Many languages don't even have a special word for blue, lumping it in with the word for green. The Japanese language only relatively recently developed a distinctive word for blue. In ancient Chinese poetry, the same character was used to describe the color of grass and sky. In Homer's "Odyssey," the blue Aegean Sea is referred to as green.

In his book "The Primary Colours," Alexander Theroux says that names for colors always enter languages in the same order, beginning with black and white, then red, then green and yellow. Blue comes next, but until it gets its own word, it's considered a green.

Today English has many words to describe shades of blue, but confusion persists. By true blue, do we mean saturated cornflower or gentian blue, or pastel sky blue, or the grayer forget-me-not blue, the steel blue of amsonia, or the darker ink and sapphire blues?

And to make it really confusing, most so-called blue garden flowers have purple in them, from just a hint in chicory to quite a bit in catnip. This lack of a clear divide to the naked eye between blue and purple drives gardeners and nurserymen crazy.

"Everybody's always looking for true blue, whatever that is," said McGowan, owner of the appropriately named Blue Meadow Farm, which sells unusual annuals and perennials. "They grill you up and down to make sure it's really blue. They'll complain if something has too much purple. People do get really picky about colors. And often just blue isn't good enough. They want sky blue, cobalt blue, clear blue. They try to come up with names for what they want. There's lots of blue flowers, but finding a particular person's blue, the blue they want, is hard."

Blue roses

The blue rose has been the Holy Grail of plant breeding for generations. After all, according to market researchers, blue is the world's favorite color and roses are its favorite flower, so a blue rose should take flower lovers by storm.

The only problem is that it doesn't exist, even after rose companies poured millions of dollars into hybridizing efforts before giving up in disgust in the 1960s. The closest they could come to true blue was sickly mauve.

You see, the rose family has no members with blue pigment to use as a starting point for breeding. And the gene for blue is like charisma. Either you've got it or you don't.

The petunia and delphinium families are loaded with it, for instance, while the tulip, dahlia, and rose families aren't. And there's nothing hybridizers can do about it.

End of story? Not these days. Biogeneticists have gotten into the act. We'll just borrow the blue gene from a petunia, they said 10 years ago, and we'll have blue roses by 1997.

Obviously, they missed their deadline.

What went wrong? Florigene of Australia did actually succeed in isolating the blue gene in petunias along with the gene that switches it on. And they did transfer this into roses. It was quite a scientific achievement.

Except that the roses with the blue gene still don't look blue.

The problem now is that the pH, or acidity, in the rose organs that carry petal color are all wrong, so the blue is in there but we can't see it. And you can't change the pH without making the whole plant sick.

Florigene has spent millions of dollars over a decade to reach this roadblock, and prospects for getting past it are not great.

But they have had some success splicing blue genes into chrysanthemums and carnations. Blue-engineered carnations are currently on the market in Japan and will eventually turn up here.

Keith Zary, vice president for research at rose giant Jackson & Perkins, has seen the new blue carnation. "It looks lavender-blue," he reports. "It's not very exciting."

If nothing else, the whole enterprise illustrates why true-blue flowers are so rare. We can clone mice and sheep, but blue flowers are still holding onto their secrets.

Blue color theory

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