Patriotic (and rare) true blue blooms you’ll want in your yard

Jacob Burns —  July 4, 2017 — 10 Comments

The fourth of July is upon us, and while many beautiful flowers can be found in patriotic shades of red and white, the color blue is very difficult to find at the Garden.

In fact, blue is a rare sight in the entire natural world. Less than ten percent of the plant kingdom features blue flowers, which is extraordinary, since pollinators don’t seem to have a problem with them. Scientists have been investigating the origins of blue flowers for a long time, and it was not until recently that they came up with a result.

Blue sea holly (Eryngium planum)

Blue sea holly (Eryngium planum)

Flower colors are based on pigments that include anthoxanthins and anthocyanins. Anthoxanthin colors contribute to yellow flower petals and are quite common in the plant world. Anthocyanin colors impart red, purple, and blue in blooms, but are found much less often in flora. For anthocyanin to steer blue, complex scenarios must occur. Most often, metal atoms and ions interact with the pigment to modify the color. In addition, they alter the pH of cellular fluids to be alkaline, while most organisms have an acid or neutral chemistry.

What is thought-provoking is that a red rose and a blue cornflower (Centurea cyanus) contain the same anthocyanin pigments. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and big blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) are of the same genus, but one flower is red and the other is blue. It is the rare and complex modification of that pigment that contributes to the blue flower being blue. More surprising is that hybridizers have yet to develop a truly blue rose or carnation (without resorting to pigmenting water, which a plant takes up, changing the color of its bloom). 

Royal Aspirations larkspur (Delphinium elatum 'Royal Aspirations')

Royal aspirations larkspur (Delphinium elatum ‘Royal Aspirations’)

Lobelia (Lobelia erinus)

Lobelia (Lobelia erinus)

Pacific Giant Cameliard larkspur (Delphinium 'Cameliard')

Pacific Giant™ cameliard larkspur (Delphinium ‘Cameliard’)

Since blue is uncommon, visitors at the Garden should take extra time to enjoy the flowers in the English Walled Garden, where they will find containers full of adorable Felicia daisy (Felicia heterophylla ‘Forever Blue’) right beside sky-colored plants called southern star (Tweedia caerulea ‘Heaven Born’)—a member of the milkweed family. In addition, there are cool-hued drifts of Magadi™ electric blue lobelia (Lobelia erinus ‘KLELE10670’) weaving throughout several garden beds, as well as spilling out of containers.

Another area with a good deal of blue flowers is the Heritage Garden. In the plant family area, you will find intricate love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll’) blossoms mingling with wispy yet showy Siberian larkspur (Delphinium grandiflorum ‘Blue Butterfly’). And nearby, nile lily flowers (Agapanthus ‘Queen Anne’) explode like bright blue fireworks. And finally, in the geographic area, sea holly (Eryngium planum) creates a shiny and spiky blue accent.

(Agapanthus africanus 'Queen Anne')

Nile or African lily (Agapanthus africanus ‘Queen Anne’)

Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena 'Miss Jekyll')

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll’)

Blue Butterfly larkspur (Delphinium grandiflorum 'Blue Butterfly')

Blue Butterfly larkspur (Delphinium grandiflorum ‘Blue Butterfly’)

While it is difficult to achieve blue pigments in plants, the ones that did are certainly successful in this world. The word “perseverance” comes to mind, which just so happens to be what the blue within the American flag represents. Anyone who has marveled at a field of Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) and witnessed the huge number of bees and butterflies working to gather its pollen would agree.

Southern star (Tweedia caerulea 'Heaven Born')

Southern star (Tweedia caerulea ‘Heaven Born’)

Flying Saucers morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor 'Flying Saucers')

Flying saucers morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Flying Saucers’)

Happy Fourth of July everyone!


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Jacob Burns

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Jacob works as the curator of herbaceous perennial plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where perennials, bulbs, herbaceous vines, and ground covers make up the most extensive part of the Garden's collection. His responsibilities entail increasing the size and diversity of the collection, conducting collections-based research, and sharing information about herbaceous perennials with the public and professionals alike.

10 responses to Patriotic (and rare) true blue blooms you’ll want in your yard

  1. From the names of some of the blue plants it sounds like many of them are hybrids. If this is true, they are not natural flowers and have been artificially made blue (not an easy task).

  2. Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
    Commelina
    Lobelia silphilitica
    Great article

  3. Juanita Burris July 6, 2017 at 11:05 am

    What about the blue iris, or is it purple?

    What is the botanical explanation for their varied colors which is the whole color spectrum?

    • Hi Juanita! I just wanted to focus on the flowers that are currently blooming at the Garden. But yes, many iris are naturally blue. There are almost 300 species of iris in the world and by crossing those, hybridizers have created many colors to choose from. A truly red iris has been a longtime goal of theirs, just as it is for breeders to produce a blue rose.

  4. Thank you for interesting article & enjoyed the pictures of pretty blue flowers.

  5. Miriam Kritzer Van Zant July 10, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Don’t forget plants in the Spiderwort family (Commelinaceae):

    http://uswildflowers.com/detail.php?SName=Commelina%20communis

    Commelina (dayflowers) communis grows as an Asian invasive in southern Illinois, There at least, the insects like the foliage so it often looks scraggly, like hollyhock foliage. The flowers are beautiful, tiny, and bright blue.

    C, erecta (slender dayflower) is native to N. America including Illinois, and described as pale blue. It should be the choice to plant and is still a very lovely intense blue:
    wildflowers.info/prairie/plantx/sl_dayflower.htm

    Some Tradescantia (spiderworts) are considered blue too, periwinkle to me. They are known to change to pink in the presence of radioactivity.

  6. OMG , OMG The flower is so beautiful…
    Thank you for interesting article

  7. Commelina (dayflowers) communis grows as an Asian invasive in southern Illinois, There at least, the insects like the foliage so it often looks scraggly, like hollyhock foliage. The flowers are beautiful, tiny, and bright blue.

  8. C, erecta (slender dayflower) is native to N. America including Illinois, and described as pale blue. It should be the choice to plant and is still a very lovely intense blue:

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