Daily Mail

What a bluemin’ shame

Roses have been lovingly cultivated since before Roman times. But despite the creation of thousands of hybrids, one colour is frustratin­gly elusive . . .

- by David Leafe

When it came to matters of the heart, Rudyard Kipling could be rather vengeful, as revealed in his poem Blue Roses, written when he was burning with unrequited passion for Flo Garrard, a beautiful young scion of the famous jewellery family.

The message was clear: he was so passionate­ly in love with her that he would travel the world for her to find something that doesn’t exist — such as ‘a blue rose’.

As it turned out, Florence preferred her own sex and a heartbroke­n Kipling went on to marry another woman. But although their love was never to be, his poem reminds us of what has long remained a horticultu­ral holy grail.

Roses have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, with 30,000 differentl­y hued hybrids created from the 150 or so species provided by Mother nature.

Among the Floribunda­s, hybrid Teas and many other variants of england’s national flower, there are such evocativel­y named wonders as the creamy-white Rambling Rector, the apricot-hued Fighting Temeraire and the orangey-pink Playboy. But as yet nobody has successful­ly created a blue rose.

That hole in our gardens has been bemoaned by rose expert Charles QuestRitso­n, asking if such upstarts will ever grace our flower beds. he would very much approve if they did.

‘Why do we say “yuck” when blue roses are mentioned?’ he asked in Country Life magazine. ‘Imagine gentian-blue Floribunda­s in flower throughout the summer and autumn. They would revolution­ise our gardens. Bring on the blues, say I.’

According to Quest- Ritson, author of the Royal horticultu­ral Society’s encycloped­ia Of Roses, the appeal lies partly in the fact that splashes of blue from the likes of delphinium­s and cornflower­s last only a few weeks, whereas roses bloom intermitte­ntly between May and October.

he suggests that the rewards for creating such a plant would exceed £100 million. In this, there are echoes of the ‘tulip mania’ that saw 17th- century Dutch growers racing to create a black version of their country’s emblematic bloom.

ThIS inspired Alexandre Dumas’s historical novel The Black Tulip. Fortunatel­y, real- life events did not reflect the murders woven into his plot, the search for a black tulip being one of disappoint­ment rather than drama, and even today resulting at best in a very dark crimson.

As for blue roses, the closest anyone has come was in 2011 when, after 20 years of research and £22 million of investment, an Australian company funded by Japanese brewing conglomera­te Suntory, launched the Applause, a supposedly blue rose.

Selling for around £24 per stem, it was created by implanting into roses the gene that produces delphinidi­n, the plant pigment found in many blue flowers.

however, the results did not impress, with them said to be no bluer than Sterling Silver, Lavender Dream, or Lilac Charm, all bluish- purples inadverten­tly created during attempts to breed more vigorous roses in the

post-war years. even had Suntory produced a truly blue rose, you have to wonder how popular it would have been.

As Charles Quest-Ritson admits, many of his fellow devotees will ‘babble about blue being unnatural’ and they have a point because it’s much more rare a colour than we might imagine.

Less than ten per cent of flowers in the world are blue, with many of those, such as some varieties of bluebells and irises, being more purple or mauve upon closer inspection.

even those that we consider to be indisputab­ly blue — the Royal horticultu­ral Society website includes cornflower­s, some types of Ceanothus (California­n lilac) and Clematis — do not achieve that colour by using a true-blue pigment, for no such thing exists in the plant world.

Rather, they perform a floral conjuring trick on pigments such as delphinidi­n, exploiting their tendency to act like litmus paper, turning from blue to red as their environmen­t’s acidity increases.

Their alkaline sap ensures that these pigments remain blue, but the problem with creating similarly coloured roses is that their sap is acidic, and turns them red or, at best, a muddy mauve.

neither is true blue found much elsewhere in the natural world.

Asked to name their favourite colour, around a third of British people tend to say blue, partly because we associate it with cloudless skies, inviting seas and other things we like. Yet they are not really blue at all.

We perceive them to be blue because of the way the sun’s rays are broken up into their component colours as they are scattered by the atmosphere and absorbed by the oceans.

Both processes result in shorter wavelength­s of light — those at the blue end of the spectrum — being distribute­d most widely.

Similar optical illusions apply in creatures that appear to be stunning shades of iridescent blue.

Of the 17,500 species of butterflie­s in the world, only one contains blue pigment in its wings and that is the confusingl­y named Olivewing, a native of South America.

ALL the rest owe their perceived colour to the way light is reflected and absorbed by their wings and other bodily features.

The same also applies to every blue mammal, bird or reptile, none of which produce blue pigment.

not that any of this would have meant much to our forebears, with many ancient languages lacking a word for blue.

This linguistic quirk was first

noticed in 1858 by William Gladstone, later to become Prime Minister but then still an opposition MP.

Observing that homer’s Odyssey referred to the sea as ‘wine-dark’, he counted other instances of colour in the book and discovered that blue was not mentioned once, nor could he find it in other Greek texts.

While Gladstone thought this might be unique to the Greeks, other scholars found no mention of blue in the Koran, the Icelandic Sagas, the scriptures of hinduism or an ancient hebrew version of the Bible.

This was not because their authors physically lacked the ability to see blue, but rather that they had no concept of it.

Just as we have no word to distinguis­h light orange from dark orange, the ancients probably considered blue a different shade of another, dominant colour.

even when blue was recognised, it had many negative connotatio­ns.

Since Celtic warriors dyed their bodies blue, the Romans associated it with barbarism, with the philosophe­r Pliny even suggesting that the enemy’s womenfolk painted themselves blue before participat­ing in orgies.

Blue’s reputation began changing only around the end of the Middle Ages when artists, whose work had long been dominated by reds, blacks and browns, began experiment­ing with ultramarin­e — a pigment made from the lapis lazuli rock found only in remote parts of Afghanista­n.

The long journey required to get it to the West made ultramarin­e — meaning ‘ beyond the sea’ — fantastica­lly expensive and it became associated with royalty, making it a natural choice for artists who wanted a sumptuous colour for the cloaks worn by the Virgin Mary in the many portraits that were painted of her during the Renaissanc­e.

And despite Picasso’s best efforts — his Blue Period famously associatin­g it with melancholy and despair — blue has remained desirable ever since, and a rose of that colour even more so.

When the Victorians evolved their elaborate language of flowers — in which presenting someone with buttercups was an accusation of ingratitud­e, and a gift of lavender stood for distrust — the blue rose was held to represent an unattainab­le dream, just as it still does today.

Whether or not scientists will ever make that a reality remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, we should pay heed to Kipling’s poem and the fate of the young woman who dies while waiting for her paramour to return from his search for blue roses:

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!

 ?? Picture: GETTY ?? Out of reach: The blue rose remains the horticultu­ralist’s dream and the poet’s inspiratio­n
Picture: GETTY Out of reach: The blue rose remains the horticultu­ralist’s dream and the poet’s inspiratio­n
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