Ever since we realized we could create new types of roses, and colors they didn’t naturally produce on their own, we’ve dreamed of the blue rose.
Blue, as a pigment, is hard to produce in the natural world. Think of blue butterflies, birds, and flowers. Broadly speaking, they’re all rarer than other species that are colored differently.
While we see blue every day in the sky, and in water, it’s rare in plants, and is produced by anthocyanin, which is a red pigment. Yes, really. Other pigments added or even changes in the pH cause the color to be blue.
Take cranberries, for example. Delphinidin, the blue anthocyanidin, is also a pH indicator. Now there’s lots of this pigment in cranberries, but because the fruits are so acidic, they are red instead of blue.
When it comes to roses, adding this pigment only results in lavender and mauve roses. So it looks like truly blue roses will only come about if we genetically modify the plant.
History and Legends
Do Blue Roses Really Exist?
The mention of a blue rose first appeared in Kitāb al-filāḥah, a book written by Ibn al-‘Awwām al-Ishbīlī, in the 12th century. He mentioned an azure rose that grew in his garden, though there are two possibilities for this.
Putting blue dye in the bark of the roots causes the plant to soak up this pigment and appear blue. Or, he may have seen a ‘Rose of Sharon’, the Hibiscus syriacus (see also Hibiscus Flower Symbolism and Meaning), which comes in blue.
Whatever the explanation, this fragment of history fired up imaginations, and became part of folklore.
Blue roses appeared in legends and in art, and we looked towards trying to create a rose with blue pigment, something that’s still being researched to this day.
The Legend of the Blue Rose
A Chinese legend has an interesting tale about blue roses.
Many men wanted the hand of the Emperor’s daughter in marriage, but to dissuade them, she promised only to marry the man who would give her a blue rose.
One man painted an existing white rose blue, but the paint dripped onto the daughter’s hand when she received it. Another man carved a rose into a sapphire, and a third determined suitor created a holographic illusion of a blue rose.
To their endless disappointment, she promised that she wouldn’t marry a man who tried to deceive her. All were sent on their way, as they hadn’t given her what she promised, holding true to her own word.
She knew it was an impossible task. Similarly, she was in love with the palace gardener, though the love they held for each other could never be. Neither dared to approach the Emperor to ask – they already knew what the answer would be.
The gardener approached her in front of the court, carrying a white rose. Among the whispers of disbelief, she touched the flower and called it blue. No one contradicted her.
The Emperor watched this and gave his permission for them to marry, and they lived happily.
Although roses can be altered by dye or even paint to appear blue, the blue rose remains elusive, even after years of hybridizing roses to try and achieve that pigment.
Though, it has become clear that in order to achieve the blue pigment, the rose must be genetically modified.
It would be forgivable to look at any blue flower, and ask, “Why can’t we use whatever makes this flower blue to make a rose blue?” You certainly wouldn’t be the first person to ask.
Remember Delphinidin? Because it is an indicator, this causes problems. Rose petals are naturally acidic, which turns the color of the rose a muddy mauve, blending with the pink that’s naturally found in roses.
Similarly, it would be very difficult to alter the pH of the rose and turn it alkaline in order to clear away the pink pigment.
After 14 years of research, scientists from Japan and Australia produced what they called the world’s first ‘blue’ rose, which was not dyed or painted blue.
How was the Blue Rose Created?
They chose white roses which were the host plants, and inserted the gene that carries delphinidin in the Iris and the Viola into the roses.
The roses turned a mauve, which appear blue in some lights. In 2006, a new cultivar was named ‘Applause’, and shown to the world at the World Rose Convention in Osaka, Japan.
With this breakthrough, the Japanese company, Suntory, is trying to find how to develop a vivid blue rose.
In 2018, two Chinese researchers, Yihua Cheng and Yan Zhang, found an alternative way to create a blue rose.
They used Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which allows foreign DNA to be incorporated into the genetic material of plants. They injected a modified version of the enzyme into the petals, and it turned blue.
Unfortunately, the plant runs out of the color pretty quickly, and isn’t a sustainable method of creating a blue rose.
Cultivars That Mimic Blue Roses
While scientists get ever closer to discovering how to create the blue rose, there are light purple varieties which appear blue in some lights, and are readily available for anyone to buy and grow in their garden.
Blue Rose ‘Applause’
Created through the Suntory-Florigene research into breeding a blue rose, it wouldn’t be right if this cultivar wasn’t included!
It has a pleasant fragrance, and bears mauve flowers which are popular in bouquets. It is an expensive option, though.
It prefers full sun, and grows to 4 feet tall.
Rosa ‘Rhapsody in Blue’
Providing any garden with a dramatic display, this cultivar created in 1999 by Frank Cowlishaw has enjoyed a lot of popularity, and rightly so.
The blooms produced on this plant are blueish-purple, providing a lovely contrast to the golden stamens in the center of each rose.
It repeat-flowers, and the foliage grows thick and tall, so plant it where you have the space to give it plenty of room!
Rosa ‘Sterling Silver’
Boasting a beautifully citrus scent, this plant produces lavender flowers with silvery undertones, and in the right light, can appear blue.
It’s a hybrid tea rose, and wants full sun in order to produce the most flowers possible. It was introduced in 1957 by Gladys Fisher, originally for the floral trade.
It’s a plant that’s nearly thornless, and grows as high as 3 feet tall, and spreads to 2 feet wide.
Rosa ‘Blue Moon’
Another hybrid tea rose, ‘Blue Moon’ is a bush rose that reaches 3 feet high, and grows quickly. Blooms of a soft mauve appear from July until September, and emit a very sweet fragrance with a hint of spice.
Plant ‘Blue Moon’ near a window, or somewhere you’ll regularly walk past or sit near, to get the very best out of these blooms.
This rose also prefers a cool, moist climate over a dry and hot one, but it still prefers well-draining soil otherwise it will rot.
Rosa ‘Blue for You’
Like the name suggests, this rose produces lilac blooms which have a blue tint, and once the flowering season is over, this plant also produces hips.
‘Blue for You’ grows neatly as a bush, and produces lots of flowers, giving you the best of both worlds, as unlike some more aggressive roses, you won’t have to worry about it trying to choke neighboring plants.
This rose needs either to be in a container, or be planted mid-border, to get the best out of this plant.
It is also known as ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ and ‘Pacific Dream’.
Rosa ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’
A Gallica rose, ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ needs partial shade, unlike most roses that prefer full sun. The blooms start out as mauve buds, turning into a deep purple as they open.
They provide a heady fragrance that’s sure to add another dimension to your garden. When mature, this plant will reach 4 feet height, and spread around the same.
If you’re someone who likes cut flowers, this is a perfect variety to go for, as the blooms are impossible to ignore.
This rose was introduced in 1847, and the name comes from the Cardinal of the same name. A French clergyman, he created the Jardin Royal des Plantes Medicinales in Paris.
If that doesn’t ring any bells, he was also the villain in the Three Musketeers.
The Symbolism of the Blue Rose
It won’t come as a shock that the blue rose widely represents the “impossible”, and usually refers to forbidden love, or dreams you hold which are unreachable, or have long passed you by.
Giving someone a blue rose indicates that you appreciate them, but you know you can never be with them. It’s an expression of love without the hope of expectation, a bittersweet confession of affection.
The color blue bears a longing deep within the spirit, reminiscent of looking up to the sky as a child and wondering what secrets it held.
Because it’s also a rare color, it has a higher value placed on it, both materially and philosophically.
Before blue dye became readily available, it was reserved for the upper class and the few that could afford it. It then had a similar association with royalty in the same way that purple does.
The blue rose, with its beauty and its mystery of how we’ll achieve the color, carries a meaning of long-held dreams which we still hope to achieve. It also points to looking toward how to change things into what we imagine, rather than adapting what we imagine to what we know to be true.