Why cornflower blue is like a red, red rose

Roses are red, cornflowers are blue - and for almost a century scientists have struggled to work out why.

Although the flowers have strikingly different colours, they share the same pigment, the reason for which has baffled botanists since 1913.

The anthocyanin pigment was first detected in the blue cornflower 92 years ago,and later the same pigment was found in a red rose, leading to the mystery of how one pigment could produce two colours.

Various theories abounded. Perhaps the cells of one flower had a different pH - acidity was known to affect flower colour - or perhaps it was due to differences in metal ions taken up from the soil.

Now a team of scientists from Japan, led by Masaaki Shiono of Kyushu University, reveal in the journal Nature that the answer lies in the way the pigment forms an unusual "supermolecule" in the cells of the cornflower plant.

While being of scientific interest, the development will be followed closely by commercial flower growers who are spending huge sums on trying to nurture blue flowers from plants that do not naturally produce blooms of that colour.

The most famous example is the search to produce a true blue rose. So far the attempt has centred on breeding a rose that produces a blue pigment called delphinidin, which is found naturally in delphiniums, but never in roses.

The scientists in Japan discovered that the pigment in cornflowers forms a giant molecular complex consisting of six molecules of anthocyanin bound to another pigment called flavone, along with four metallic ions - one iron, one magnesium and two calciums. But in roses, the same supermolecule does not appear to form, which could account for why the same pigment can cause different colours in the two flowers, the scientists say. Cathie Martin, professor of biology at the John Innes Institute in Norwich, said that the Japanese study broke the rule that to get a blue flower you needed to add the delphinidin pigment. "People have been trying to turn certain flowers blue, such as carnations, roses and chrysanthemums. The idea was that blue could only be conferred by the delphinidin pigment. It has been the dogma for years," Professor Martin said.

"This study is not saying that the idea is wrong, it's just that there now seems to be another way to make blue flowers and the point about cornflower blue is that it is a true blue and exceptionally beautiful," she said.

Discovering how a pigment found in red roses can be a brilliant sky blue in the cornflower could alter the breeding strategies aimed at creating blue roses. "The basic chemistry of the pigment molecule is the same in both cornflowers and roses. It's the way it's organised in its chemical superstructure that is different," Professor Martin said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk