Why do we always seem to gravitate toward things that are rare? Precious stones, one-of-a-kind art objects, limited edition car models—we always seem to want most what’s hardest to find.
Gardeners aren’t exempt. We’re continually on the lookout for unique cultivars, with odd shapes or unusual colors. While lots of flowers are yellow, peonies usually come in shades of white, pink, and red. Yet, I have a good friend who paid a lot of money to get a yellow peony. Why? She thought it was “interesting.”
Think of the amount of effort that goes into breeding a flower in an unusual color. For example, marigolds are typically yellow or orange. In 1954, David Burpee offered a $10,000 prize to the first person who sent him seeds for a white marigold. More than 20 years later, the money was eventually awarded to Alice Vonk, the widow of an Iowa farmer. Burpee marketed the flower as ‘Snowbird.’ Their current catalog offers four white marigolds: Snowdrift , Snowball, Snowman, and French Vanilla. Why not simply opt for white zinnias or calendulas? They look very similar. Yet, last fall, Burpee’s catalog sold out of ‘French Vanilla’ marigold seeds.
Plant breeders are still searching for a truly black rose. (Current cultivars are a dark red or purple; if you see a truly black flower online, it’s probably been Photoshopped.) Black Baccara (right) comes closest, starting out a very deep red and opening to a rich wine hue, but it’s highly variable, requiring highly controlled conditions to get that dark color. Plus, it has small flowers and, as frequently happens with blossoms that are the result of intensive breeding for a single trait, the roses have no scent.
Over the years, a multitude of flowers have expanded their color range under the careful eye of horticulturists. The petunias we enjoy in our gardens started out as a cross between Petunia axillaris, which is white, and P. integrifolia, which is violet-purple. Now you can buy petunias in every color of the rainbow, plus bi-colors.
Purple Coneflowers (Ecinacea purpura) are no longer just purple. First came the white-flowered cultivars. Then, a couple of plant breeders tried crossing purple-flowered species with yellow-flowered E. paradoxa (below. left). The resulting explosion of colors is unparalleled. You can now buy coneflower hybrids in purple, pink, red, orange, yellow, and white—and every color in between. We’re not talking subtle pastels. I recently purchased a plant with blooms of a startling neon raspberry. It’s going to look amazing next to my orange butterfly weed!
Bearded Irises are another flower that used to be just purple, and now comes in every imaginable color (including brown!) as well as (almost) black, white, and various combinations of all these.
At one time, daylilies were only orange, morning glories were only sky blue and delphiniums were priced for their true blue flowers. I’m constantly amazed at what is possible by merely breeding for specific colors. The possibilities are limited only by the presence or absence of certain genes. Or are they?
Recently, Japanese botanists made headlines when they took a red chrysanthemum and added two extra genes, one from a bluish Canterbury bell and one from a butterfly pea, to create the first blue mum. Granted, blue flowers aren’t all that common, but does the world need a blue mum? (No, you can’t buy one, as they have not been approved for release outside a laboratory.)
As feats of genetic engineering become more commonplace (and they probably will), in the future we’ll likely be planting gardens filled with turquoise sunflowers, fuchsia daffodils, and orange forget-me-nots. Will we long for the days when roses were red and violets were blue?
Black Baccara rose photo: T.Kiya from Japan [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons