Chasing Blue and The Unsustainable Flower

Chasing Blue - Why is it that we want the unsustainable flower?

What is it about blue flowers that causes such an obsession among plant breeders and gardeners?  I’ll confess my own devotion to the deep blue volunteer hydrangea at the end of my driveway (I plan to take cuttings this year so that it’s beauty can be spread all over my garden) – I am not immune to the phenomenon.

So I found this little tidbit of a story quite interesting.  It is about petunias and how scientists may have discovered a way to grow them in blue.  But what is more interesting (to me) than the breeding science, is the acknowledgement that pollinators aren’t attracted to these blue flowers (petunias), so they have to be exclusively created by breeders because natural selection would have them die off.  I am curious why bees won’t go for the blue petunias (they cover my blue hydrangea)?

And I also wonder why we are pursuing blue flowers that bees won’t pollinate.  There is clearly a commercial demand for the color but should we not be judging plants on more than just commercial demand? I don’t have any serious issue with trying to breed new colors, or for other traits but shouldn’t (at the very least) these new plants be welcome additions the ecosystem that is a garden?   Should we have a sort of code of ethics related to plant breeding?  I know there are rules to protect patents, but that seems completely business oriented.  What about sustainability?  Why aren’t alarm bells going off when natural pollinators won’t do the job they were meant to? Is this a trend towards an over engineered version of unsustainable beauty?

I admit, I don’t know enough about this and have lots of questions…if you know something…by all means jump in the conversation.

image colourhd

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rochelle greayer

Hi, I'm Rochelle and for 18 years I have worked as a landscape designer, author/writer, and design teacher. I've designed residential and hospitality (for hotels, restaurants, and spas) gardens across the USA and in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. After many years of teaching garden design topics in person, I launched the PITH + VIGOR Boot Camp series in early 2018. Through my blog, social media, and online courses (Garden Design Bootcamp and Planting Design Boot Camp) I aim to help homeowners learn how to confidently design and create home gardens that reflect their own personal and unique style.

6 Comments

  1. Stacey on January 13, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Hi Rochelle – You bring up a lot of good points. Some additional thoughts:

    There are other ways that pollinator appeal is being bred out of ornamentals and has been for decades. For example, double flowers are typically ignored by pollinators since the reproductive organs are obscured by petals (or transformed into them). Sterile varieties, whether developed to minimize invasiveness or to encourage longer and more prolific bloom, may be ignored by pollinators since pollen or nectar are often absent. Finally, and especially relevant to your question, scent is often bred out of plants at the expense of other traits (color, flower size, disease resistance, etc.). Traditionally moth-pollinated, petunias used to be intensely fragrant, especially at night. Fragrance was bred out of these old-fashioned petunias because they were weak-growing, prone to pests, and kind of wan and wimpy in color.
    When it comes to ornamentals, and particularly to annuals or bedding plants, pollination/seed set is unlikely to be the goal of any plant breeder; eliminating it is, if anything. So, is that ethical? Well – plant breeding is driven by the market, and for the most part, breeders can only work on plants that they can get funding for, and they only get funding to develop plants that will eventually sell. A blue petunia – a real novelty – will sell, while “petunia that attracts tons of bees!” will send the average consumer running the other way (unfortunately – but the fact is, the average homeowner is pretty well terrified of bees, and hey, if they’re just going to get out the Raid when a bee shows up, perhaps its best that they grow blue petunias and the bees stay away!).

    Conversely, plant breeding can actually make a plant more pollinator friendly, even if that wasn’t the breeding goal. Consider the landscape rose, for example. Before Knock Out came on the scene, roses were finicky and grown with pesticides. They were grown mostly by rose lovers who didn’t mind these shortcomings, and certainly weren’t used in landscapes. These roses tended to have a high petal count, which hid the reproductive organs and made them anathema to pollinators. Enter the landscape roses: disease resistance was the breeding goal, but they happened to be single-flowered and are very appealing to pollinators. Next thing you know, Knock Out rose is one of the top-three plants sold in North America. They bloom non-stop for months, providing a long-lasting reliable food source, so are very pollinator friendly.

    Bees definitely do not have a specific issue with blue flowers – just think of something like a caryopteris which is positively humming with bees of all types in autumn. They visit blue rose of Sharon, blue hydrangeas, and other blue flowers like clematis, nemesia, forget-me-not, etc. So while the biologist quoted in the article is correct in noting that there would be a “pollination bias” against blue petunias (given a choice of otherwise equal flowers, bees would typically favor flowers with more yellow in them), if a flower is low in pollen or nectar, or the pollinator can’t recognize that either of these are even on offer within the flower in the first place, it will pass it by no matter what the color. If there’s pollen, and if the flower’s physiology works with the bee’s physiology, pollinaton will occur. As you note, it’s what bees were meant to do.

    So, just to bring it around – sustainability is definitely important, but we in the industry have a huge hurdle to overcome in convincing homeowners to understand it in the same terms we do. I guess the bigger question is this: Is the hypothetical blue petunia buyer replacing something that is rich in pollen/nectar with this sterile blue petunia? Most likely not. And even if so, well, blue petunias only last a season, and next summer, this hypothetical gardener is equally likely to choose something that IS pollinator-friendly; this type of gardener’s decisions are driven only by aesthetics and probably always will be.

    • rochelle on January 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

      Stacy – Thank you for such a thorough explanation. I suspected that this hypothetical blue petunia was only just the tip of an iceberg to something I had, until recently, never really thought about. Your examples of the Knockout Rose and others are very interesting. I agree that each gardeners decisions are largely driven by aesthetics but I also wonder if (given the rapid decline of bees) the industry might have to think bigger than just what homeowners will buy. Sometimes the market doesn’t know best and bigger goals and decisions need to be made by people who have a deeper understanding of an issue. What do you mean by “sustainability is definitely important, but we in the industry have a huge hurdle to overcome in convincing homeowners to understand it in the same terms we do”? I’d really like to understand all of this better, and would love to ready an further explanation or examples you can offer. – My best – R

  2. Matt Mattus on January 13, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Not sure about bees, but human are wired to find blue ( and shimmer) appealing, if not irresistible – especially to males, as apparently our minds are attracted to anything that could signify water. Not sure how true this is, but I will admit that I am attracted to true blue, if it is natural, and even shimmer and iridescence – like the rainbow on a slice of ham! Natural blue in nature, is rare, yet as the cones in our eyes are RGB too, I imagine that the ‘B’part is rarely stimulated. Still, those dyed blue flowers we see everywhere are horrid. I say – if nature made it blue, then it is blue for a reason. I can only think of a handful of flowers which are true blue ( sky blue), and Caryopteris is certainly not one of the species. That falls clearly into the violet purple spectrum.

  3. Matt Mattus on January 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Oh, and just an note about bees, of course not all plants are pollenated by bees, and this includes most man made hybrids within the clans of petunia, callibrachoa and hydrangeas. With Hydrangea, most insect pollination occurs with lace cap types. With the large, gaudy mop-heads, the sepals hold the color, and any fertile true flowers are either minimized, or eliminated altogether, so no pollination occurs. Modern Callibrachoa and Petunias ( they are closely related) are bred to produce sterile flowers, which is what one wants if one wants a long display. This is why Proven Winners plants and other micro propagated selections perform so incredibly well in the garden. before 1992, a Callibrachoa would bloom only once, and then die. Healthy? yes. Happy Bees? Yes. Blooming all summer? nope.

  4. Stacey on January 13, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Thanks for your response, Rochelle. What I meant by the “sustainability was important” comment is that, by and large, the average homeowner doesn’t understand things the way people who work in the garden/green industry do. I think bees are a great example. The plight of bees is getting more widespread and consistent news coverage, which is great – everyone needs to be aware of how important bees are to our food supply and to our ecosystem. However, if a tag on a plant in a garden center proclaimed “bee friendly” or “attracts bees,” that would be a HUGE detriment for a lot of homeowners. They want this whole bee issue to turn out okay, of course, but they a)don’t believe that they personally can do anything about it and b)really don’t want bees at their house, around their kids, around their pets. It’s those types of issues that provide an opportunity to educate, to explain that bees are not aggressive, that they are quite docile, especially when well fed, and that indeed, any pollinator-friendly plant you add to your landscape contributes some small benefit. That if a yellow and black striped insect is chasing you around the yard, that’s a hornet, not a bee, and they’re there because of your can of soda, not because of the flowers you planted. There are absolutely consumers who would look at a “bee friendly” label and not be turned off, but these folks are definitely in the minority, I’m afraid.

    So, should growers/garden centers/plant companies try to turn it around by touting “bee friendly” as a positive? It would be lovely if they did, but I fear it is terribly unlikely. The nursery and garden industry in the US has always been pretty risk-averse, even more so since the economic downturn. The majority of garden center customers are not knowledgeable, enthusiastic gardeners – they’re fearful, confused homeowners, and they only visit once a year, spend $100, and come back the following May. Until this group of Americans loves plants and gardening as much as people like you and me do, it will stay status quo in the industry. I’m not trying to make excuses for not doing better, mind you – educating people about gardening is my passion and profession – but because I DO talk to so many homeowners in person and on-line, I have a pretty good (and unfortunately, in many ways, grim) sense of what the average person wants and expects from a plant.

    One final thought that perhaps isn’t so dismal. Ever since the possible connection between colony collapse and neo-nicotinoid pesticides hit the news, there has been a substantial uptick in people inquiring about my company’s use of neo-nics. So people are starting to care, and they are starting to understand – but not wanting bees to be harmed is still not the same thing as deliberately attracting them. That, hopefully, is the next step!

  5. [email protected] Trekker on January 13, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    I love the image you created with the blue flower and white rocks, the questions you raise are certainly interesting, I look forward to see any answers you come across.

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