Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Himalayan Blue Poppy
In world of flower breeding, the color blue is the "Holy Grail" of flower colors. Many spend their lives searching for this elusive flower color, but few find the real thing. I've purchased many flowers labeled as "blue" only to be disappointed when they bloom and look purple to my eyes no matter how much I squint or otherwise try to convince myself they really are blue. So imagine my surprise when a Master Gardener brought in pictures of the Himalayan Blue Poppies that were recently on display at the U of I Plant Biology Conservatory. They looked blue to me, even without squinting!
The Himalayan Blue Poppy is one of the only true blue flowers in the world. They are native to the Himalayas, where summers are cool and moist. They grow as a woodland plant in well-drained, acidic soil, which keeps the blooms a clear shade of blue. The blue color is provided by the pigment delphinidin, named for being originally isolated from Delphinium. For the delphinidin in the flower to appear blue, the environment inside the plant's cells must be acidic. The soil provides this acid–otherwise the flowers appear pinkish-purple just like many flowers around the world. This "acid factor" is what makes blue such a rare find in the plant kingdom. Not only does a plant have to have the gene to make delphinidin in its flower cells, the plant must be able to maintain a level of acidity within the cell to make the pigment appear blue. Few plants can accomplish this.
Blue Poppies are very particular in other ways too–they prefer temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees, and will die if kept above 80 degrees for very long. They also cannot freeze. Obviously, the Himalayan Blue Poppy is not something we can easily grow in the wild weather of Central Illinois. But we can still admire this rarity of the plant kingdom!