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Carnations, Plant of the Month

Carnations, Plant of the Month

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Wednesday, August 21, 2019/Categories: natural history, sustainability, art and design, environment, plants

Western civilization owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Greeks. Their art, literature, politics, and military achievements influenced much of what we do and look at the world and their accomplishments are still studied. However, few knew these great thinkers and creators were also some of the first botanists. The Greeks appreciated, named, and cultivated many medicinal plants and flowers we recognize and still grow today. They were particularly fond of carnations, Dianthus caryophyllus. The name for these wild flowers is Dianthus and was given to the genus by Theophrastus derived from the Greek word for divine (dios) and flower (anthos), or Flower of the Gods.

         
  Garden Dianthus (credit: Royal Horticultural Society, UK)   Commercial Carnations (carnations.org)

Wild Dianthus are typically pink with white, hence their common name 'pinks'. Modern plant breeding has produced a diversity of colors---pink, white, red, and yellow---that are now part of the global cut-flower trade and grown in gardens worldwide. These colors were developed because the genes for producing carotenoids and the flavonoids, the pigments producing yellow, red, and orange colors, that existed in the wild Dianthus species. The genes for producing blue and purple pigments (delphinidins) are lacking in wild species. Combining plant breeding with modern genetic tools resolved this roadblock.

Using molecular biology, the Japanese company Florigene Flowers created the first blue carnations by genetically inserting the gene producing delphinidin, isolated from petunias, into the chromosomes of carnations. The resulting blue-purple flowers are called Moon Carnations and are now available to growers and consumers.

     
                          Florigene's 'Moondust' Carnations (credit: Creative Commons, Wiki-commons)

These blue carnations show a beautiful application of biotechnology to these famous flowers with an ancient history of selection, development, and cultivation. It's likely the Greeks would have been impressed.

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