On Flowers and the Cause of Variety of Their Colors (1752)
Edme Gilles Guyot

The extreme care which has lately been taken in cultivating flowers, and the natural mixing of different colors which occurs when they are seeded, have enabled us to raise flowers which surpass by far those which have been cultivated in the past. Tulips, Primroses, Ranunculi, and Anemones were certainly not as beautiful sixty years ago as they are now. The most beautiful of all of the older ones would be utterly rejected today. It is commonly believed that it is only by seeding and selecting flowers in the same species, without regard for their color, that we have succeeded in raising those that have acquired the most brilliant varieties in the tints which characterize them. I say, on the contrary, that up to the present the combinations which have been made by chance have done more to produce the different kinds of color which are found in flowers, and that culture has served only to give them a more beautiful form. It has not been realized that there is nothing easier than to raise flowers of the desired colors, and I am now going to demonstrate how it can be done.

I intend to speak here only of the species of flowers cultivated by amateur florists. These flowers are Tulips, Anemones, Primroses, Hyacinths and (Semi‑doubles). I made my observations on these species and I shall attempt to explain their infinite varieties.

15 Monsieur C. J. Geoffroy le jeune.

M. Geofroid15 the younger has given us a new conjecture on the generation of plants; he claims that the dust from the tops of the stamens of the flowers, falling on their pistil, procures the fertility of their seeds, and if one cut off the stamens from the flower as soon as they appear, the flowers will not give any seed.

From thence I am led to believe that the stamens planted near one another procure their fertility reciprocally, and that if the parental flowers are of different colors, the colors of those which will come from their seeds will be a mixture of those that have procured the fertility of the seeds. This cannot take place between plants of different species; but bizarre flowers will arise from the mixing of varieties, and they will take their nature and color from the plants whose staminal dust has contributed to the fertility of the seeds.

It follows from this opinion that two flowers of the same species, but of two different colors, planted beside each other and blossoming at the same time, must produce a plant of the same species, whose flower‑color will contain a blending of the colors of those from whose stamens the dust has contributed reciprocally to the fertility of the seed.

To be assured of the truth of this conjecture, which, as I will make plain afterwards, seems reasonable enough, it is only a question of making flowers bloom when mixed together in an out‑of‑the‑way place. The flowers must be of the same species of pure colors, simple and seed‑bearing, for example, half of them red and half yellow. The seed which comes from them must be planted separately and it will then produce flowers colored red, yellow, and orange, since orange is produced by the mixing of red and yellow. Some flowers will even be found in the medley, produced by these two first‑colors, which will be checkered with orange and red.

To perform this experiment with more precision, it is necessary to make the flowers bloom as much as possible together and on the same days; this is done very easily by cutting back the flowers from that plant which would produce more than the other; by this means the time of the flowers' opening will be delayed to make these flowers bloom the closest that is possible.

If the opinion of M. Goefroid is true, ranunculi coming from seeds one has gathered will be of the colors indicated above or colors closely approaching them. If on the contrary the said seeds produce plants of a violet, purple or white color, there will be some place for doubt in this communication.

For a counter‑experiment, one can make the flowers of the above colors blossom separately and far away from each other, and plant their seeds separately; each will give flowers of its own color.

These experiments are easy to do and will suffice for an assurance of the truth of my opinion.

There are some general observations that I have made on flowers which confirm the particular experiment of which I have just spoken. I have planted seeds of the different species of flowers detailed above and I have succeeded in raising flowers of colors mixed and combined. For example, I sowed a thousand seeds of Auriculas of different colors; those which have come from them have borne flowers of colors which were mixtures and blends of the colors of those I had planted, yet among them there never have been found two which were exactly alike, they were all more or less blends of the colors of the flowers which had borne the seeds. With the little that is known of mixing colors it will be easy to conceive this combination.

I observed that when I sowed the seeds of the red, purple, violet, and white Auriculas, those which came from their seeds were never blue or green, which conforms to the nature of the colors, seeing that blue which is a primitive color cannot be produced by the mixing of some of its colors, and that green can be produced only from blue and yellow: But the flowers which came from this mixture were either crimson, being produced by the intercourse of the stamens of violet and flame‑colored flowers, or straw‑colored, produced by those of white and yellow flowers, etc.

The Author of nature, whose wisdom has foreseen all, has created very few species of flowers of a blue color: and it is easy to note that the same species of flowers which are blue in color are never at the same time yellow, which would have produced, by the mixing of the colors, flowers quite green, which would not have been at all agreeable to the sight and which then might have been confused with the leaves of the very plant which produced them.

Those who cultivate flowers and think that they can raise blue ranunculi are wrong, because there is no color in the ranunculi which in mixture produces blue; if there were any of this color in the beds and if they had communication with yellow ones, they would produce green flowers, very disagreeable; and moreover blue flowers would produce dull and dirty colors in combination with most other colors, and then we should no longer get flowers of pure red, yellow, and orange. These species would be corrupted and spoiled by a single mixing with a blue color which is not analogous with red or orange or yellow.

Hyacinths are all either blue or white; some have a little rose color; there is no danger that the mixing of these three colors can produce anything disagreeable to the sight, from them will come only Hyacinths which are more or less pale or deep blue, or violet‑blue or variegated blue and white. Yellow Hyacinths will never be produced, these three colors can not produce yellow in combination. And this is also true of larkspur, which has the same three colors as the Hyacinth.

16 By pure red is meant the color of scarlet or vermilion.

Anemones are in general violet‑blue or crimson‑red; they are not pure red16 or orange or yellow; and in one word, when a species of flower produces yellow colors it does not produce blue ones; when it produces blue ones it does not produce yellow ones; but it must be observed that in all species violet‑purples and crimsons are found, because these are not primitive color and their mixture with blue on the one hand and yellow, orange, and red on the other can produce neither a perfect green nor disagreeable colors. Primroses of an olive color are found, but they are produced by the mixture of violets and yellow.

If one believes that flowers do not communicate their color to each other at all, in spite of what I have explained above, let him tell me then why in the same species of flowers which are blue in color, there are never any yellow ones and why among the yellow ones are never any blue.

It follows naturally from what I have just said and from what I have experienced, that flowers of a different nature, like the ranunculus and the anemone, etc., never communicate their colors to each other. If it was true that the dust from the stamens of a yellow Narcissus could contribute to the generation of the seeds of a blue Hyacinth, there would be produced green flowers which would take their nature from the Hyacinth and the Narcissus: this has not yet been seen and so‑called chance has not yet produced it.

It can be concluded from all that I have just said, that it is not difficult to raise flowers of a desired color, or very near it; it is enough to have a certain number of simple plants which bear seeds and are of primitive colors, namely red, orange, yellow, white, and violet on one hand, and blue, violet, crimson, white, and brown on the other, to give colors which are more or less light or dark.

If one wishes to raise sulphur‑colored ranunculi, he will plant white and yellow ranunculi in one box and sow the seed that they produce, which ought to give ranunculi that are sulphur‑colored or streaked with white.

If one wishes to have gold‑colored ranunculi he will plant red and yellow ranunculi of a gold‑color or variegated yellow and red; and the same way for others.

It is necessary to take pains in making these experiments, and one cannot dispense with keeping exact notes of the procedure followed.

I will not demonstrate here the manner in which the dust from the stamens of one flower, flying through the air, operates upon the pistil of a neighboring flower; that belongs entirely to Physics, and besides, that which I could say would be only very abstruse and uncertain. It is enough for me to point out that they act effectively and communicate the color of their flowers; it is only by repeated experiments that one can assure himself more and more of the truth of this opinion.

In each of two species of flowers two sorts are distinguished, the pure and the streaked; the pure are of only a single color and the streaked are of two or three colors.

This difference between flowers which are pure and those which are streaked comes, I believe, only from the fact that, in the pure ones the colors, either clear or obscure, are completely mixed and blended with the fundamental color of the flower. These colors are always either white, red, orange, and yellow on one hand, or red, crimson, and violet on the other hand. In the streaked flowers the colors are separated and distinguished from each other, for the colors which form the streaks are not fused with the fundamental colors.

In the Tulips which are called colored, the colors which are to form the streaks are more or less deep red, such as the purple or the violet. These are blended and mixed with the fundamental color of the Tulip, which is always yellow or white; it is only after many years of repeated planting that the colors forming the streaks begin to separate from the fundamental color and thereby form those admirable varieties which are the merit to the Tulip.

The fundamental color of the Tulip which is always either white or a more or less golden yellow is thus extended all over the petals and the colors of the streaks is blended with it only in planes; this is why no Tulip ever has streaks of its primitive color. When the base color is yellow, it varies in depth as yellow blends with the red and the violet; the paler the yellow, the more the colors of the streaks approach red or violet; the more golden the yellow the further removed are they from these colors.

When the basic color of the Tulip is white, the color of the streaks is red or violet, more or less light or dark, or purple and crimson which is produced by the mixing of these colors and white.

Many authors have imagined that Tulips become streaked with old age; I am not wholly of this opinion. A Tulip becomes streaked, I believe, as it detaches and separates the little particles which form both the color of the streak and the basic color of the Tulip, from the juices that it receives with more or less abundance. When the flower becomes streaked the particles of the nourishing juices run freely along the fibers which go out from the foot of the vase of the Tulip and extend the length of the flower petals: these colored particles (let us suppose violet) were blended and mixed with the basic white of the flower, before the Tulip became streaked, forming a Tulip of a pale Violet color; but if then they happen to approach one another, they give in these places a brighter and deeper color and form the agreeable variety that we see in Tulips. Places where the violet color of the streak is of a black violet are those where these particles have accumulated most, and are as if congested in the fibers of the petals.

Often a streaked Tulip becomes pure, doubtless because the color of the streak becomes blended again with the basic color of the flower; the quality of the earth or the too great abundance of sap can produce this effect.

Application to Violets

Violets become streaked ordinarily from the first year, and when once the streak mingles with the basic color it does not separate.

There is every reason to believe that when the particles which compose the streak of the Violet are blended in the sap with those of the basic color, then the layers that they produce can no longer separate the colors to form the streak.

This in general is most probably all that can be said about the formation of streaks in flowers. I leave to the amateurs, who wish to make the experiments of which I have spoken here, the liberty of doubting all that I have just reported until they become convinced on their own account, and I beg them to be kind enough to suspend their judgment until then. Nevertheless I shall always be very flattered if the most intelligent wish to do me the honor of communicating their opinions to me.

For many years Violets have been raised whose basic color is yellow; they are not a beautiful yellow; but if their culture is continued there is every reason to hope that there will result Violets whose basic color is of a different yellow, in the same colors as the Tulips whose background is yellow, since Violets with a white background have the same streaks as the Tulips of this color.