What causes color variation in hydrangeas? What causes color variation in hydrangeas? – SOMETHING ABOUT SCIENCE

What causes color variation in hydrangeas?

Brilliant colors adorn gardens and roadsides as summer flowers come into bloom. I’m always amazed by the display of nuances in hydrangeas, a spectrum between red and blue. What causes this color variation?

Hydrangeas in varying hues bloom in a Japanese temple. Photo credit: Akiyoshi Matsuoka on Wikimedia Commons

The shades of hydrangeas depend on the acidity of the soil. Basic or neutral soil results in red sepals, while acidic soil causes bluing. A wide range of colors exists in between, such as purple, lavender, and violet. Chemically speaking, aluminum in the soil causes sepals to turn blue. Aluminum is normally extremely insoluble, but the acidity increases its mobility in the soil. Acidic soil, thus, enables the uptake of aluminum by the plant roots.

(What is a sepal? Read the previous post to find out!)

Hydrangeas are red in the absence of aluminum. Addition of aluminum sulfate (sources of both aluminum and acidity) to the soil will change the sepals from red to blue (or a gradient of purple). This color change can be reversed by making the soil more basic. This is usually achieved by adding lime (the white powder, calcium oxide; not to be confused with the citrus fruit!). In the picture below, a research team led by Judith Cain from Virginia Military Institute achieved the color change by soaking hydrangea in aluminum for 2 days. (Their work is published in Biometals.) A note to a reader who wants to try this at home: putting aluminum foil in the vase wouldn’t work because aluminum is very insoluble in water, unless in acidic form. The scientists used a chemical, aluminum citrate, which is soluble in water.

Hydrangeas change color in the presence of aluminum. Image adapted from Schreiber et al. (2011) Biometals.

Hydrangeas change color in the presence of aluminum. Image adapted from Schreiber et al. (2011) Biometals.

As mentioned above, the default color of hydrangea is red. This is due to the presence of a red molecule called anthocyanin (specifically, delphinidin-3-glucoside or Myrtillin) in the sepals. This molecule can bind aluminum to form a blue complex of aluminum and anthocyanin.

Aluminum-anthocyanin

According to Cain and her colleagues, the “rule-of-thumb” is that the blue sepals contain about 5 times more aluminum than the red sepals. For those who love numbers, Cain’s team measured the exact contents of aluminum in sepals with different colors. According to their findings, the minimum amount of aluminum needed for bluing to occur is about 40mg per kg of sepals. The range between 0-10mg of aluminum per kg of sepals gives red hue, above which the sepals begin red-to-purple transformation.

Next time you spot blue hydrangeas, you know that the soil is acidic. (Impress your friends with this snippet of horticultural knowledge!) As much as it is pleasing to the eye, blue sepals is not only for aesthetic reasons, but a survival mechanism. Not all plants are able to grow in acidic soil, primarily due to aluminum toxicity; the metal interferes with the nutrient uptake. Some plants, including hydrangea, have adapted to grow in acidic soils by either excluding aluminum or inactivating its toxicity. Hydrangea is the latter, “aluminum accumulator” type. By incorporating the metal as an aluminum-anthocyanin complex, the harmful effect of aluminum is held back, while giving the sepals a blue hue. Biochemistry is amazing!

References:
Role of aluminum in red-to-blue color changes in Hydrangea macrophylla sepals
Mechanisms of adaptation to high aluminum condition in native plant species growing in acid soils: a review

Lynn Kimlicka

I am a scientist-turned writer and editor, who loves to read and write (more than doing experiments). I have a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, with a specialization in structural biology. My interests range widely, from life sciences to pop culture and arts to music. I am bilingual in English and Japanese.

5 Responses

  1. umbreoncookie says:

    can you do something on dogs

  2. h says:

    Hi Lynn, I’m so impressed. Can you tell me whether a similar effect is resposible for my Blue bearded Iris coming up yellow? It is quite possible that my landlord doused the area with Round-Up. I’ve heard this will interfere with the colours in Irises, also that Round-Up contains several toxic metals. You’re a genius, BTW.

    • Lynn Kimlicka says:

      That’s an interesting question.
      Hydrangeas and irises don’t share the same mechanism of coloring; irises are usually not affected by the pH of the soil. A search on the internet turned up a few articles mentioning that irises may change their color with Round-Up and other chemicals, but only temporarily or slightly. (I’ll be interested to know how this happens… Maybe a future research project? 🙂 )
      It seems like the most common reason for the change is that a more vigorous cultivar of iris has taken over the originals in the flowerbed. You can read more about it here: https://www.wildflower.org/expert/show.php?id=10860
      Good luck with the gardening!

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