Butterfly pea as natural dye focus of UF study
Bright blue and violet flowers may become a new fixture not only for Florida’s landscape, but also for its food.
University of Florida researchers are studying whether the butterfly pea can be grown as a viable crop in Florida.
If successfully cultivated, it has the potential to become an ornamental flower in home gardens, commercially grown on farms and used as an all-natural food dye, said UF environmental horticulture assistant professor Brian Pearson.
“It’s rare to have that sort of blue-purple pigmentation at this latitude,” he said.
UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences requires that all non-native plants being studied undergo growth risk assessment prior to being grown in Florida.
Researchers determined the butterfly pea is not a threat to native plants and is safe to grow, Pearson said. Now, researchers are studying the plant both in greenhouses and outdoors to figure out the conditions necessary for the plant to thrive. They hope to conclude their studies by the end of the year.
The research is based at UF’s Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka.
Sean Campbell, a UF environmental horticulture doctoral student, said the butterfly pea has long been used in Thai and Malaysian cooking. A sky blue rice dish called nasi ulam and an herbal tea are just a couple of ways it’s consumed across the globe.
Specialized teas, and dyed alcohol, such as craft beers and gin, are some ways this might expand in Florida and throughout the United States.
The flower’s pigmentation is strong, with a little going a long way, Campbell said.
Consumers are interested in finding more all-natural food dyes, as research suggests some artificial coloring may be related to increased hyperactivity, Campbell said.
Additionally, the butterfly pea contains large amounts of the antioxidant anthocyanin, which may have healthy aging effects. The Food and Drug Administration cannot attest to these or other health claims involving the antioxidant, Campbell said.
Ironically, the strong blue color of the butterfly pea has a mellow flavor profile, featuring pleasant, floral notes.
“It’s something you might not notice if you didn’t know if was there,” Campbell said. “It’s not grandma’s perfume.”