Abstract Background Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) is an important cash crop, of which the dried tube flower is not only an important raw material for dyes and cosmetics but also an important herb widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. The pigment and bioactive compounds are composed of flavonoids (mainly quinone chalcones), and studies have reported that MeJA can promote the biosynthesis of quinone chalcones, but the mechanism underlying the effect of MeJA in safflower remains unclear. Here, we attempt to use metabolomics and transcriptome technologies to analyse the molecular mechanism of flavonoid biosynthesis under MeJA treatment in safflower. Results Based on a UHPLC-ESI-MS/MS detection platform and a self-built database (including hydroxysafflor yellow A, HSYA), a total of 209 flavonoid metabolites were detected, and 35 metabolites were significantly different after treatment with MeJA. Among them, 24 metabolites were upregulated upon MeJA treatment, especially HSYA. Eleven metabolites were downregulated after MeJA treatment. Integrated metabolomics and transcriptome analysis showed that MeJA might upregulate the expression of upstream genes in the flavonoid biosynthesis pathway (such as CHSs, CHIs and HCTs) and downregulate the expression of downstream genes (such as F3Ms, ANRs and ANSs), thus promoting the biosynthesis of quinone chalcones, such as HSYA. The transcription expressions of these genes were validated by real-time PCR. In addition, the promoters of two genes (CtCHI and CtHCT) that were significantly upregulated under MeJA treatment were cloned and analysed. 7 and 3 MeJA response elements were found in the promoters, respectively. Conclusions MeJA might upregulate the expression of the upstream genes in the flavonoid biosynthesis pathway and downregulate the expression of the downstream genes, thus promoting the biosynthesis of quinone chalcones. Our results provide insights and basic data for the molecular mechanism analysis of flavonoid synthesis in safflower under MeJA treatment.