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Wood and Garden: Notes and Thoughts, Practical and Critical, of a Working Amateur

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<SPAN name="Page_221" id="Page_221"></SPAN>[221]</div> <h2>CHAPTER XVIII</h2> <h4>COLOURS OF FLOWERS</h4> <p><br />I am always surprised at the vague, not to say reckless, fashion in which garden folk set to work to describe the colours of flowers, and at the way in which quite wrong colours are attributed to them. It is done in perfect good faith, and without the least consciousness of describing wrongly. In many cases it appears to be because the names of certain substances have been used conventionally or poetically to convey the idea of certain colours. And some of these errors are so old that they have acquired a kind of respectability, and are in a way accepted without challenge. When they are used about familiar flowers it does not occur to one to detect them, because one knows the flower and its true colour; but when the same old error is used in the description of a new flower, it is distinctly misleading. For instance, when we hear of golden buttercups, we know that it means bright-yellow buttercups; but in the case of a new flower, or one not generally known, surely it is better and more accurate to say bright yellow at once. Nothing is more frequent in plant catalogues than "bright golden yellow," when <span class="pagenum"><SPAN name="Page_222" id="Page_222"></SPAN>[222]</span>bright yellow is meant. Gold is not bright yellow. I find that a gold piece laid on a gravel path, or against a sandy bank, nearly matches it in colour; and I cannot think of any flower that matches or even approaches the true colour of gold, though something near it may be seen in the pollen-covered anthers of many flowers. A match for gold may more nearly be found among dying beech leaves, and some dark colours of straw or dry grass bents, but none of these when they match the gold are bright yellow. In literature it is quite another matter; when the poet or imaginative writer says, "a field of golden buttercups," or "a golden sunset," he is quite right, because he appeals to our artistic perception, and in such case only uses the word as an image of something that is rich and sumptuous and glowing.</p> <p>The same irrelevance of comparison seems to run through all the colours. Flowers of a full, bright-blue colour are often described as of a "brilliant amethystine blue." Why amethystine? The amethyst, as we generally see it, is a stone of a washy purple colour, and though there are amethysts of a fine purple, they are not so often seen as the paler ones, and I have never seen one even faintly approaching a really blue colour. What, therefore, is the sense of likening a flower, such as a Delphinium, which is really of a splendid pure-blue colour, to the duller and totally different colour of a third-rate gem?</p> <p>Another example of the same slip-slop is the term <span class="pagenum"><SPAN name="Page_223" id="Page_223"></SPAN>[223]</span>flame-coloured, and it is often preceded by the word "gorgeous." This contradictory mixture of terms is generally used to mean bright scarlet. When I look at a flame, whether of fire or candle, I see that the colour is a rather pale yellow, with a reddish tinge about its upper forks, and side wings often of a bluish white&mdash;no scarlet anywhere. The nearest approach to red is in the coals, not in the flame. In the case of the candle, the point of the wick is faintly red when compared with the flame, but about the flame there is no red whatever. A distant bonfire looks red at night, but I take it that the apparent redness is from seeing the flames through damp atmosphere, just as the harvest-moon looks red when it rises.</p> <p>And the strange thing is that in all these cases the likeness to the unlike, and much less bright, colour is given with an air of conferring the highest compliment on the flower in question. It is as if, wishing to praise some flower of a beautiful blue, one called it a brilliant slate-roof blue. This sounds absurd, because it is unfamiliar, but the unsuitability of the comparison is scarcely greater than in the examples just quoted.</p> <p>It seems most reasonable in describing the colour of flowers to look out for substances whose normal colour shows but little variation&mdash;such, for example, as sulphur. The colour of sulphur is nearly always the same. Citron, lemon, and canary are useful colour-names, indicating different strengths of pure pale yellow, inclining towards a tinge of the palest green. <span class="pagenum"><SPAN name="Page_224" id="Page_224"></SPAN>[224]</span>Gentian-blue is a useful word, bringing to mind the piercingly powerful hue of the Gentianella. So also is turquoise-blue, for the stone has little variety of shade, and the colour is always of the same type. Forget-me-not blue is also a good word, meaning the colour of the native water Forget-me-not. Sky-blue is a little vague, though it has come by the "crystallising" force of usage to stand for a blue rather pale than full, and not far from that of the Forget-me-not; indeed, I seem to remember written passages in which the colours of flower and firmament were used reciprocally, the one in describing the other. Cobalt is a word sometimes used, but more often misused, for only water-colour painters know just what it represents, and it is of little use, as it so rarely occurs among flowers.</p> <p>Crimson is a word to beware of; it covers such a wide extent of ground, and is used so carelessly in plant-catalogues, that one cannot know whether it stands for a rich blood colour or for a malignant magenta. For the latter class of colour the term amaranth, so generally used in French plant-lists, is extremely useful, both as a definition and a warning. Salmon is an excellent colour-word, copper is also useful, the two covering a limited range of beautiful colouring of the utmost value. Blood-red is also accurately descriptive. Terra-cotta is useful but indefinite, as it may mean anything between brick-red and buff. Red-lead, if it would be accepted as a <span class="pagenum"><SPAN name="Page_225" id="Page_225"></SPAN>[225]</span>colour-word, would be useful, denoting the shades of colour between the strongest orange and the palest scarlet, frequent in the lightest of the Oriental Poppies. Amber is a misleading word, for who is to know when it means the transparent amber, whose colour approaches that of resin, or the pale, almost opaque, dull-yellow kind. And what is meant by coral-red? It is the red of the old-fashioned dull-scarlet coral, or of the pink kind more recently in favour.</p> <p>The terms bronze and smoke may well be used in their place, as in describing or attempting to describe the wonderful colouring of such flowers as Spanish Iris, and the varieties of Iris of the <i>squalens</i> section. But often in describing a flower a reference to texture much helps and strengthens the colour-word. I have often described the modest little <i>Iris tuberosa</i> as a flower made of green satin and black velvet. The green portion is only slightly green, but is entirely green satin, and the black of the velvet is barely black, but is quite black-velvet-like. The texture of the flower of <i>Ornithogalum nutans</i> is silver satin, neither very silvery nor very satin-like, and yet so nearly suggesting the texture of both that the words may well be used in speaking of it. Indeed, texture plays so important a part in the appearance of colour-surface, that one can hardly think of colour without also thinking of texture. A piece of black satin and a piece of black velvet may be woven of the same batch of material, but when the satin is finished and the <span class="pagenum"><SPAN name="Page_226" id="Page_226"></SPAN>[226]</span>velvet cut, the appearance is often so dissimilar that they may look quite different in colour. A working painter is never happy if you give him an oil-colour pattern to match in distemper; he must have it of the same texture, or he will not undertake to get it like.</p> <p>What a wonderful range of colouring there is in black alone to a trained colour-eye! There is the dull brown-black of soot, and the velvety brown-black of the bean-flower's blotch; to my own eye, I have never found anything so entirely black in a natural product as the patch on the lower petals of <i>Iris iberica</i>. Is it not Ruskin who says of Velasquez, that there is more colour in his black than in many another painter's whole palette? The blotch of the bean-flower appears black at first, till you look at it close in the sunlight, and then you see its rich velvety texture, so nearly like some of the brown-velvet markings on butterflies' wings. And the same kind of rich colour and texture occurs again on some of the tough flat half-round funguses, marked with shaded rings, that grow out of old posts, and that I always enjoy as lessons of lovely colour-harmony of grey and brown and black.</p> <p>Much to be regretted is the disuse of the old word murrey, now only employed in heraldry. It stands for a dull red-purple, such as appears in the flower of the Virginian Allspice, and in the native Hound's-tongue, and often in seedling Auriculas. A fine strong-growing border Auricula was given to me by my valued friend the Curator of the Trinity College Botanic Garden, <span class="pagenum"><SPAN name="Page_227" id="Page_227"></SPAN>[227]</span>Dublin, to which he had given the excellently descriptive name, "Old Murrey."</p> <p>Sage-green is a good colour-word, for, winter or summer, the sage-leaves change but little. Olive-green is not so clear, though it has come by use to stand for a brownish green, like the glass of a wine-bottle held up to the light, but perhaps bottle-green is the better word. And it is not clear what part or condition of the olive is meant, for the ripe fruit is nearly black, and the tree in general, and the leaf in detail, are of a cool-grey colour. Perhaps the colour-word is taken from the colour of the unripe fruit pickled in brine, as we see them on the table. Grass-green any one may understand, but I am always puzzled by apple-green. Apples are of so many different greens, to say nothing of red and yellow; and as for pea-green, I have no idea what it means.</p> <p>I notice in plant-lists the most reckless and indiscriminate use of the words purple, violet, mauve, lilac, and lavender, and as they are all related, I think they should be used with the greater caution. I should say that mauve and lilac cover the same ground; the word mauve came into use within my recollection. It is French for mallow, and the flower of the wild plant may stand as the type of what the word means. Lavender stands for a colder or bluer range of pale purples, with an inclination to grey; it is a useful word, because the whole colour of the flower spike varies so little. Violet stands for the dark garden violet, and I <span class="pagenum"><SPAN name="Page_228" id="Page_228"></SPAN>[228]</span>always think of the grand colour of <i>Iris reticulata</i> as an example of a rich violet-purple. But purple equally stands for this, and for many shades redder.</p> <p>Snow-white is very vague. There is nearly always so much blue about the colour of snow, from its crystalline surface and partial transparency, and the texture is so unlike that of any kind of flower, that the comparison is scarcely permissible. I take it that the use of "snow-white" is, like that of "golden-yellow," more symbolical than descriptive, meaning any white that gives an impression of purity. Nearly all white flowers are yellowish-white, and the comparatively few that are bluish-white, such, for example, as <i>Omphalodes verna</i>, are of a texture so different from snow that one cannot compare them at all. I should say that most white flowers are near the colour of chalk; for although the word chalky-white has been used in rather a contemptuous way, the colour is really a very beautiful warm white, but by no means an intense white. The flower that always looks to me the whitest is that of <i>Iberis sempervirens</i>. The white is dead and hard, like a piece of glazed stoneware, quite without play or variation, and hence uninteresting.</p> <hr style="width: 65%;" /><div class="pagenum">
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