Purple for the people!

Every year when the fall bulb catalogs arrive, I look down my nose at the pictures of crocuses. This is entirely unprovoked on their part, as they have done nothing to deserve such disdain. Perhaps it is the jaded satiation that comes after a summer of colorful backyard drama – I don’t know. I can’t explain just why I find them so homely and un-interesting, but I usually turn the page and leisurely continue leafing through the botanical offerings of the bulb company. But then, come spring, the tables have turned. There, against a backdrop of dripping wet mulch and dead, brown leaves, in gardens everywhere, they stand – in all their silken, dark purple glory – and righteously thumb their noses right back at me. At that point, I realize what a fool I have been, and vow to curb my apathy the next time opportunity knocks. Really, dark purple crocuses in early spring turn me into a lustfully drooling imbecile – much more so than their yellow, or white siblings. What is it about that color? It is absolutely stunning, and in the soggy aftermath of a gray and dreary, wet and rainy winter, and contrasted by tender, bright green leaves, it is nothing short of magical!

According to ancient legend, purple was first discovered by the dog owned by a Herakle-Melqart – the city-god of the Phoenician city of Tyre. Melqart was strolling along the beach with the nymph Tyrus when his dog found a Murex snail, which he promptly ate. The crushed snail left the dog’s mouth a beautiful purple. This color so enamored Tyrus, that she told Melqart she would not accept any of his amorous advances until he had provided her with a robe of that very color. And so, it is said, the infatuated Melqart gathered the Murex snails, extracted the pigment, and dyed his beloved a purple robe – the first ever garment of this color. Interestingly, this Levantian region was the first to exploit the Murex dye commercially, and it soon became the source of its wealth. In fact, the name Phoenicia is said to translate as “The Land of Purple”. The trade in purple proved so tremendously lucrative for centuries, that a picture of the humble snail could be found on contemporary Phoenician coins. The color purple became a coveted status symbol, and a sign of wealth. Although intensive trade ensued with surrounding Mediterranean nations, it wasn’t until the rise of Imperial Rome that the color became synonymous with power. By the Fall of the Roman Empire, and the emergence of the Byzantine, the color purple was reserved for nobility and church alone.

Fast forward a few more hundred years. When Byzantium fell in 1453, the Murex shell was all but extinct. Its replacement came in the form of a small louse, or rather a scale insect, called cochineal. The cochineal’s body and eggs crushed and mixed with mineral salts is what gives us ‘carmine red’. In 1464, Pope Paul II ordained that the new ‘Cardinal Red’ was a worthy replacement of the ‘Tyrian’ or ‘Imperial Purple’. By this time, Spain was busy exploiting the riches of the Americas. Cochineal was imported to Europe primarily from Mexico and Peru.

In 1856, everything changed! A William H. Perkin, while researching a cure for malaria, came across an aniline-based purple dye – mauveine. He realized its mass appeal, and made it available to commoners under the name ‘Mauve’. The arrival of mauve became the birth of the synthetic dye industry, and Mr. Perkin retired a very wealthy man. The rest is history. Today, we are spoiled by a seemingly endless array of chemically obtained purples, but my personal favorite remains the dark, jewel-like, regal variety of the common crocus. My goodness, it is beautiful! Someone, please slap me the next time I scoff at its image in the bulb catalog!


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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8 Responses to Purple for the people!

  1. A very interesting post, Anna!!!
    I love to know things about the origin of colours -I’m reading Colour, tha Natural Palette’s History.
    I love Purple, and currently it is a trendy color 🙂

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks Isabel! I found it fascinating that the access to the natural pigment could create the foundation for the riches of an entire civilization – amazing!

  2. Judy Rush says:

    Now lets crawl forward to present day and the color Blue. (sorry to the purple fans) Cibracron Reactive Blue 204 was being used successfully by fabric hand dyers. The blue is a beautiful pure blue that is not reproducible. As luck would have it, some researches found that this blue dye cures spinal cord injuries! Of course it is no longer available to fabric dyers (too pricy for us now that there is a medical use!) Damn those spinal cord injuries!


    Here is an exerpt from the web site:
    “The same blue food dye that gives your Gatorade its turquoise tint and turns your tongue a peculiar shade of purple might also protect your nerves in the case of spinal cord injury.

    By lucky accident, researchers discovered that the commonly used food additive FD&C blue dye No. 1 is remarkably similar to a lab compound that blocks a key step in nerve inflammation. When rats with spinal cord injury were given an infusion of blue dye, they recovered much faster than rats that didn’t get the treatment. And researchers reported only one adverse effect: The rats turned blue.”

    • annamadeit says:

      Wow Judy, that’s too bad that you lost your Cibracon blue to the medical communities, but fascinating all the same. Which one do you use now – the FDA #1? Did you know that my mom learned to dye fabrics with plant dyes some time in the 1070’s? She then dyed yard and wove shawls out of it. Pretty cool, huh?

  3. Jordan River says:

    Once day I woke in Thailand where I was staying in a garden apartment. The garden was green green green, palms, palms and more palms. That particular morning the gardener had placed purple flowering orchids all around the garden on stands placed within the palms. What a wonder to behold. As far I could work out the orchids came from the local plant market. Later in the day I complimented the resort owner on such a magnificent start to the day. Since the morning he had had all the orchids removed as he had considered his staff’s choices to be too garish.

    There is also a woman known, as The Purpuraria, who grew rich as a seller of purple. It was the cloth I think rather than the dye. Her name was Lydia of Thyatira.

    • annamadeit says:

      He had them removed??? Oww – it pains me to even think about that… Glad you got to enjoy them before that happened – moments like that are magical!

      I looked up The Purpuraria – it turns out she is the patron saint of dye workers, and is celebrated by catholics on August 3rd. Thanks for that – I learn something every day!

  4. Jordan River says:

    Some further sleuthing…. The snails have been found or rather I have found a tale of squids, snails and the colour tekhelet. I know that you know that tekhelet is the rarest blue. Or is it really purple…?

    Happy Hanukkah.

    • annamadeit says:

      Actually, I didn’t know that! And, I didn’t know about the squids either. Learn something every day… Thanks Jordan, and Happy Hahukkah to you too. And Happy Thanksgiving as well!

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