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!