A Passion for Purple

I must be growing old. . .

for I have developed a passion for purple. Which brings to mind the first verse of Jenny Joseph’s poem, Warning.

“When I grow old I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens. . .”

Yes on the brandy, no on the satin sandals and summer gloves (I don’t even wear garden gloves), and yes I have sat on curbs (though it’s harder to get up from them these days).

And yes, yes, yes, I have too picked flowers in other people’s gardens, though I am crafty about it so my reputation is still in tact (I think).

For the record, the hydrangeas pictured have prime pedigree, All Summer Beauty in the back, Nightingale on the left, and, well, the small reddish purple is a seedling from a cutting I took in New Castle Delaware from a red that was poking out of a wrought iron fence, begging to be rescued

Of course, it’s not me that is aging. It’s the garden, and, in the tradition of the above manifesto, I would like to see more purple in it.

So far, my summer purple garden consists of two daylilies, Louisiana Iris, Japanese iris and some of that wandery phlox that can go wherever it likes in my garden.

One of the daylilies is a dark and dramatic, impressively sturdy ‘Ed Murray.’ Don’t ask me who Ed Murray is, but he is doing well even though he has been moved three times and must be moved yet again because he was cheeky and grew three feet tall and is hiding the gazing globe he was supposed to color-echo, so now he will have to take second fiddle and go in the back. Or maybe I will move the gazing globe.

Daylily ‘Ed Murray’ with Clethra ‘Hummingbird’ edging into its territory

The other daylily is a tame, ‘Rosy Lavender’ (my nickname for it) that I have had for a long time and that always seemed frail to me, maybe because it was re-arranged inordinately through the years. It’s a real sweetheart by itself, but eclipsed by bright yellows, oranges and reds it becomes a wall flower.

Tidy rosy purple daylily grows only 18 inches high, though it stands proud

Perhaps ‘Ed Murray’ would make a good dance partner. This year a clump of ‘Rosy Lavender’ got itself engulfed by a jumbo joepyeweed, beloved by butterflies, so it gets away with felonious assault in my garden. I felt obligated to rescue it, which digging and scrabbling will set it back a good year or two. I am not sure if “rosy lavender” counts as purple.

Joepyeweed was especially exuberant this year, crowding neighbors, because we had so much rain, 15 inches in the month of June alone. Now it is wilting on hot summer days

The other true purple in my garden is a stand-out Louisiana iris ‘Black Gamecock.’ In our soggy soil this one grows and spreads and blooms and grows and spreads and blooms in good sun, or not such god sun.

Louisiana iris ‘Black Gamecock’ is a reliable bloomer in our garden

Our Japanese iris like the same conditions and when they bloomed this year I discovered they have been busy hybridizing themselves. They are blue trending toward violet, white edged in violet, and a nice reddish violet, but I’m not sure if any of these count for purple.

I think there is some multiplying going on  here. I don’t especially remember all these rosy blooms from last year

It’s probably a certain nostalgia that’s pulling me to purple – memories of lush bouquets, perky nosegays and heavenly scents that I recall from years long past. Sadly, the three purple flowers I would like most to have in my garden are those that I can’t grow for one reason or another: heliotrope, pansies, and lilacs.

Perhaps it is more than nostalgia. Perhaps it is my affinity to the cluttery romance of things and colors Victorian. These three flowers happen to have long histories of whispering to Victorian lovers.

And what, exactly, is this “whispering of flowers?” Victorian techies called it Floriography. An offering of special flowers was often the only way to express the murmurings of the heart. (A blessing, perhaps, to an ardent but tongue-tied suitor?)

A modern “tussie mussie” by Debbie Del Rosario-Weiss

Indeed, initially, most ardent suitors dared not express their ardor verbally. Instead, they could present their adored with a “tussie mussie,”  a froth of lace enfolding herbs and blooms that spoke the message of love most discreetly. (We can’t help wondering today how many tussie mussies were cherished — or hastily discarded.)

To organize (or complicate) this flower-whispering business, a thriving market for dictionaries that could interpret the lore behind flowers grew up. They were regularly thumbed and definitions faithfully committed to memory. Donor and recipient alike could consult them to decipher the delicacy of a message.

Pierre Redoute’s illustrations are today considered masterpieces of botanical art

As one modern writer points out, though, there could be flaws in the delivery. Dictionaries differed in their definitions. Imagine a melodrama of crossed signals caused by a dictionary! leaving lovers star-crossed forever.

Not with my three, though. Their blossoms consistently express love and devotion – and passion, even faded passion. But their back-stories are quite distinct.

Heavenly heliotrope, yes, heavenly if you have ever savored its fragrance: vanilla and sugar and caramel and cherry pie in one long intoxicating whiff. It is difficult to find in nurseries, so long ago I tried it from seed. Initially, success was spectacular, which pleased me no end, as seeds and I usually have an uneasy relationship. Unfortunately, the plants faded in our hot humid weather and tropical summer nights.

Luscious heliotrope. Alamy stock photo, since I don’t grow it!

Disappointment was instantly rationalized. Heliotrope is a sun-loving annual that aphids, slugs and snails seem to love as much as humans. Just think, if it had prospered, I would have to be ever on the alert for varmints, remembering to cut back old stems to promote bloom and fertilize to keep the plants looking sharp. All this under a hot summer sun when I could be reading a book in a cool house.

Close-up of single heliotrope blooms, photographer unknown

But I do fancy the myth behind the flower that tells of Clytie, a water nymph who fell deeply in love with Helios, the Greek sun god, who, alas, had a wandering eye. Forsaken by her lover, in a purple funk, Clytie died of a broken heart.

Helios, out of pity, reincarnated her as heliotrope, the flower that devotedly turns her head to follow the path of her lover in the sun every day. (This all happened before the days of emancipated women.) More prosaically, this response is known as tropism.

Well, I will grow pansies, instead. You ask, who cannot grow pansies? I answer, Me! Rabbits here give them no quarter. They operate on a simple intuitive timetable of let it grow eat it let it grow eat it ad infinitum.

I could haul out the sprayer and spritz Liquid Fence on them (the pansies) on a less intuitive timetable (which I do for daylilies), but that seems a lot of trouble for a dozen plants purchased from an ag program in our local high school. I substituted blue forgetmenots that reseed freely and evoke the untamed look of an OK corral, but oh that blue-sky blue.

A lovely photo of a violet from my friend, Joan, in colors that would suggest “let’s take a chance”

The French word, pensee, meaning “thought,” is the root of the word pansy. Ironically, it was the staid old Victorians, and not the oolala French, who incorporated the idea of “amour” into the word/flower. A bouquet of white pansies edged in purple would suggest “let’s take a chance.” A bouquet of purple pansies, well. . .

This dramatic painting by Fantin-Latour of pansies in clay pots that were popular in the 19th century has captured my heart!

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare marries the pansy to affection in the twice-told tale of Cupid piercing a pure white pansy with his arrow and turning its center deep purple. Heart-shaped petals give credence to the pansy’s playful alternative names: love-in-idleness, kiss-her-in-the-buttery, and heartsease.

Oh, those bowers of lilacs in New England! Wouldn’t they do even better in the South, with its benign winters! Years ago, nurseries touted lilacs for our area, most of them purchased, I suspect, by gullible northern transplants like me. I never grew a happy lilac, nor did I ever see a happy lilac in a garden around here. I know that there are many varieties that will withstand a southern climate, but they must flourish elsewhere. If I can’t grow bowers of lilacs, I sulked, I wouldn’t grow any at all.

Photo from Pinterest

Paradoxically, lilacs can symbolize renewal and first love, or love lost. To Victorians, a gift of lilacs night be a reminder of an old love; widows might wear lilacs close to the heart.

There is a vein of sadness associated with the lilac. Poet Walt Whitman, uses the lilac in his timeless elegy to Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d”, conferring on their early bloom the symbol of life after death.

Lilacs in a Window, Mary Cassatt 1883

Think of ancient Greece when you use the lilac’s botanical name, Syringa vulgaris. Syringa, another of those nymphs that always seemed to be the center of love-troubles in Greek legends, had innocently beguiled Pan, the god of forest and field. To avoid his advances, she turned herself into a lilac shrub (One of the more extreme #metoo responses). Pan consoled himself by cutting reeds from Syringa’s hollow branches, ouch! and creating the first pan pipe. The Greek word “syrinks” means pipe.

Lilacs, by Claude Monet

Persons of a certain age (nobody known to the writer, of course) might be interested in certain other characteristics shared by these three plants with purple blooms.

Pansies are edible, full of nutrition, anti-inflammatory and mildly sedative. They are supposed to break down tumors, relieve headaches and dizziness, and clear upper respiratory infections.

Tinctures made from heliotrope are said to cure infections, cleanse the blood, fight fatigue, and clear congested lymphatic systems. Its essential oils are used in perfumes and lotions.

And lilacs can be used to treat skin problems, combat infections, prevent indigestion, reduce fevers, fight depression and relax the spirit.

Just think, with pansies, heliotrope and lilacs in your pantry, a body could shed meds, ditch docs, and live wild and free on salads and aromatherapy. And smell good, too. Now, that’s about as fine as wearing purple with a red hat.

Some other purple, or nearly purple, blooms in my garden

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The sweet but realistic artwork and lighthearted verse featuring flower fairies by Cicely Mary Barker, published during the early twentieth century, deserves mention. She painted from models in her sister’s kindergarten class who were dressed in costumes she created to resemble the flowers.

Song of the Heliotrope Fairy

Heliotrope’s my name; and why
People call me “Cherry Pie”,
That I really do not know;
But perhaps they call me so,
’Cause I give them such a treat,
Just like something nice to eat.
For my scent—O come and smell it!

How can words describe or tell it?
And my buds and flowers, see,
Soft and rich and velvety—
Deepest purple first, that fades
To the palest lilac shades.
Well-beloved, I know, am I—
Heliotrope, or Cherry Pie!


The Song of the Pansy Fairy

Pansy and Petunia,
Periwinkle, Pink—
How to choose the best of them,
Leaving out the rest of them,
That is hard, I think.

Poppy with its pepper-pots,
Polyanthus, Pea—
Though I wouldn’t slight the rest,

Isn’t Pansy quite the best,
Quite the best for P?

Black and brown and velvety,
Purple, yellow, red;
Loved by people big and small,
All who plant and dig at all
In a garden bed.

The Song of the Lilac Fairy

White May is flowering,
Red May beside;
Laburnum is showering
Gold far and wide;

But I sing of Lilac,
The dearly-loved Lilac,
Lilac, in Maytime
A joy and a pride!

I love her so much
That I never can tell
If she’s sweeter to look at,
Or sweeter to smell.

This entry was posted in Heliotrope, Lilacs, Pansies, Purple in the Garden, Uncategorized, Victorian Florals and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Passion for Purple

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Oh! My least favorite color. Yet, those who like it REALLY like it! It seems like there would be more options available. There was a sales representative years ago who promoted the purple rhododendrons because purple was his favorite color. I happen to think that it is an excellent color for rhododendrons in the sense that rhododendrons really excel at purple. There are plenty of pink flowers out there. Yet, pink continues to be our most popular color! I think that the same applies to bougainvillea. The two best colors are ‘Barbara Karsk’ (whatever that bright magenta color is) and PURPLE. I mean, why waste your effort on sickly pink or white when purple looks so rad! There are plenty of other vines that bloom in white or pink. If you are getting a bougainvillea, it should be for the color that it excels at!

    • Thanks for the good information about bougainvillea, Tony. Truth be told, I got the inspiration for this post because purple happens to be my class color from a long time ago and a friend asked me to write about it. Agreed, purple should be smashing, not wishy washy.

  2. Linda says:

    ‘Black Gamecock’ LA iris is stunning. I’ve never seen one this color. Nor have I ever seen a pansy like the photo from your friend Joan. Not only do red hats not suit me but neither does purple! I do, however, seem to grow older every day. Sigh. Love your blog as always. ❤️

    • Thanks, Linda, for your nice comments. You are right, the photo from Joan is not a pansy, but rather an African violet, but it has just the right markings to re-inforce the text. I think I call it a violet in my caption, not too much of a stretch and hoping that Victorians maybe gave each other African violets, too. I think they are in the same family.

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