Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Catching & Naming the Floral Spectrum

Guess who starred in the first color TV broadcast? James Wandersee and Renee Clary explore several human efforts to capture the array of floral colors: television sets to crayons to number systems.


Artist’s rendering an early color TV set

Image: Plan 59

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

On January 1, 1954, our visual world changed. This was the date of the first coast-to-coast telecast in living color. Do you know what the subject was? The living flowers of the famous Rose Bowl parade (the theme of the parade that year was “Famous Books in Flowers”). At last it was possible to view the kaleidoscopic Tournament of Roses Parade taking place in sunny Pasadena, California at home across the U.S.—while much of the nation was still trapped winter’s monochrome.

With first color television sets costing $1,000, it took nearly a full decade for most US homes to switch over to color TV—as the price gradually landed within middle class budgets. When people did switch, the visual impact was quite dramatic, and television watching became even more addictive.

Even the new high definition televisions of today do not seem as impressive a technological advance to those who experienced the thrill of first watching color television at home after years of twilight-like visual deprivation via black-and-white sets. To most people, colorcasts were the first “reality TV.” It was not just a happy accident that the first network colorcast began with a floral flourish either. At such a wintry time of the year, network executives knew people craved color, and nothing else offered more vivid colors than flowers. Plants were the first choice.  Even the NBC Color Peacock did not appear until two years later.

imageAn icon of American childhood

Photo: Smug

In addition to the color television set, another source of domestic color, available in almost every American home with children since 1903, has been the familiar green-and-yellow box of Crayola® crayons, invented and manufactured by two Pennsylvania cousins, Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith. The first boxes held just eight crayons, with 25% of the colors named after plants (violet, orange).  In 1949, there were 48 crayons in the biggest box, with 50% named after plants (e.g., apricot, carnation pink, cornflower, mahogany, maize, melon, pine green, thistle).

By 1998, the size of the biggest box had grown to 120 crayons—with lots of plant-derived colors: almond, asparagus, banana mania, bluebell, cerise (cherry), chestnut, cranberry, dandelion, eggplant, electric lime, fern, fuchsia, goldenrod, Granny Smith apple, laser lemon, lavender, mango tango, mulberry, neon carrot, peach, plum, razzle dazzle rose, shamrock, tropical rainforest, tumbleweed, vivid tangerine, wild strawberry, wild watermelon, and wisteria. We hypothesize that this preponderance of plant names may help US children associate colors with various plants—provided they are taught about the plants that are their crayons’ namesakes.

imageRaw Sienna

Photo: wiki

As the EarthScholars, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the adage: “if you don’t grow it, you mine it.” This maxim seems as true for crayon colors as it is for other materials humans use. The Crayola company has chosen many color names from Earth materials (e.g., antique brass, aquamarine, brick red, copper, desert sand, gold, silver, turquoise blue).  Perhaps the most fascinating of the Earth crayons are the colors burnt sienna, raw sienna, burnt umber, and raw umber. Did you ever use those crayon colors as a child? All four are, of course, shades of brown. Chemically, burnt sienna is formed by heating raw sienna to 800-1000 degrees Celsius and dehydrating it; the same holds for burnt umber and raw umber.

imageBurnt Sienna

Photo: wiki

So, what are sienna and umber? Both are Precambrian clays found in Italy and named after the city of Siena and the region of Umbria. These were some of the first pigments used for painting by humans in caves. Both take on more intense colors after being heated . Crayola removed the raw umber crayon from its assortment in 1990, thinking that the color and its name were both too dull to appeal to today’s children.

Edward R. Tufte (1989),  a well-known American information architect,  pointed out that “Nature’s colors are familiar and have a widely accepted harmony.” He recommended that graphic artists look to nature for their color palettes when designing information documents and websites.

The main reason most people grow and give flowers is for their colors. The colors that we see in flowers are caused by light reflected from various plant pigments. Sets of chemical compounds called anthocyanidins comprise the basic reflective components. Temperature affects flower color too; thus more vivid colors are seen in cooler stands of flowers growing in places like Alaska. The intensely bright fuchsia of fireweed flowers makes driving Alaskan highways “a journey into the Land of Oz.”


Professor Albert H. Munsell (1858-1918)

Photo: Munsell Color Science Laboratory

How can one best describe a flower’s color? In our laboratory we sometimes use a costly electronic tristimulus colormeter, but the simplest way to describe “reflective “colors is the system developed by Albert H. Munsell (1858-1918). The US Geological Survey’s soil scientists use it to match soil colors—as with those Italian clays. Plant scientists use it to match flower colors and other plant organs. (Different sets of charts are used for those two functions.) Munsell’s system, which originated in 1905, is based on a standardized set of painted, color chips.  For any color it assigns three values. Hue is the major color, like red or blue. Value is the brightness of the main color. And chroma is the degree of saturation of the color (deep red, for example).

Munsell’s system was adapted for plants by the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society (RHS, 2001);  a set of color patches arrayed on four fans is now the standard for describing flower colors— just like matching paint to fabric,  one holds color chips near the specimen to determine the best match. As the chips have numerical descriptors, the Munsell system provides a low-tech method for quantifying a flower’s color. (Professor Munsell considered naming colors with words foolish and misleading!) 

imageRoyal Horticultural Society Colour Chart

(Available from the RHS)

Photo: Royal Horticultural Society

If you would like to see a simulated, approximate version of the RHS chart and its four fans of color, visit the Azalea Society of America’s website.

A recent study by Griesbach and Austin (2005) indicated that the Munsell Book of Color ($675) is even better than the RHS Colour Chart ($210) if you want to describe the differences among the floral colors of cultivars. With it, an experienced observer, using interpolation, can identify and specify any flower’s color from 100,000 possibilities. (The Munsell Color Charts for Plant Tissues—other than flowers—and the Munsell Soil Color Charts are available for purchase from many vendors, including Forestry Suppliers, Inc. in Jackson, Mississippi: approximately $175 (plants) or $105 (soil)).

In the end, the color of flowers is a matter of indescribable beauty.  Color television displays, enticing sets of children’s crayons, expensive colormeters, and numerically descriptive color-chip systems may claim to have captured the chromatic essence of the living flower, but we must acknowledge that’s impossible. Rather than our assigning a color name or value to a flower, is it not the flower that is adding inexpressible and incalculable aesthetic value to our lives?

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.

  – Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat


Posted by Julie on 08/28 at 01:59 PM
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