November 26, 2022

Smalt, red lake and green earth. These are just some of the evocative titles that have historically been applied to pigments, with the intriguingly-named smalt referring to a cobalt blue pigment that was used as a less costly substitute for lapis lazuli.

My reason for mentioning these historical pigments is that they are more interesting to me as points of reference for the hues (and grain) of certain flowers (like the dark form of Herbertia pulchella in the image below) than a perfunctory ‘blue’ or ‘green’.

I suspect that many students of art history were as captivated by the name ‘lapis lazuli’ as I was, and other traditional titles like ‘sap green’ and ‘vermilion’ beat the multitude of invented names that one is now confronted with when looking at paint. I have written before about the similarity between language employed by Lawrie Metcalf in the description of flowers and the ways in which artists traditionally described colour (in our plant profile on Toronia toru).

This makes sense to me, due to the complexity of chromatic variations within flowers, and the fact that historical pigments were defined not just by colour, but also by the physical makeup of a pigment (as determined by the materials that went into its manufacture).

It is interesting to consider that pigments within paintings are only as stable as their physical properties allow, and therefore they fade and alter over time, in a similar vein to the evolution of flowers throughout their finite appearance.

Observing the way in which colour develops and then fades in flowers such as Leopoldia comosa (above left) and Leucocoryne vittata (above right) is one of the advantages of the experimental garden that adjoins our studio – in addition to the more obvious benefits of tracking performance and overall plant form through time.

The colour variation in Camassia leichtlinii (which is shown above, left) was particularly striking, with flowers ranging from an ice blue to violet. Such variability is, of course, nothing unusual within wild populations of plants. Iris filifolia‘s intense violet-blue flowers introduce a darker tone amidst meadow grasses in late spring, with tall, elegant stems and narrow leaves.

The last word in this journal article is, however, reserved for a flower with an unusual blue-green colour that inspires reverence amongst growers of rare bulbs. This year, I have been fortunate to be able to grow the true species of Ixia viridiflora (pictured below) for the first time, and it did not disappoint – displaying its long stems of enigmatic flowers over a relatively long period.