Tippy-tippy Tap…

The last few weeks have been a time of looking closely at flowers, and marvelling at their variety. I observed about 12 types of pink flowers, about 8-10 types of orange flowers, about 5-6 red, a few yellow ones, a few white ones and two types each of purple flowers and blue flowers–all in my colony. 

So of course the question came to my mind: Was this the typical distribution of flower colours? Was pink the predominant colour, followed by orange and red? And so started my search to find out a little more about this.

First and foremost, what gives flowers their colours? Colours mainly come from the presence of pigments in the chromoplasts or cell vacuoles of floral tissues.  The most common pigments in flowers come in the form of anthocyanins which range in colour from white to red to blue to yellow to purple and to even black and brown. The other major group are the carotenoids, which provide the yellow colours, along with some oranges and reds. While many flowers get their colours from either anthocyanins or carotenoids, there are some that can get their colours from a combination of the two. Other classes of pigments, but of less importance in relation to flower pigmentation, are chlorophylls (greens), quinones (occasional reds and yellows), and betalain alkaloids (giving yellow, red and purple). 

Coming back to which is the most common flower colour, all my web- searching only told me that there was no definitive answer! To begin with, we don’t even know how many flowering plants there are. And of the flowers we know and have catalogued, colour data are seldom maintained. There is no repository of flower colour information. There is no database which documents flower colours, let alone rank them.

There are many good reasons that make it difficult to document these colours. There is no absolute measure. Colours look different in different lights, at different times of the day. Each person perceives colour differently—what looks orange to me look yellow to you. And we all describe them differently—I may say violet for a colour and you may say mauve.

Moreover, colours vary from genus to genus, and even within a species. A plant growing in one area (say, the plains) can have flowers  that are very different from the same plant growing elsewhere (say in higher altitudes). The colours of flowers depend very much on the growing conditions—soil, sunlight etc. So they may change somewhat with season too.

Recent research suggests that factors like ozone depletion and global warming have caused flowers to change their colours over time. For instance, of the 42 species studied in that research, UV-pigmentation in flowers increased at a rate of 2% per year from 1941 to 2017.

lantana
Lantana is one of the flowers which changes colour on pollination

Flowers also use colours as signalling mechanisms. Some flowers change their colour once they are pollinated, so that bees do not come back to them, but rather go to unpollinated flowers. (Eminent teacher, Prof. Mohan Ram, who developed a generation of botanists, ecologists and environmentalists, taught us this during a memorable nature walk.) Some flowers change their colour with age.

But here are some speculations about flower colours:

Counter-intuitively, some people believe green may actually be the most common flower colour–many plants, including most trees, bear flowers in various shades of green. This may be followed by white, yellow, blue and the reds in that order.  Brown is not uncommon either. But all scientists and naturalists emphasize that these are only guesses.

So don’t worry too much about how many. Just enjoy the flowers and their colours!

–Meena

Colours

It is the season of colours. In Nature this is when blossoms and blooms announce the arrival of spring. The birds flaunt their plumage to attract their mates. It is colours that make this statement with an astounding variety of shades, from the flamboyant to the nuanced.

Colours are also significant in the world of humans. They express our moods, and our preferences. They indicate our race, nationality, or our sexuality. They inspire, as well as give form to our art, our textiles, and our cuisines. Each colour is unique in itself, but it is when colours come together that the real magic happens.

Sadly it is when colours begin to define race and politics that the magic turns murky. It is when national colours become the label of “friend” or “enemy”, and when the colour of the skin assumes pejorative tones that colours begin to create dangerous schisms and chasms. This when humans become so blinkered that colours begin to assume divisive identities; that colours increasingly create silos within which monochromatic sentiments fester until they explode in violence and war.

These ruminations were triggered by a poem that I came across. The words are simple, but the thoughts profound.

CRAYONS

While walking into a toy store

The day before today

I came upon a crayon box

With many things to say.

“I don’t like Red!” said Orange.

And Green said “Nor do I”.

“And no one here likes Yellow.

But no one knows just why.”

“We are a box of crayons

That does not get along.”

Said Blue to all the others,

“Something here is wrong.”

Well I bought that box of crayons

And I took it home with me.

And I laid out all the crayons

So the crayons could all see.

They watched me as I coloured

With Red and Blue and Green.

And Black and White and Orange

And every colour in between.

They watched as Green became the grass

And Blue became the sky.

The yellow sun was shining bright

On white clouds drifting by.

Colours changing as they touched,

Becoming something new.

They watched me as I coloured

They watched till I was through.

And when I finally finished,

I began to walk away.

And as I did the crayon box.

Had something more to say.

“I do like Red” said Orange

And Green said “So do I!”

“And Blue, you were terrific.

So high up in the sky!”

“We are a box of crayons

Each of us unique.

But when we are together

The picture is complete.”

Today as we celebrate Holi, the festival of colours, let the colours unite us in our revelries, in their true spirit. Let colours become all-inclusive rather than exclusive. Let the many different shades and tints come together to weave a magnificent and rich multi-hued tapestry. Let us remember that within every colour lies a story, and stories are the binding agent of cultures.

Happy Holi!

–Mamata

Colour Me Blue

As we celebrate Holi, the Festival of Colours, here is a piece on the hues that brighten our lives.

And, in keeping with the mood of International Women’s Day, it references M.S. Subbulakshmi, doyenne of Carnatic music, and a path breaker.

Happy Holi, Happy IWD!

Last week I was reading an old-fashioned novel, where the hero’s sidekick was wearing a taupe coloured suit. Not being quite sure what ‘taupe’ was, I looked it up, and learnt that it is a dark brown colour between brown and grey and that the name originates from the French taupe meaning mole (the animal).  The name originally referred to the average colour of the French mole, but since the 1940s, its usage has expanded and blurred to mean anything greyish brown or brownish grey.

Names of many colours are derived from nature. Fuchsia was named for the colour of the flowers on the fuchsia plant, itself named for Leonard Fuchs, a 16th-century botanist. The word orange comes from the Old French orange, from the old term for the fruit pomme d’orange. The French word, in turn, comes from the Italian arancia, based on Arabic nāranj, derived from the Sanskrit nāraṅga. An inter-connected world indeed!!!!

Teal is a bluegreen colour whose name comes from that of a bird—the common teal (Anas crecca)—which presents a similarly coloured stripe on its head.

‘Puce’ is also one of the nature-colour names, but with a particularly yucky background. Puce is the French word for flea. The colour is said to be the colour of bloodstains on linen or bedsheets, even after being laundered, from a flea’s droppings, or after a flea has been crushed. Strangely it was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours!

People too have lent their names to colours.

‘Mountbatten Pink’ is a naval camouflage colour close to greyish mauve. It was first used by Lord Mountbatten during World War II. When he noticed a liner ship of the colour seeming to disappear from view in the early morning light, he felt it was a good colour for naval ships to render them difficult to see at dusk and dawn, and so started applying them to his naval ships.

‘Alice Blue’ is a pale shade of azure blue, much liked by Alice Roosevelt daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, which sparked a fashion sensation in the United States.

MSBut for a South Indian like me, the most important person-colour association has of course to be ‘MS Blue’, said to be a favourite of legendary singer M.S. Subbalakshmi.  This colour became synonymous with her after she started wearing Kanchipuram silk saris of this shade at her concerts. These were specially made for her by Muthu Chettiar, a weaver from Madurai. The savvy businessman that he was, he carefully regulated supplies to ensure enduring demand from Madras high society ladies!  It has been clarified that MS Blue is not peacock blue but ‘mid-sea blue’.

Continuing on the theme of blue, the colour of 2020 (Yes, they announce a colour for every year! A good source of income for the interior design and fashion industries) is PANTONE 19-4052 Classic Blue whose properties include instilling ‘calm, confidence, and connection’. Additionally, it is claimed that ‘this enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation on which to build as we cross the threshold into a new era’.

Another interesting fact I learnt was that research by several academics including linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay has revealed that if a language had only two terms for colours, they were always black and white; if there was a third, it was red; the fourth and fifth were always green and yellow (in either order); the sixth was blue; the seventh was brown; and so on.

–Meena