Isaac Newton published his early works in Latin, but issued a “Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light,” the volume titled Opticks, as his first book in English – perhaps because it’s as much a handbook (a vade mecum ) as a monograph. Though densely mathematical. Opticks is readable, even amusing in some phrases.
Lucky for us Newton decided to publish the English version, setting in place seven basic words in his vernacular which preside to this day – the colors of rainbow: “the Drops… strike the Sense … from the inside of the Bow to the outside in this order, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.” Newton’s colors are a bit of fun for gardeners because plants truly own the English rainbow – orange from Citrus fruit, Green from grass, Indigo from the plant dye derived from Indigofera, and Violet from the color of Viola flowers.
Orange is not a color we associate with spring, but it deserves a bit of attention before March ends. In his Latin version of Opticks (Optice; sive de reflexionibus, refractionibus, inflexionibus et coloribus lucis libri tres …) Newton listed the colors of the rainbow as: rubrum, aureum, flavum, viridem, caeruleum, indicum, violaceum,) selecting aureum (golden) for the second color. The more typical Latin translation for what we call orange would be aurantiacum, but perhaps Newton felt aureum was simpler, even more elegant, and he wasn’t troubled by the difference, since both words derive from the color of gold, aurum.
Orange, as an English word, has its origins in an older French word for citrus, orenge, which in turn inherits sounds from the Sanskrit nāranga. But I’m guessing its staying power as the name for a color is rooted in Newton’s Opticks (where indigo also creeps into currency. )
Most gardeners in the Eastern US would associate orange with autumn, “when the frost is on the punkin, and the fodder’s in the shock.” But in Southern California, March owns orange – not in leaves and squashes, but in flowers and citrus. March is rich with orangeness (even oranges), in a mostly tropical way, a show of color that plays pure heck with all of those temperate floral pinks (cherries and peaches and camellias and magnolias,) lingering from February, clashing anywhere they compete in the landscape.
I sometimes wonder if we should corral these orange plants and craft a niche landscape somewhere at The Huntington, a walk or encounter we’d call the Ides of March Assembly. It’s a day to settle debts with aurum, and despite claims of Leprechauns, the March flowers, blossoms that despise pink and valiantly reflect the second color of the rainbow, are as close to gold as we get.
We’d have no shortage of options, starting with the later-blooming Aloes. Most particularly, area landscapes have adopted the behaved Aloe striata and related plants that linger as handsome rosettes of striated (striped and ridged) foliage, supporting pyramidal or flat-topped scapes bearing copious orange flowers.
I can imagine clustering Aloe striata in the verges of our eastern perimeter, along with the existing dramatic display of South America’s Flame Vine, Pyrostegia venusta. Though a bit tender for inland SoCal gardens, recent winters have not been so cold as to set back this aggressive vine.
We planted the display along Oxford Road about three years ago, and it returns the investment each year with profuse flowering from mid-February into April. Being a relative of some other showy vines (Clytostoma, Campsis) and many useful tropical trees (Tabebuia, Jacaranda, etc.), its flowers share the typical characters of the entire group (the Bignoniaceae), having tubular corollas, two pairs of stamens, and a lip-shaped stigma. But among the many plants in this family, Pyrostegia and North America’s Campsis make the most orange-colored flowers.
Providing strong vertical texture, I could imagine interspersing clumps of Los Angeles’s official city flower, the South African Bird of Paradise, Strelitzia reginae, which was first described and named by none other than Joseph Banks himself, (for Britain’s Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.) Bird of Paradise is an iconic exotic, growing well in our urban landscapes and squawking loudly as an audacious non-native.
Another prolifically orange-flowering African import for the March palette would be drifts of Clivia, tucked somewhere back in the shade. The reasonably drought-tolerant amaryllis-relative is a nearly foolproof garden plant for our region. As long as direct sunlight never strikes the foliage, Clivia will hang in there through the decades, creating a handsome display every March..
Somewhere along the edges, in full sunlight, you might allow California’s State Flower to make its ephemeral showing. There isn’t a flower available to regional gardeners that could claim the color orange more completely. And I recommend you stop and give this poppy a moment of your time. If there are enough flowers in your garden to spare one, pluck it and roll the petals around in full sunlight, rub them against your cheek or lower lip. They are magically smooth, with an epidermis that is paved so flatly and tightly with cells as to leave the opportunity for diffraction to play tricks with light, like the sheen of a hologram.
Of course, it we needed a nice ornamental object to highlight this imaginary garden of March orange boldness, you’d not have to look far. We have on loan, from the Calder Foundation, a handsome and striking sculpture, which is the prototype for the massive Jerusalem Stabile….
And there’s plenty more orange in the landscape. Even with this much spectacle, I still don’t quite understand how orange became the new black.
See also: Civil Oranges