“Till one comes to think of it, one hardly realizes how many important and pleasant things in life are yellow.” Richard Le Galliene
Though Newton saw yellow in his rainbow, Emily Dickinson pined over a dearth of yellow in the natural world: “Nature rarely uses yellow, than another hue; saves she all of that for sunsets, prodigal of blue.” I know she grew daffodils, but in Dickinson’s day, daisies and meadows were prime sources of yellow flowers; perhaps her urban landscapes were more deficient; certainly yellow roses were not so common. Dickinson might have known that around 1830, famed New York nurseryman William Prince introduced ‘Harison’s Yellow’ to commerce, a spontaneous hybrid involving the Austrian briar rose, Rosa foetida. Even so, it’s unlikely she imagined that over the next one and a half centuries, Rosarians would develop and introduce a wide range of spectacular yellow-flowered cultivars. She’d have found her cup overflowing at The Huntington, as yellow pops in the April Rose Garden.
How did hybridizers get those great colors? The answer comes from compounds plants make in leaves, petals, stamens, and fruit. For yellow in roses, this means water-soluble flavonoids and fat-soluble carotenes. With over 8,000 different kinds of flavonoids known, breeders can plumb their stock plants for subtle variations, the challenge being to avoid the reds and pinks (that also come from flavonoids) for which roses are famous. Yellows and whites are easily masked or muddied, so hybridizing a clear, bright yellow rose might be as much about subtracting flavonoids as it is about amping up the yellow ones. Not surprising scientists discover that the best yellow roses are short on flavonoids in general, relying on the carotenes (think carrots) for color and intensity.
But as cheerful as we find many roses available today, there’s some pointed competition over in the Desert Garden, where cacti and ice plants are common. These plants are in a distinctive group along with beets and bougainvillea – plants with the special capacity to manufacture a distinctive class of pigments called betalains, first characterized from beets, Beta vulgaris, and Opuntia in the 1960s. This will easily connect when you think about the rich purple color of beets, the brilliant pinks, reds, and golds of ice plants blanketing hillsides around So Cal, and the color of Dragon Fruit. Or just set your mind on the strikingly intense colors of bougainvillea bracts. Like the flavonoids, betalains range from deep purples to reds, oranges, and yellows, colors that can be practically day glow.
Between plants showcasing their flavonoids, carotenes, and betalains, there’s plenty of great yellow in the Gardens, but what about the Library? No shortage there. Browse the rare books. Among the several hundred thousand items you’d find a small volume from 1896, Le Galliene’s second series of Prose Fancies, where he rose to the defense of yellow, complaining that green gets all of the attention: green has the contract for the greater bulk of the vegetable life of the globe but his is a monotonous business, like the painting of miles and miles of palings: grass, grass, grass, trees, trees, trees, ad infinitum, whereas yellow leads a roving, versatile life, and is seldom called upon for such monotonous labour.
Some of Galliene’s assertions: 1. after white, yellow reflects more light than any other colour, and thus ministers to the growing preference for light and joyous rooms; 2. yellow is the colour of romance; 3. in the quality, in the diversity of the things it colours … yellow is distinguished; 4. following the example of their lord the sun, most fires and lights are yellow or golden; 5. the bravest men and the fairest women have had golden hair, and, we may add …, golden hearts; 6. yellow has more to do with the flowers… we love best … the cowslip, the daffodil, the crocus, the buttercup; 7. the gayest wines are yellow; 8. the sacred robe of the second greatest religion of the world is yellow; and 9. citing Kipling (which is well-represented in the vaults), the dearest petticoat in all literature… was ‘yaller.’
Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green, An'er name was Supi-yaw-lat, jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen. "Mandalay" Rudyard Kipling, 1892 (HNT 83934)
His defense must have been provoked. Le Galienne allowed there are issues with yellow, minor associations like yellow fever and jaundice. And he alluded to The Yellow Book (Huntington 376733), a short-lived but significant British periodical that did its best to run counter-cultural to the over-ripe Victorian culture, bordering on scandalous.
About the same time,Yellow gained a similar checkered reputation in the US, sullied through linkage with major daily news publishers. Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal were national platforms for Richard Outcault’s voguish Yellow Kid cartoons (caricatures of street wisdom), branding them as yellow journals. Yellow suffered through guilt by association as the competitive news tactics of the newspapers grew increasingly sensationalist, leading to a circulation war with the kinds of headlines we see in tabloids today.
When we get out of the current confinement, I’ll give this entry an addition…., recalling dimly there is a smashing Chinese jardiniere in the Huntington Gallery that floats detailed florals in field of rich, golden yellow. It’s all locked up right now, but there’s something in that image speaking to the importance of yellow in the history of China. Stay tuned.
NOTE: Wandering through literature, I checked out Robert Herrick’s Hesperides (1648, HNT Rare Books #105743), and encountered his insistent association of yellow with jealousy:
"How Marigolds came yellow." Jealous Girles these sometimes were, While they liv’d, or lasted here: Turn'd to Flowers, still they be Yellow, mark’t for Jealousie.
Huihua Wan, et al, 2019. ‘Determination of Flavonoids and Carotenoids and Their Contributions to Various Colors of Rose Cultivars (Rosa spp.)’ Frontiers in Plant Science, 12 February 2019 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2019.00123
From Victorian Web: In his 1894 essay ‘The Boom in Yellow’, Richard Le Gallienne says ‘yellow leads a roving, versatile life. … Yellow pigments, orpiment and gamboge, while desirably bright, were known for their toxicity. In biology, the colour marks illness: think jaundice, sallow skin, bile. Sep 13, 2019
St. Clair, Kassia, 2017. The Secret Lives of Color, Penguin Random House