Magenta can be a controversial colour in the garden, but why? Colour has long fluttered the banner of social class for gardeners. Gertrude Jekyll introduced the term “malignant magenta” in 1899 and banished all trace of the colour from her garden. Some have attributed her repulsion to purple-pink to a loathing of industrialisation.
While John Ruskin – a great influence on Jekyll – rhapsodised about sacred colour in nature and William Morris revived traditional plant dyeing processes, science and industry had already begun to produce the garish opposite of these ideals. Artificial aniline dyes allowed cheaper, large-scale production of textiles, affordable to the masses. These bright fabrics and wallpapers characteristically included the offending pink. So much so, that even where this colour appeared in nature, some decided it should be wrenched out, and should never be placed in a garden by design. It was as if magenta flowers no longer belonged to the natural world, but the production lines of industrialisation.
In the early 1900’s, the American writer Alice Morse Earle confirmed her social position when she wrote of magenta as “really more vulgar than malignant”, adding that “the garden is never weary of wearying of it.” Subtlety and rarity were prized qualities. Yet here, Morse Earle was herself reproducing Jekyll’s sentiments, as others have continued to do over time (dare I say, on an almost industrial scale) apparently with little personal reflection on the colour: how it could be used; in what measure; accompanying which other plants.
In Modern Painters (1847) Ruskin had urged English artists to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instructions; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.” Scorning nothing? Jekyll is said to have been through volumes of Ruskin, underlining passages and making annotations. Perhaps she conveniently ignored these lines.
The question of colour is repeatedly misted by class prejudice in gardening, and magenta is given deathly connotations: toxic, malignant, terminal, menacing. The significance of flower colour extends to health and disease.
All shades of red get the worst of it. Old names for poppies include headaches and nosebleeds, but there’s poetic justice in that. In the gardening world, red and white plantings have been termed “blood and bandages”, a phrase said to originate from the superstition that this colour combination foretold death, and should certainly never be given to the sick, or taken into a hospital. No danger of that these days, all flowers are forbidden.
Nineteenth century “language of flowers” dictionaries, decoding the symbolic meaning of plants, seem to relish the image of lambs browsing on Rubia tinctorium*, commonly known as madder, not only absorbing the plant’s dye internally, but “teeth stained as if with the blood of some victim”. It was meant to serve as a warning that even the innocent can be marked to the core by slander. To substantiate the image of the plant as code for slander, one flower lexicon lifts the entry for calumniator from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary:
“He that would live clear of the envy and hatred of potent calumniators, must lay his finger upon his mouth, and keep his hand out of the ink-pot.”
Meanwhile, magenta – the pink stain – remains much maligned…..
If, like me, you think magenta has its place, you might like this
While Ruskin… A precis of: Colour in the Garden: ‘Malignant Magenta’ Susan W. Lanman, Garden History, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 2000), pp. 209-221 and Alice Morse Earle, Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth, 1901.
One of the many plants that have significantly contributed… Hall, Brian K., Bones and Cartilage: Developmental and Evolutionary Skeletal Biology
*One of the many plants that have significantly contributed to medicine is madder, source of a red dye stuff. In 1736, London surgeon John Belchier had a medical epiphany at the dinner table over a plate of pork chops. Noticing that the bones were stained red, he asked the cook why this should be, and found that the pig had fed on common madder, Rubia tinctorum. Experimenting with this discovery, he pioneered the medical understanding of bone and skeletal development as well as the circulation of blood through bones. Madder went on to be used as a marker for bone growth until 1870 when its active constituent Alizarin was synthesized. The image here shows Rubia tinctorum from Elizabeth Blackwell’s Herbarium Blackwellianum (1747-1773.