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There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce. The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown. Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).
The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin. The French word for a flea is “une puce”. Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas: so puce has its origin in bloodstains. I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”. Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity. Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it). The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.
In Latin, ashes are called cinis and , similarly, the Latin word for ashy gray or ash-like is cinereous. English borrowed this word in the 17th century and it has long been used to describe the color which is dark gray tinged with brown shininess. As with many Latin color names (like fulvous and icterine) the word cinereous is often used in the scientific name of birds which are very prone to be this drab color.
However, the concept of color is not quite as simple as it first seems. Different items produce ocular sensations as a result of the way they reflect or emit light, yet different wavelengths of light are visible to different eyes. Humans are trichromats. We have photoreceptor cells capable of seeing blue, green, and red. Most birds are tetrachromats and can apprehend electromagnetic wavelengths in the ultraviolet spectrum as well. Many of the dull cinereous birds we witness may glow and sparkle with colors unknown to the human eye and unnamed by the human tongue.
People love citrus fruit! What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons? This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees. Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions! The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets. All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas. It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.
The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid). Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times). Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them. Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.
In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual. The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills. Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims. In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).
Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).
Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade. In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange. I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing. I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you. In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?
Some colors are very beautiful yet lack beautiful names. Such is the case with icterine, which sounds like a particularly nasty fruit, but turns out to be a lovely pale yellow. Although the bright spring color is pretty enough, the roots of its ghastly name are also ugly. The name is derived from the ancient Greek word “ikteros” which means jaundice. The color icterine is used by ornithologists to describe birds with pale yellow feathers and there are several birds with icterine in their common or scientific name. The color is not limited to birds: searching through internet images, one discovers various garments, iphone covers, and other consumer goods in shades of icterine, but it seems to be more popular in Europe than in the Americas.
As is usual in New York’s wet cold winters, my favorite everyday shoes have disintegrated. They were a pair of old fashioned cordovan penny-loafers and, as I discarded them, I wondered why the lovely maroon/burgundy color is called cordovan. It turns out that the simple question has a complicated answer which winds back to late antiquity when the city of Corduba was the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior (in fact the city was initially named Kartuba by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca). When the Roman empire broke into pieces, Hispanica Ulterior was overrun by Vandals who were subsequently defeated and replaced by Visigoths (a sequence of internecine conquests and reconquests which lasted from the 5th through the 7th centuries).
The Visigoths were a branch of the Germanic tribe of Gothic people who converted to Arian Christianity (remember the heretic Arius from the story of St. Nikolaos—his theological survived in the Viisgoth kingdoms of Western Europe). The Visigoths were evidently great leatherworkers/cobblers, and they reputedly created the original cordovan leather. This did not initially refer to the color but was a special sort of extremely tough leather which was made from the flat muscle (“the shell”) of a horse’s rump. Cordovan leather was especially suited to boot toes, straps, and archery equipment—all of which had to be especially tough and thick.
Corduba was captured by new invaders in AD 711 and became part of the Umayyad Caliphate which was run from Dasmascus, however the region broke away and became an independent emirate in AD 766. This state (named al-Andalus) subsequently grew into a powerful caliphate itself. During the 10th century, Cordoba, then known as Qurṭubah, was one of the largest and most cultured cities on Earth.
In 1236, King Ferdinand III of Castile captured Qurtubah and renamed it Córdoba. Although the city declined in the Renaissance era it evidently remained famous for its leatherworks. The English first began to use the word “cordovan” to describe the oxblood color of cordovan-style leather goods in the 1920s.
Anyway, so that’s the history behind the name of the color of the shoes I just threw away. I guess they were named by Hamilcar Barca…
Some colors are more subtle than others. In fact some colors are so subtle that they are wholly ancillary to others. Fine artists are attuned to all manner of delicate films, coatings, glazes, and washes which are added to a deeper color in order to produce a sense of depth or the illusion of texture. Subtle color-words—those which describe a texture, a mood, or a translucent quality are deeply appreciated. Today’s color describes a secondary color which was known deep into classical antiquity and earlier. The word glaucous derives from the Latin “glaucus” which in turn derives from the Greek “glaukos” (all of which mean the same thing)–a waxy, shiny gray/green/blue neutral color such as the blush found on fresh grapes. If you have ever eaten fresh grapes or plums you will be familiar with this color as the delicate coating on purple plums and grapes (and if you have not eaten fresh grapes and plums, who are you? Live better!).
Certain plants also have a glaucous coatings—such as cacti and other succulents. Ornithologists, ever in a bind to come up with Latin and Greek words to describe the numerous species of bird have also taken to the word. Birds which have waxy neutral gray-blue feathers often have “glaucus” in their binomial names (just as yellowish birds are often known as fulvous). The glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) of the Pacific Northwest is a fine example. The birds’ grey wings look as though they were glazed on by a gifted confectioner.
I like the word because I like plums, cacti, and birds (obviously in different ways) but I also appreciate the concept of a pale color which is always delicately brushed across something else. With a poke of the finger or a good washing in the kitchen sink, the color glaucous would vanish.
In October of 2012, Beekeepers in Ribeauville (a town in the Alsace region of France) were shocked to find that bees were producing vivid green and blue honey. The hard-working insects were not mutants or abstract expressionists. They had apparently found a source of colorful sugars which they pragmatically incorporated into their preparations for winter.
Shocked by the unnatural shades of the sweet honey, the town’s apiarists combed the local countryside until they found the apparent source—M&M candy fragments. A local biogas plant (a sort of industrial recycling plant) was processing candy fragments from a nearby Mars Candy plant. The adaptable bees discovered barrels filled with the sugary waste and began converting it to honey and stocking up their honeycomb. French law however is stern concerning what constitutes saleable honey (honey must be transparent to brown & produced from plant products) so the wacky carnival honey will never see market. Additionally workers at the biogas plant have enclosed all the candy dust so that the industrious insects don’t take over their jobs.
The historical roots of agriculture are a common topic of this blog–which has featured posts about the ancient domestication of pumpkins, pigs, olives, goats, and turkeys. However not all agricultural goods have such long tangled pedigrees which stretch into prehistory. Today we are celebrating a fruit which was first cultivated in 1816 by an American revolutionary veteran named Henry Hall. The deep ruby-pink berries were originally known as a fenberries because the wild plants grow in acidic marshes and bogs, however something about that name struck early pioneers as unpoetic and they started calling the fruit “craneberries”—which was shortened to cranberry.
Cranberries are low shrubs and vines of the subgenus Oxycoccus (of the genus Vaccinium, which includes other northern berries like bilberries and blueberries). The evergreen cranberries flourish throughout cold bogs around the northern hemisphere. Because cranberries grow in such poor acidic soil (which is also low in nitrogen) they are heavily dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi with which they are symbiotic.
The berries become ripe from September through the first part of November. There is a long history of cranberries being hand-harvested by hunter-gatherers as a valuable source of food and dye, however modern methods involve flooding the cranberry bogs and agitating the berries from the vine (at which point they float up and can be corralled en masse). As a food cranberries are extremely tart and contain an imposing mixture of vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and antioxidants which make them a favorite health food. The cranberry is heavily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rich cranberry sauses, jellies, and aspics are a big part of end-of-year feasting. They also have an association with the American Navy, which in bygone days used the vitamin C rich fruits to stave off scurvy on long voyages. Just as sailors in the Royal Navy were limeys, American seamen were “cranberries” (there is no word on how offensive this is, so you might not want to run into a bar and start shouting this at drunk sailors).
Every year at the banquet table, I am fascinated by how beautiful the color of cranberries is. The berries themselves—and even more so their sauce–produce a sensuous deep crimson pink. Endless decorators and fashion houses have adopted this color for dresses, lipsticks, walls, and what have you, but they were not the first to appreciate the color. The people of the first nations and later colonial Americans made use of the cranberry directly as a fiber dye. Yarns, threads, and fabrics dyed with cranberries take on a delicate lovely pink color—a direct contradiction to the idea that everything the pilgrims owned was black and white.
Fuchsias are flowering shrubs and trees which have gained vast popularity in the garden for their lovely colorful blossoms. The genus has nearly 110 different species, most of which are indigenous to South America. Additionally some fuchsias occur northwards into Central America and westward across the South Pacific on island chains such as Tahiti. The genus extends all the way to New Zealand where the largest fuchsia, Kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata), is a tree which can grow to sizes of up to 15 meters (45 feet) in height. The majority of fuchsias however are much much smaller.
The plants were first discovered and named (by Europeans) on the island of Hispaniola in 1703 by Charles Plumier, a French Minim monk. Plumier was a polymath who excelled at math, physics, painting, draftsmanship, woodworking, and the creation of scientific instruments. He was appointed royal botanist in 1693 and cataloged the plants of the French Caribbean over the course of several voyages. Plumier named the beautiful shrub after Leonhart Fuchs a Medieval German physician who was one of the three fathers of modern botany.
The flowers of the fuchsia are teardrop-shaped dangling blossoms with four short broad petals and four long slender sepals. These blossoms are usually extremely colorful in order to attract the animals which fertilize them–hummingbirds. The flowers can be red, white, blue, violet, or orange, but the majority of fuchsias occur in lovely shades of pink and purple. The purple-pink color of many garden fuchsias is so distinct and characteristic that the color itself is now called fuchsia (and has been since the nineteenth century). That is how one of the loveliest and most flamboyant of all colors (and one of the most nonexistent) has come to be named for a medieval German doctor!
Fuchsias form a small edible berry which is said to taste like a subtle combination of mild grape and black pepper (although I have never “harvested” the plants in my garden). There are immense numbers of hybrid fuchsias in cultivation in gardens around the world and whole horticultural societies devoted to the plant, yet it does not have the myth and mystique of other beloved flowers like roses, orchids, and lilies. Perhaps the new world origins of the fuchsia have subsumed the folklore of the flower. Whatever the case, fuchsias are a stunning garden treat. They are one of my favorite plants in my shady Brooklyn garden and fuchsia is a favorite color.
Fulvous is a color which is very prevalent in the natural world. It is a dull mixture of yellow and brown with hints of red. The name comes from the Latin word “fulvus” which translates as “a dull yellow-brown color with a hint of red” (sometimes etymology is easy). Since “fulvus” is a Latin word there are a shocking number of animal species which have the color incorporated in their binomial scientific name. There are also quite a few creatures (particularly birds) known as the fulvous such-and-such in English. Here is a little gallery of fulvous/fulvus beasties.