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Today we present a seasonally appropriate earthtone blast from the past–a color which was once everywhere and is now nowhere at all.  I am talking about the go-to kitchen appliance color of the 1970s, “harvest gold” a sort of warm brownish golden ochre.  I remember seeing so many refrigerators, ovens, sinks, and toilets that were this color when I was a child that I sort of thought it was some fundamental feature of home fixtures.  Of course, harvest gold, wasn’t just in the kitchen and then the bathroom, all sorts of other items of fundamental importance to society came in this same shade–turtlenecks, shag carpet, macrame, Dodge Darts, hotpants…you name it (this is to say nothing of things which were, are, and always will be this deep yellow like dead corn fields, lions, broken urinals, used cigarette filters, and mustard, mustard, MUSTARD!).  More than rust brown, tangerine orange, or even avocado, this was the trademark color of the seventies.

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Now, if you had asked me about this color in the 80s, 90s, 00s, or even the early teens, I would have unhesitatingly responded that it is a hideous afront to civilized ideals of beauty and then made some rude remarks about malaise, mustard, and moustaches.  But is that really true?

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Like all earth hues, this dark yellow suffers because there are lots of earthy things which have the same color, but, likewise there are many beautiful living things that are harvest gold (maybe you noticed lions hiding in the comic list in the first paragraph).  There are famously beautiful people who have hair this color. Maize and wheat are both this color (it’s called harvest gold for a reason) as is the element gold which is known to have a certain cachet.

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So if there was nothing inherent to the seventies or harvest gold which brought the two together, what happened? What forces caused this color to become so famous for a decade and then so infamous for decades?  I would argue that it was marketers trying to sell things to people that made it famous.  It was people copying other people that made the color super famous and then it was everyone overreacting to that overreaction which made the color infamous and toxic.  This is a troubling cycle because it doesn’t just apply to harvest gold, it kind of applies to everything that people get really involved with.  It makes you wonder which of the things that are everywhere around us right now are harvest gold.  Where will they be in 40 years?

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Spring passes by so quickly. Only a little while ago I was looking out at the March ice and wistfully writing about the redbud tree, fervently wishing it would finally awaken in crimson blooms.  Now most of the glorious trees of spring have bloomed and their flowers have already fallen.  The cherry blossoms have come and gone. Summer is on its way with its roses, lilies, and foxgloves, but the trees have largely finished their majestic yearly display.  However “largely” does not mean entirely. Walking around my neighborhood this week I have noticed many beautiful shade trees covered with fountaining red blossoms.  Since New York City has been busily planting new specimens of every sort of tree, quite a few of these pretty mystery trees are still wearing plastic labels from the nursery (sometimes it is easy to practice dendrology in the city!).  It turns out this lovely tree goes by the unlovely common name “red horse chestnut.”

A Red Horse Chestnut Tree (Aseculus x carnea) in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

The red horse chestnut tree is not a chestnut tree at all: its name is due to the fact that the horse chestnuts and buckeyes (which comprise the Aesculus family) were once erroneously believed to be related to true chestnuts. The name Aesculus means “edible nuts”, but this name too is a misnomer: the nuts are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides.  In fact the red horse chestnut tree I noticed on my way to work this morning isn’t even a naturally occurring species of tree.  It is a cultivar between Aesculus hippocastanum, the common horse chestnut tree of Europe, and Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye or firecracker plant—a showy native shrub of the American south.

A Horse Chestnut Tree (Aesculus hippocastanum)

The Germans have long been fans of Aesculus pavia, the common horse chestnut tree, a large beautiful tree with spreading boughs and big white blossoms which appear in late spring.  In Bavaria the horse chestnut tree was planted above the underground storage caves and cellars where lagers were stored.  Brewers and beer enthusiasts once cut ice from ponds and rivers and kept it in these insulated shaded cells to cool the beer during summer (in fact lager means storage in German).  It is believed that Germans first hybridized their mighty horse chestnuts with the ornamental American buckeye shrubs to obtain a cultivar with the best aspects of both–presumably so the beer gardens would be even more pleasant in May thus making lager drinking even more delightful.  The first red horse chestnut trees seem to have appeared in Germany around 1820.

The Bavarian Beergarden (Otto Piltz, 1875)

Whatever the case, the red horse chestnut trees in my new neighborhood are certainly very beautiful right now.  I hope you have noticed that this miniature essay about horse chestnuts is really an elegy to this year’s fading spring.  It was a very lovely season and you only get to enjoy four score or so springs in your life (give or take a few dozen).   It is the merry month of May and summer is coming. Now it is time to go outside and sit beneath the horse chestnut trees of your garden and enjoy life with your friends and family.

Genieße das Leben ständig!
Du bist länger tot als lebendig!

(Constantly enjoy life!
You’re longer dead than alive!)

Flowers of the Red Horsechestnut Tree

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