Blue and black at the Gamble Garden

In anticipation of a visit to Palo Alto’s Gamble Garden with motss.conners on Saturday, two items from my last visit to the garden (on 7/31): blue flax-lilies, which are neither flax nor lily plants, but do have bright blue berries; and dark purple, almost black, hollyhocks.

Blue is the color of my true love’s eyes. Flax-blue, specifically.

From Wikipedia:

(#1) Strap-like leaves and flaxflower-blue berries

Dianella caerulea, commonly known as the blue flax-lily, blueberry lily, or paroo lily, is a perennial herb of the family Asphodelaceae, subfamily Hemerocallidoideae [the subfamily of daylily plants], found across the eastern states of Australia and Tasmania. It is a herbaceous strappy perennial plant to a metre high, with dark green blade-like leaves to 70 cm long. Blue flowers in spring and summer are followed by indigo-coloured berries. It adapts readily to cultivation and is commonly seen in Australian gardens and amenities plantings.

It was first described by English taxonomist John Sims in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1802. Its specific name is the Latin adjective caerulea “blue” [referring to sky or sea blue < caelum ‘sky, heaven’ + diminutive -ule- suffix, with dissimilation of the first l]. The genus name is derived from the Roman goddess Diana, with a diminutive suffix –ella.

Why flax? As usual with plant names, it’s a metaphorical reference — to the color of the flowers of the flax plant. From Wikipedia:

(#2) That color, in the garden

Flax (Linum usitatissimum), also known as common flax or linseed, is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae [see below]. It is a food and fiber crop cultivated in cooler regions of the world. Textiles made from flax are known in the Western countries as linen, and traditionally used for bed sheets, underclothes, and table linen. Its oil is known as linseed oil. In addition to referring to the plant itself, [by metonymy] the word “flax” may refer to the unspun fibers of the flax plant. The plant species is known only as a cultivated plant, and appears to have been domesticated just once from the wild species Linum bienne, called pale flax.

[Digression on the Linaceae plant family. From Wikipedia:

Linaceae [#99 in my running inventry of plant families] is a family of flowering plants. The family is cosmopolitan, and includes about 250 species in 14 genera, classified into two subfamilies: the Linoideae and Hugonioideae (often recognized as a distinct family, the Hugoniaceae).

… In the Linoideae, the largest genus is Linum, the flaxes, with 180-200 species including the cultivated flax, Linum usitatissimum. Members of the Linoideae include herbaceous annuals and perennials, as well as woody subshrubs, shrubs, and small trees (Tirpitzia) inhabiting temperate and tropical latitudes of Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. The largest genus of the Hugonioideae is Hugonia (about 40 species); the Hugonioideae are woody vines, shrubs, and trees, and are almost entirely tropical in distribution.

End of digression.]

We get two color images from the flax plant. From the flowers, flax blue, as in flax-blue eyes — strikingly bright blue. The image in “Blue is the color of my true love’s eyes” (above), a play on the title of a haunting folk song. From Wikipedia:

“Black Is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair)” … is a traditional ballad folk song first known in the US in the Appalachian Mountains but originating from Scotland, as attributed to the reference to the Clyde in the song’s lyrics.

… Many different versions of this song exist, some addressed to women and others addressed to men, as well as other differences

Flax as a kind of blue is also available for naming colors commercially, as in this paint chip from the Sherwin-Williams company:


Meanwhile, the flax plant is the source of flax the fiber, and the color of the fiber is pale yellow. Which gives us, from NOAD:

adj. flaxen: [a] adjective of flax. [b] literary (especially of hair [AZ, also: especially of females]) of the pale yellow color of dressed flax: her long flaxen hair.

Which gives us, most famously, Debussy’s girl with the flaxen hair. From Wikipedia:

(#4) A 2001 performance by Lang Lang

La fille aux cheveux de lin is a musical composition for solo piano by French composer Claude Debussy. It is the eighth piece in the composer’s first book of Préludes, written between late 1909 and early 1910. The title is in French and translates roughly to “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”. The piece is 39 measures long and takes approximately two and a half minutes to play. It is in the key of G♭major.

The piece, named after the eponymous poem by Leconte de Lisle, is known for its musical simplicity, a divergence from Debussy’s style at the time.

(#5) Cate Blanchett’s flaxen hair in 2014 (photo from the Telegraph (UK))

That’s the largely female version. For males — especially boys — the favored color adjective is tow()haired or tow()headed. Going back to flax again (from NOAD), via two nouns:

noun towhead: [a] a head of tow-colored or very blond hair. [b] a person with very blond hair.

noun tow: [a] the coarse and broken part of flax or hemp prepared for spinning. [b] a bundle of untwisted natural or man-made fibers.

A towhead is especialy male and especially young: John Greenleaf Whittier’s barefoot boy with cheek of tan,

(#6) Norman Rockwell magazine cover

and this lad from a site aggregating photos of cute haircuts for little boys:

(#7) Note the blue eyes, tending towards flax-blue

Black flowers — well, very dark purple. Not far from the blue flax-lily at Gamble Garden back on the 31st was a stand of extraordinarily dark purple hollyhocks in bloom. Perhaps this cultivar (nobody, including a staff member, could find a label):

(#8) Alcea rosea ‘Blacknight’ / ‘Black Knight’, from the Walters Gardens site, offering seeds for sale

See my 3/27/13 posting “Abutilon and its relatives”, with a section on hollyhocks, genus Alcea, especially A. rosea.

I noticed that the hollyhocks had suffered quite badly from insects gnawing holes in its leaves. Later I discovered that the insects seem to have no taste for various Hibiscus species, including the showy H. rosa-sinensis and the rose of sharon shrubs (H. syriacus), or for several varieties of abutilons, though the plants are all closely related to Alcea.

Note on life on the net/web. I had originally assembled several really nice photos illustrating the range of hollyhocks in the dark purple range, all from a site that aggregates garden information. When I went to check out the site, to give proper credit for the images, I found that its address was copped from a UCC church in New Jersey and that its very brief About page pointedly said nothing of substance about the site. Some sort of scam, I guess. So I deleted the photos and chose just the one above, from an actual seed company.

One Response to “Blue and black at the Gamble Garden”

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    […] Zwicky shares some gorgeous blue and black flowers in the Gamble Garden of Palo Alto, and meditations on […]

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