Photo by Melody

The Color Orange in Folklore and in the Garden

By Kelli Kallenborn (KelliSeptember 14, 2011

Orange is associated with fall more than any other season. Consider the botanical icons of fall like pumpkins, Indian corn, fall leaves, and chrysanthemums and you see that orange has a major presence. It even shows up in the dreaded return of the yellow-orange school bus, but orange is usually considered a happy or positive mood color. Orange is said to have the passion of red tempered by the friendliness of yellow.

Gardening picture

Orange is the color for leukemia awareness. This one's for you, Mom.

In Buddhism, orange symbolic of wisdom.  In Hinduism, it symbolizes the renunciation of desires.  Though the flag of the Netherlands is red, white, and blue, Dutch national sports teams wear orange because the royal family is called the House of Orange-Nassau, though, ironically, the derivation of that name does not come from the color.  In Ireland, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, orange is symbolic of Protestantism.  This refers back to the Protestant king of England, William III, who was of the House of Orange-Nassau.  In Ukraine, orange is symbolic of strength, in Japan, it is the color of courage and love, and the orange on the flag of India also symbolizes courage.  As one of the few negative connotations, in Egypt, it is the color of mourning.

Some languages have no word for the color orange.  In English, there is no record of a separate word for the color until the sixteenth century.  Before that, the color was called yellow-red.  In English and in many other European languages, the word orange comes from the word for the fruit.  It originated in a Dravidian language of India and came west by way of Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic.  English has a large vocabulary of words for the basic colors, but that is not the case in all languages.  Universally, a given language does not have a separate name for orange unless that language has first developed separate words for the colors green and blue [1].  There are probably more languages with no separate word for the color orange than languages that do have it.  This does not mean that these people do not see that orange is different from red or yellow, but that they don't see the need to have a new word.  Some other qualifier will work.  For example, in English, we don't have separate words for light green and dark green.  The qualifiers light and dark seem sufficient. 

In North America, orange is not a particularly common wildflower color.  Look at a field guide where the plants are organized by color and you see huge chunks devoted white, yellow, and purple, but only a couple pages for orange.  However, for what the color lacks in number of species, it can make up for in numbers of individuals.  Think of the acres and acres of California poppies or miles and miles of country roads lined by wild daylilies

We are not limited to only North American wildflowers in our gardens and plant breeders and explorers have provided us with endless species and cultivars that come in orange.  In fact, most species that have many color varieties will have one or more orange or peach varieties.  Rather than bore you with a long list of names, I will show you a small sampling of the variety found in orange flowers.


 Rose 'Brandy'

 Amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrid)

 Canna 'Florence Vaughan'

 Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)


 Daylily 'Rocket City'

 Echeveria 'Topsy Turvy'

 Iceland Poppy (Papaver nudicaule)

 Florist's Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)

 Image Image Image Image

 Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'

 Portulaca (Portulaca grandiflora)

 Iris 'Oktoberfest'

 Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)


 Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia uvaria)

 Sparaxis (Sparaxis tricolor)

 Darwin Hybrid Tulip

 Opuntia paraguayensis

Many feel that orange is a difficult color to incorporate into the garden, that it is too bright or clashes with to many other colors.  This is addressed in the article In praise of the colour orange.  In my opinion, the best way to avoid orange clashing with another color is to use colors of the same tone, that is, bold orange with other strong colors or pale orange with other pastel colors. 

Many hundreds of years ago, domestic carrots were purple or yellow, with orange appearing only occasionally. The Dutch were instrumental in developing the orange carrot as we know it now. Legend has it that this was done in honor of William of Orange


 Fiery skipper and lantana

If you don't want to try to mix flowers, try orange berries.  Some of the species available include American bittersweet, mountain ash, and some varieties of pyracantha.  (Before planting any berry-producing plant, make sure that it is not invasive in your area.)

When it comes to a reluctance to use orange in the garden, people probably are mostly likely to shy away from orange decorative or architectural elements.  That is understandable, as too much orange can look gaudy and cheap.  However, a touch of orange might be just what is needed to wake up the place.  We have an orange bench under a tree and it brightens a dark area where flowers do not grow.  Terra cotta is a dignified and subdued shade of orange and chances are you have some pots or statuary made of it.  Some might say that terra cotta is brown, but brown is just a shade or orange.

If growing edibles is your thing, you should have no problem finding something you like that is orange.  Orange foods include oranges and similar citrus, apricots, pumpkins, some squashes, carrots, and sweet potatoes.  Some cultivars of tomatoes are also orange.   Orange foods are good sources of beta carotene. 

By providing the right food, water and/or shelter, you might attract some orange of the animal kingdom to your yard.  Some backyard-friendly butterflies include the monarch, queen, gulf fritillary, painted lady, and fiery skipper.  Maybe you will see some feathered orange in the form of Allen's hummingbirds, rufous hummingbirdsBaltimore orioles, or Bullock's orioles at your feeder.  A pond of goldfish is nice, but keep an eye on that pretty orange tabby cat. 

Arguably the crowning glory of plants and orange is in fall foliage.  Something would be missing from the leaf spectrum if there were no orange.  Some trees that turn orange in fall include sugar maple, American smoke tree, sassafras, Chinese pistache, and California sycamore.  Other trees that ultimately turn red may turn a bit orangish in the meantime. 

From Labor Day to Thanksgiving, whether you are haunting, hunting, or harvesting, seeing the sights or sweeping the sidewalk, you are sure to see orange.  It is the color of fall.

[1] Alan Kennedy's Color/Language Project

  About Kelli Kallenborn  
Kelli KallenbornKelli has lived in California for 25 years and really enjoys the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems. You can also follow Kelli on Google.

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