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The Color White in Folklore and in the Garden

By Kelli Kallenborn (KelliJanuary 23, 2012
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White seems like a total nothing. In reality, white is everything, or at least every color. White light is a combination of all visible colors. White in folklore also has a full-spectrum of meanings. For example, white is a mourning color in the East and a wedding color in the West. White in the garden can evoke many opinions. An all-white garden by day may seem gorgeous to some or bland to others, but a white garden at night can really 'pop'.

Gardening picture

White is usually a sorrowful color in the eastern world.  In China, it symbolizes mourning, withering, and death.  In India, white is a funeral color and traditionally widows could only wear white.  In Japan, brides wear white because it symbolizes death to the former family and introduction into a new one.  White is also a mourning color in parts of Africa. 

In the western world, brides wear white as a symbol of purity.  Also, in times past, a white gown was an extravagance, since white cloth was expensive and wearing it would quickly and irreparably soil the garment. 

To the Apache, white is the color of the north, the source of snow.  For the Cherokee, white is the color of the south and this is perhaps in reference to the white-hot summer sun. 

To be lily-livered is to be a coward. This phrase goes back to medieval times, when it was thought that the seat of all passions, including courage, was in the liver. A coward was thought to be lacking blood in the liver, and thus supposedly had a white liver.

In many cultures, white is a symbol of deity, royalty, purity, innocence, cleanliness, peace, and safety.  In the western world, the 'good guys; wear white hats and 'white knights' come to the rescue.  In western art, Jesus, angels, and saints are often shown dressed in white. 

Psychologically, white is said to aid mental clarity.  Depending on one's point of view, white may be thought of as clean and crisp but too much may look boring, generic, and sterile.  After all, would anyone say "plain vanilla" if vanilla ice cream was red? 

White is considered a neutral color in landscaping.  It is easy to add because it goes with anything.  White can make a pastel palette look more lively or make dark colors look brighter.  White does not have to be merely an accent color.  White flowers can be the focus of a garden.  The 'White Garden' is an informal garden in the English cottage garden style.  All of the flowers are white and plants with silvery foliage are used.  The White Garden at Sissinghurst is a prime example. 

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Meyer lemon (Citrus x meyeri)

Echinopsis

Calla (Zantedeschia aethiopica)

Crinum moorei

Bearded iris (Iris germanica)

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Nigella (Nigella damascena)

Paperwhite (Narcissus)

Tulip (Tulipa)

Watsonia

Lithops

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Split-leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa)

Peniocereus serpentinus

Butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium)

Waxleaf privet (Ligustrum japonicum)

Freeway daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum)

White flowers and pale foliage seem to glow in the moonlight.  A garden that is intended to be viewed at night is sometimes called a 'moon garden'.   Many plants that bloom at night have white flowers.  This makes them more visible to night pollinators like moths.  Some night-bloomers include four o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), tropical night-blooming water lilies (Nymphaea), 'queen of the night' cactuses (many species), night jessamine (Cestrum nocturnum), and night-scented stock (Matthiola longipetala ssp. bicornis). 

Many night-blooming flowers are fragrant.  If the pollinator is "blind as a bat", perhaps it will home in on fragrance.  Whether night-blooming or day-blooming, there is an abundant selection of fragrant white-flowered plants.  A short list of fragrant white flowers includes flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Datura, Brugmansia, gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), moonflower (Ipomoea alba) jasmine (Jasminum ssp.), Narcissus, Citrus, and freesia (Freesia hybrid).

White is not limited to flowers.  There are many plants with foliage variegated with white markings.  Some are normally this way and some are mutations of plants that are normally all green.  Since variegated plants have less chlorophyll than all-green plants, variegated plants typically grow more slowly.  Variegated plants are popular house plants and a few species that include variegated cultivars are pothos (Epipremnum aureum), arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum), African violet (Saintpaulia), and ficus (Ficus benjamina).       

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Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans)

African violet (Saintpaulia)

Elephant food (Portulacaria afra)

Arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum)

Jade plant (Crassula ovata)

White in the garden can go beyond plants.  Marble chips or other white rock might be used as mulch.  Concrete bird baths and statuary might be painted white.  The house, garage, or shed might be painted white as a neutral backdrop for colorful flowers or rich greenery.  White tile can make an outdoor kitchen look reassuringly sanitary.  White pots do not get as hot in the sun as dark colored ones.  A white fence, whether wood picket or wrought iron, is always cheerful. 

Consider some white for your garden.  If all-white sounds too stark, make a section into a moon garden to enjoy on summer nights.  If your flowerbeds are clashing, intermix some soothing white.  Start a collection of white-variegated houseplants.  Paint that rusty or weathered fence.  Whatever your taste in gardens or decorating, white can always fit in. 


  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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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
What a delightful article..... Elena 6 33 Feb 3, 2012 8:47 AM
white is a magical color gloria125 1 14 Jan 24, 2012 5:59 PM
Ohhhh truly magical! Margotsgarden 1 7 Jan 24, 2012 8:50 AM
Ahhhh jazzy1okc 0 12 Jan 23, 2012 4:52 AM
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