Photo by Melody

The Color Purple in History, Folklore, and the Garden

By Kelli Kallenborn (KelliDecember 11, 2013

Purple has been admired and appreciated for centuries. It was the color of kings and clergy. It is also a popular color in the garden for flowers and foliage.

Gardening picture

For this article, I will use the word purple to refer to both purple and violet, though technically, purples are the more reddish hues and violets are the more bluish hues. 

Purple has been appreciated since ancient times.  Some Neolithic cave art in France is made of purple.  Powders of manganese and hematite ores were used.

Around 1500 BC, the people of Tyre and Sidon (modern Lebanon) started making purple dye for cloth.  The dye became known as Tyrian purple.  The most desirable shade was a dark purplish red.  The dye was made from a gland in the sea snail called the dye-murex.  Thousands of snails were needed to dye a batch of cloth and the dyeing process was also time consuming.  This made purple cloth very expensive and it was worn only by kings, nobles, and priests.  The temple of Solomon was decorated with purple cloth.  In the book of Acts in the Bible, one encounters Lydia, a seller of purple cloth.  She was probably a wealthy businesswoman.  Nero made it punishable by death for anyone but himself to wear purple. 


At one time, cardinals in the Roman Catholic church wore purple, but as the dye became unavailable after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, scarlet was declared the color for cardinals.  At this time, bishops and archbishops wore a shade of purple made with the less expensive blue indigo dye and red kermes dye. 


The first synthetic purple dye was created on 1856.  It was called mauveine or mauve for short.   The name comes from the mallow flower, which is the same color.  The color quickly became fashionable, particularly after Queen Victoria wore a mauve gown to the Royal Exhibition in 1862. 


In the western world, purple is often associated with royalty, luxury, and power.  On the other hand, too much purple is thought to look cheap.  Purple in the Purple Heart medal symbolizes courage.  In Thailand, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Brazil, purple is a mourning color.  In Japan, purple symbolizes wealth and position.  In China, purple symbolized spiritual awareness, healing, strength and abundance while a red purple stands for good luck and fame.  In Ukrainian Easter egg dying, purple stands for fasting, faith, patience, and trust. 


Touches of purple are often incorporated into the garden.  The list of purple flowers is long and includes irises, roses, tulips, and zinnias.  Some fruits and vegetables, like grapes and eggplant are purple.  Some vegetables that usually are some other color sometimes are found in purple.  These include, beans, tomatoes, and bell peppers.  Some plants even have purple foliage.  These include purple heart and some Japanese maples.  Purple is rare in the animal world, but you might have a purple martin house in your yard.   


Purple usually pairs well with other colors.  It is a cool color like blue, if you want a calm color scheme. It is the color opposite of yellow, for a more dramatic approach.  Try some purple to add a royal touch to your garden.


Flowers shown in this article are bearded iris, crepe myrtle, freesia, rose "Purple Tiger", Texas ranger, and African violet.

  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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