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What colour is a bluebell?

From bluebells to rhododendrons, Wakehurst is awash with colour throughout the year. But what is colour in plants and how can we describe it? We spoke to artists Eloise Moody and Vicky Long and Kew scientist Paula Rudall to see what colour means to them.
24 July 2018
Blog team: 
Anthea Gordon

Is a bluebell really blue?

Take a look at this Hyacinthoides non-scripta, commonly known as the bluebell.

What colour would you say it is?

Closeup of a bluebell

Obvious, isn’t it? It’s blue. 

It’s right there in the name: bluebell.

But is it really that simple?

Colour brings the bees

Plants and flowers are full of colour. Its forms a huge part of our enjoyment of them. The beauty of plants in all their glory has inspired artists from Monet to Van Gogh.

And yet, plant colour is not just about aesthetics.

As Kew Scientist Paula Rudall explains, ‘colour has many different roles in plants, but perhaps the best-known is to attract pollinating insects to flowers.’

‘Flower colour is caused primarily by the presence and interaction of pigments such as anthocyanins, carotenoids and flavonoids, but I work with collaborators on a special aspect of colour – structural colour – that can enhance the colour caused by pigments.

‘For example, the coloured petals of most insect-pollinated flowers have conical cells on their surfaces that are thought to focus light onto the underlying pigments contained inside the cell.’

So, there is more to plant colour than meets the eye.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera)

Language of flowers

Artists Vicky Long and Eloise Moody became interested in colour after seeing an exhibit in Wakehurst’s Millennium Seed Bank, which they say ‘warned against the erosion of biodiversity and signalled a world of reduced colour if we fail to care for our natural habitat.’

This led them to explore the language and meaning of colour for the upcoming immersive art experience, the Wonder Project.

As part of their research they worked with our scientists Paula Rudall and Melanie-Jayne Howes to gain a deeper understanding of plant colour.

It led to an interesting diversity in perception.

Vicky and Eloise describe colour as something that is ‘ultimately subjective’, and are interested in the huge variety of ways it can be described, whereas Melanie and Paula use ‘very precise codes’ to describe specific colours.

These come from the leading Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) colour chart, made up of 920 colours based on the natural world.

Paula explains how the RHS colour chart works: 'Anyone who has ever bought paint will have used a chart to assist their choice of colour.

The Royal Horticultural Society colour chart uses the same principle but offers vastly more colours than even the most ambitious manufacturer of paint.

Once a flower has been matched to the most similar colour block, numbered coordinates describing that block can be used to place the flower precisely on a red-green-blue triangle summarising all colours visible to humans.

We are no longer restricted to describing a colour using inadequate words.'

A silver, pink and yellow ‘bluebell’

Do you still think the bluebell is just blue?

Vicky and Eloise explain that ‘looking closely at something and with patience helps us to see that there are many nuances in natural colour’.

For them, a bluebell ‘has silvers and pinks and yellows all within its delicate textures, and the blue is something we see simply at first glance’.

Their desire to encourage people to look at colour anew will be reflected in their installation Colour Field at the Wonder Project.

Bluebells at Wakehurst

Here’s what they expect will happen: ‘During the eight days, we will collect written descriptions of colour at Wakehurst.

We will ask visitors to reinterpret other’s descriptions, using water-colours to mix and create colours they feel are a match.

Each swatch of colour will be added to a growing field of hues. This new colourfield will be a twice-interpreted representation of the colours found at Wakehurst during the Wonder project.

We’re excited by the emergence of what we are thinking of as a ‘People’s Archive of Colour,’ which will, with absolute truth represent the colour scape, but without direct replication of original colour.’

Paula wonders ‘whether this experience will make people want to return to the beautiful gardens at Wakehurst to look at how they develop throughout the seasons.’

She hopes it will also make people think more deeply about the underlying structure of what they see.

Be part of the People’s Archive of Colour and help to develop a Wakehurst colour palette at the Wonder Project from 26 July.