Hooker’s Green: The Color of Apple Trees and Envy


Hue's Hue

“William Wilson” was published in 1839. It is not one of Edgar Allan Poe’s more popular tales. It is not as fun as “Hop-Frog” or as dread inducing as “The Tell-Tale Heart.” But it is my favorite of his stories, because it taps into a narcissistic fear, that of the doppelgänger or “double-goer.” The story is about two men named William Wilson. The nominally linked males talk alike, walk alike, and dress alike. The two Williams grow up in close proximity to each other on the misty outskirts of London, much to William the narrator’s dismay, who hates the sound of his own name (it’s too common, too pedestrian) and resents this upstart William for forcing him to hear those four syllables twice as often.

It is dizzying to find someone with your name. I know; I search for them regularly. I befriend fellow Kathryn Kellehers on Facebook, sending out little electronic pings of acknowledgement. For the most part, they refuse my requests and resist my efforts to spy on their social-media accounts. But there is a Katy Kelleher in Wisconsin who allows me to see her images. On late nights, when I feel particularly alienated from myself, I peer into her life, imagining that we share some destiny, linked by consonants and vowels and perhaps a drop or two of Irish-American blood.

William Hooker did not have to look far to find another man with his name. It was a common enough appellation. But the tale of two Hookers is a strange one, for both men were not only contemporaries, they were also both wedded to gardens and bewitched by greenery. They lived in tandem, and they are often confused and conflated. But there were two William Hookers, and only one of them was responsible for the most enviable of inventions: Hooker’s green. 


The better-known William Hooker of Kew Gardens (not the inventor of Hooker’s green).


The better-known William Hooker was the director of Kew Gardens, one of the largest and most diverse botanical gardens in the world. He was born into a wealthy and educated family, and he spent much of his life traveling everywhere from India to Iceland, cataloging plant specimens. He was a close friend to Charles Darwin. He was knighted. His son eventually succeeded him as the director of Kew Gardens, a fact that Wikipedia paints as evidence of both men’s greatness, though it looks an awful lot like nepotism.

The lesser-known William Hooker was six years older than the knighted William. He was never as successful or as famous as Sir William. Perhaps he didn’t have the same advantages as a young man. But he was an accomplished botanical illustrator, and while one William sailed the world, the other stayed closer to home, studying the flora and fauna of London and its suburbs. His work was skillful and graceful at once; his botanical paintings have enough movement to look lifelike and enough detail to be useful to budding horticulturalists. He was particularly adept at depicting greenery, and one day, he mixed a color that would bear his name. He took gamboge, a yellow made from the sap of a deciduous tree, and swirled it with Prussian blue, the first modern synthetic pigment and a color phenomenon in its own right. When these two iconic pigments mated, they spawned a new, complex color, an almost smoky green. Hooker’s green is the rich color of apple leaves, lively and subtle at once. It’s similar to hunter green and olive, though it skews slightly more toward yellow than both of those hues. At first glance, the color looks familiar, perhaps even ordinary. But as you look closer, you begin to pick out the brown undertones, the slight hint of gray. Diluted with water, it looks like late summer, but when the paint is layered thick and allowed to stand alone, it begins to rustle with the sounds of fall.


Hooker’s green paint from Winsor & Newton.


Hooker used this mixture to paint the ruffled, many-lobbed leaves of red chrysanthemums and the lighter, lance-shaped leaflets of the walnut tree. But Hooker’s green proved particularly useful in depicting pome fruits, like apples, pears, and quince. In 1815, the Royal Horticultural Society employed Hooker to paint fruit varieties, and over the next eight years, he would produce hundreds of works, depicting overflowing boughs weighed down by Tartarian crab apples, mulberry-red wax apples, and greenish Quarenden apples. In 1818, he published the Pomona Londinensis, a collection of forty-nine hand-colored aquatint engravings of fruit, considered by rare booksellers to be a masterpiece. Hooker would continue painting fruit until his death in 1832. (In contrast, Sir William Hooker would live much longer, perishing on August 12, 1865 at the ripe old age of eighty.) He is remembered (when he is remembered) as one of the “greatest pomological artists of all time,” according to the Horticultural Society of London. Hooker’s green is still sold today, though it is no longer made from gamboge and Prussian blue. The synthetic pigment varies from company to company—sometimes it leans a bit more toward teal, and other times it seems quite yellow. But the name remains the same, and Hooker’s green is beloved by many artists, who swear by the verdant hue for all their leaf-painting needs.


William Hooker, La Galande (Peach) from Pomona Londinensis, nineteenth century.


I tell you the story of these doppelgänger Williams because I find it utterly fascinating that two Hookers could live and thrive in such a small universe. According to Kew Gardens, some of the works on paper stored in their vast collection are wrongly attributed to William Hooker the director, when it is more likely they were done by William Hooker the illustrator. Did it drive the artist crazy to know that this other William was rising to prominence in his field? Does it annoy his ghost to see his artistic work misattributed to the garden director? Does he find any comfort knowing that his name, at least, lives on, thanks to his pioneering color mixing?


Vincent Van Gogh, Green Wheat Field with Cypress, 1889.


I can’t help but see all of these Williams, particularly Poe’s ill-suited pair, through green-tinted lenses. Green is, after all, the color of envy. Although this symbolic link is often traced back to Shakespeare, who cast jealousy, the “green-eyed monster which doth mock / the meat it feeds on,” as a major player in Othello, it is unlikely that the Bard created this vivid metaphor out of thin air. The link between envy (and its close cousin in discomfort, jealousy) and the color green has existed for millennia. The ancient Greeks believed that both envy and jealousy were caused by an overproduction of yellow-green bile, which would turn one’s skin pale green. While green is a holy color in Islam, it’s not as revered in European cultures. There are relatively few mentions of green in the Bible, leading early Christian scholars to believe that the color wasn’t as godly as, say, red or white. For much of Western history, green was red’s villainous “heel” (to use the wrestling parlance I gleaned from watching GLOW). Red was the protagonist and green was the antagonist, written into the story for the sole purpose of allowing red to shine all the brighter. Red was the color of sin and redemption, the color of blood, sacrifice, and feast days. Green, in contrast, has long been seen as an in-between color, and its unsettled state was precisely what made it so threatening, so disturbing. (To put it in modern terms, red is for valorous and generous Gryffindors, green is for ambitious and deceptive Slytherins.)


Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.


In the late middle ages, Europeans began to associate green with dishonesty and witchery, possibly because green dyes and pigments were so fugitive, prone to bleeding and bleaching. “As a chemically unstable color, both in painting and dyeing, it was henceforth associated symbolically with all that was changeable or capricious: youth, love, fortune, fate,” writes Michel Pastoureau in Green: The History of a Color. “By the same token it tended to have a split personality. On one hand, there was good green … on the other there was bad green, associated with the Devil and his creatures, witches, and poison.” In this way, green was always its own doppelgänger, representing sickness and health, avarice and generosity, the natural and the unnatural. If a character wore green clothes, there was a good chance they might be a turncoat (their allegiances would change with their fading threads). But green could also be the color of hope, as it is in the famous Arnolfini Portrait, which depicts a young bride with hornlike hair in a gown so green it rivals spring itself. People with green eyes were considered suspect—almost as dangerous as those with heterochromatic irises. Greens, particularly complex greens with gray or brown tinges, were viewed as suspicious or deadly. “It was the color of mold, disease, putrefaction, and especially decayed flesh,” writes Pastoureau. It was the color of growth and the color of loss.


Childe Hassam, April (The Green Gown), 1920.


No story of green is complete without mentioning money, particularly since we’re talking about envy. While some Americans assume that our dollar bills, and the association between green and currency, came first, this isn’t quite right. The U.S. federal government began printing greenbacks in 1861, choosing that particular murky grayish ink because it was durable, cheap, and prevented counterfeiting (photographic printing was only available in black and white, so it would have been very difficult to take a photograph of a dollar and print more). But green has long been the color of moneylenders and debtors, so-called green bonnets. “The dollar invented nothing new in this domain; it only reinforced age-old symbolism,” explains Pastoureau. Still, the U.S. dollar certainly strengthened this association.


Edward Hopper, Chair Car, 1965.


“I’ve spent a lot of my life in proximity to other people’s wealth,” writes Helena Fitzgerald in her beautiful essay, “Green to Me.” Fitzgerald recounts how she spent years working as a private tutor for wealthy kids, moving in and out of homes that were not her own, homes that were surrounded by manicured hedges, gardens, and lawns. “Green was a constant then, a spiraling, crawling, blossoming thing. The worlds of the wealthy are green worlds,” she writes, hitting the nail firmly on its head. Money is green, but so is the spatial privilege it buys. Like Fitzgerald, I have spent a significant amount of time peering into the windows of wealthy families, walking through their gardens and experiencing their world as an invited guest. I’ve seen the way that green reproduces green, how money builds money, how walls covered in ivy function as fortresses for the elite class. I’ve lusted after that life and I’ve grown green around the edges with envy.


Still from Sharp Objects (HBO).


For me, green is a treacherous love, and while Hooker’s green isn’t quite the color of money, it remains the color of my own envy. It’s a haunting color, heartbreakingly familiar and deceptively pleasant. It’s a poison color and a sweet color—an unripe apple of a tempting hue, bound to sour your stomach. It’s the seemingly wholesome color of Goya’s courtly parasol and Van Gogh’s Wheat Fields, but it’s also the queasy color of Hopper’s lonely Chair Car and Hassam’s sad-faced April. And lately, I’m seeing these dark greens everywhere I look. It’s supposedly one of Meghan Markle’s favorite colors to wear, as several fashion writers have noted. I’ve noticed hunter green and Kermit green and artichoke green creeping into my Instagram feed in the form of thick knit sweaters (worn by enviably stylish young women with good hair and better skin), statement walls (paired with brass accents and black hexagon tiles), and even lipstick (a look pulled off only by the very young and very hot). The HBO series Sharp Objects is steeped in murky, aquatic greens, which only enhances the show’s glorious Southern Gothic vibes. Hooker’s green isn’t a name on the tip of anyone’s tongue, but it feels timely, a visual antidote to all the saccharine pastels, the millennial pinks and melodramatic lilacs. I’m tired of pretty things, and Hooker’s green isn’t pretty. It’s better than pretty; it’s dense and moody, a bit wild, a bit languorous. As summer begins to lurch toward its final days, I find myself wanting nothing more than a fresh, green start. Hooker’s green feels strange and singular—the ideal color for embracing ambition and inducing envy.


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Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in the woods of rural New England with her two dogs and one husband. She is the author of Handcrafted Maine.