On a stretch of rural road not far from my house, there is a small wood where, once a year, for just a few short and cold days, the ground turns a magnificent shade of purple. In a reversal of fortunes, the stand of gracious Maine trees becomes secondary to the ground cover below. When the periwinkles are blooming, it’s hard to have eyes for anything else. The delicate mist is an impossibly soft color, like clouds descending into twilight, like the snowfall in an Impressionist masterpiece. It’s a color that almost doesn’t belong here—it’s a plant that certainly doesn’t.
Periwinkle goes by many names. You might know her by one of her more fabulous monikers, like sorcerer’s violet or fairy’s paintbrush. In Italy, she is called fiore di morte (flower of death), because it was common to lay wreaths of the evergreen on the graves of dead children. The flower is sometimes associated with marriage (and may have been the “something blue” in the traditional wedding rhyme), sometimes associated with sex work (because of its supposed aphrodisiac properties) and also with executions. I grew up calling her vinca, a pretty little two-syllable name, taken from her proper Latin binomial, Vinca minor. My mother cultivated periwinkle in our forested Massachusetts backyard, encouraging the hardy green vines to trail over the boulders and under the ferns. I would have been delighted to know even a fraction of vinca lore back then, but I knew nothing except she was poison. I could eat the royal-purple dog violets, but I was not to pick the vinca. Vinca was poison and poison meant death.
This, it turns out, is false. It’s one of the many easy assumptions of childhood. I thought all plants that grew in my yard were meant to be there, and I thought all poisonous things were bad. Vinca—or periwinkle or creeping myrtle or dogbane, as she’s also called—is invasive to North America. It chokes out other plants, stealing too many nutrients for native ground cover to grow. Many New England gardeners do not plant it for this reason. Yet I grow it, partially because I know what it can do, what it has done.
Vinca contains alkaloids, which can be terribly bad for you if ingested in the form of a flowering vine. If you’re a dog and you munch several vinca vines, it could kill you. But let’s say you have cancer. Let’s say its lymphoma and you’re my husband and I can’t imagine the world without you, can’t imagine what would happen if the small, hard tumors nestled around your collarbone took your life. For three hours every two weeks, you go and sit in a room with other patients, other sick people who have lost their hair and their eyebrows. Together, you get alkaloids injected into your veins. You live because there is a medicine made from Madagascar periwinkle (a close relative of Vinca minor) that can kill cancer cells and cure your blood disease. You live because something poisonous can also be healing, an invasive species can also be curative—for a landscape and its people.
Vinca is a complex little plant, and periwinkle, named for its blossoms, is an equally complex color. A subset of violet, which is a subset of purple, periwinkle denotes a precise shade that appears somewhat brighter than lavender, bluer than lilac, clearer than mauve, and dimmer than amethyst. But it’s hard to say with precision, because the purples are strange ones, polarizing, and violets are even more so. Few hues are more beguiling and more reviled than this grouping, the last stop on the rainbow and the tacked-on v at the end of that schoolchild’s mnemonic, Roy G. Biv. According to the scholar David Scott Kastan, shades of violet exist within their own special category. Violet is, like glaucous, a color-word that denotes a certain quality of light. “Violet seems to differ from purple in whatever language—not so much as a different shade of color than as something more luminous: perhaps a purple lit from within,” Kastan writes in On Color, his 2018 book on the subject. “Violet is the shimmering, fugitive color of the sky at sunset, purple the assertive substantial color of imperial robes.”
This latter kind of purple—reddish, bold, saturated—has been bedecking the backs of the rich since its discovery by the Phoenicians, who were milking snails for their secretions long before the Common Era began. Known as Tyrian purple (supposedly for Tyre, in present-day Lebanon), Phoenician red, or imperial purple, it even has a heroic myth about its “discovery.” According to Roman scholar Julius Pollux, Hercules’s dog was the first creature to discover the pretty color hidden under those predatory shell-dwelling creatures (Peter Paul Rubens painted his vision of this event in Hercules’s Dog Discovers Purple Dye). Hercules had been on his way to court a nymph named Tyro, and when he got to her abode, she took one look at the stained dog and asked for a gown the same color as his mouth. Thus, Hercules was granted the glory of “inventing” Tyrian purple. The nymph, meanwhile, went on to get raped by Poseidon. (“And by the beach-run, Tyro, / Twisted arms of the sea-god, / Lithe sinews of water, gripping her, cross-hold,” wrote Ezra Pond in the Cantos.)
Tyrian purple was a difficult color to manufacture. Thousands of snails were required to create a single ounce of dye. In first-century Rome, a pound of Tyrian purple cost “about half a Roman soldier’s annual salary, or the equivalent of the cost of a diamond engagement ring today,” according to a 2019 exhibition from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan. While it was possible to mix other dyes and pigments to create shades of purple, Tyrian remained the most significant color until the invention of “mauveine.” This, too, was an accidental invention, though we have more documentation about the creation of mauve than we do of Tyrian purple’s. In 1856, teenage chemist William Perkin was attempting to create quinine for a university assignment when he discovered his black, tarry mess had a purple tint. He patented the formula and soon it became the first chemical dye to be mass-produced. Samples of the early mauveine dye show it to be a bright reddish purple, vivid and intense. It is a bit less brown than Tyrian purple, but it clearly exists in the same color family. It’s a purple, a true one.
According to the historian Sarah Lowengard, author of The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe, “modern American English” tends to consider purple and violet synonymous, “as simply red plus blue.” But that wasn’t always true: “In eighteenth-century conventions, purple has more red (r + r + b) and violet more blue (r + b + b); one can have light and dark violet as well as light and dark purple.”
Violet was deeply significant to the impressionist painters of Europe—and deeply offensive to their critics. Kastan pinpoints Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant (1872) as the inciting incident in the critics’ war against this artistic use of the shade. “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape,” wrote Louis Leroy after his eyes were subjected to the wishy-washy scene.
It’s a painting of the ocean, but it’s a painting about color. It’s about misty gray blues and light violets. The same could be said for Monet’s Water Lilies series or Pissarro’s winter landscapes or Renoir’s crowd paintings or even J. M. W. Turner’s turbulent marine paintings. The more adventurous art galleries in 1870s Paris were filled with blurry landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, tied together by their techniques (thick layers of wet paint applied to wet paint) and their strange, almost surreal colors. To twenty-first-century eyes, these images look ordinary, but critics were unimpressed. Human skin, lamented the members of the artistic establishment, had turned green and purple and orange. Naturalism had been abandoned in favor of these periwinkle monstrosities.
Periwinkle’s first known appearance in English as a color-word was in the 1920s, but it has been in the painter’s toolbox for far longer, nestled under the violet umbrella. Periwinkle is a Modernist word for a Modernist color. It’s a word that has several meanings—in addition to being a flowering plant, a periwinkle is also a type of snail, though not, confusingly, one that secretes purple liquid. It’s a nature word for a color most often found in nature. A dreamy word for a color that exists at the edges of the night.
While the Impressionists are perhaps the most beloved of the nineteenth-century artist-innovators—their vague flowers make for good merch—there were other movements bubbling alongside. One of these less-remembered movements was symbolism, an artistic practice that predated (but perhaps predicted) the surrealist boom of the twentieth century, combining elements of sublime Romanticism and Rococo drama with Modernist abstraction techniques to create works that were intense, often quite ornate, stylized, and, above all, dreamy. In contrast to the Impressionists, who painted from nature and labored to show exactly how we experience colors in the wild (hence all those violet sunsets), the symbolists thought you had to inject a little unreality in art in order to get the viewer closer to experiencing a universal truth. They wanted to show what love felt like or what madness meant, so they painted worlds that were stuffed full of references to stories and (naturally) symbols. They revered Greek mythology and were heavily influenced by pagan religions in general—for the symbolists, spirituality was far more important to art than naturalism. While the Impressionists (a movement based largely in Paris) and the symbolists (a movement that flourished in Central and Northern Europe) had very different goals, both groups relied heavily on certain colors—chief among them the secondary hues, the marigolds, the emeralds, the tangerines, and, of course, the violets.
My interest in symbolism arose alongside a newfound interest in sunsets. Both of these obsessions were quarantine-born. I once laughed at sunset paintings and sunset pictures—so obvious and ordinary. But lately, I’ve found myself waiting for the sun to go down, timing my walks so that I can be outside then, when the bats begin to swoop around the oaks and the mosquitoes hum around my face. It’s not the golden hour (which occurs about an hour before the sun touches the horizon), it’s the periwinkle window. It lasts only a few minutes in the summertime; dusk descends fast in the north. But for fifteen minutes, the sky is painted with various shades of violet, indigo, and mauve. At dawn and dusk, my tiny little dead-end road becomes another place, quieter than during the daylight hours, but visually much louder.
And after the sun had set, while trying to lull my baby to sleep, I immersed myself in the works of Nicholas Roerich, Edvard Munch, and Jan Toorop on my phone. Unlike Impressionist pieces with their heavy ridges of paint and texture, symbolist pieces seem made for a screen. They’re often flat, with broad swaths of contrasting colors (think of Klimt’s quilt-like surfaces or Gauguin’s two-dimensional flowers). Some of these paintings are a bit cartoony, kind of childlike, something you might see in a children’s book alongside a nursery rhyme. Sometimes, these paintings are heart-achingly lovely. Mostly they’re a bit mad. Naked women dance in periwinkle twilight, demons garden in golden fields, one-eyed monsters rise from a backdrop of flowers, and lovers kiss in a flat, jeweled world.
I slowly came to love these images from the same reserve of feeling that I held for dusk. Scrolling through painting after painting felt a bit like picking flowers. Even the sinister pictures, the poison blossoms, were still so pretty. I spoke their language and understood their references. I could see where they came from, what they were trying to do.
Recently, after spending months thinking about this color and this flower, I emailed Kastan to ask whether he still loves violet and whether he had any thoughts on periwinkle. We’d met once at a color-related event,and struck up a friendship based on my color stories, his color book. He replied, writing from a house in Rhode Island, “Periwinkle seems the color of grace, and not least because of the flower’s modest ordinariness.” So much is changing, he wrote, “but there is always color—it is the promise of joy.”
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.