The colour orange – “bitwixe yelow and reed”

Orange is a tricky colour: when pale, it can be seen as yellow, when dark, it is seen as brown.

Bizarrely, orange did not get its English name until 1512. It was named after the fruit, though you could have thought it would have been the other way around. Even in the middle ages, English had no word for orange. Chaucer described it as:

bitwixe yelow and reed

Before importing the word orange from french, the colour was referred to as ġeolurēad (yellow-red). So orange was a really odd thing. To quote Alan Fletcher in his book The art of looking sideways:

Colour words are acquired by cultures in a strict sequence according to anthropologists who analysed 98 widely differing languages:

  • All languages have black and white.
  • if there are three words, the third is red.
  • If there are four, then it is green or yellow.
  • if five then whichever didn’t make four, yellow or green.
  • if six, blue.
  • if seven, it is brown.
  • if eight or more, then purple, pink, orange and grey are added in any order.

So there is orange, with an identity crisis amongst purple, pink and grey. That is not to say that the colour did not existed or that it was invisible or utterly unappreciated. It just did not have its own name.


buddhist monk
buddhist monk

Saffron is a spice and a colour that comes from the purple saffron crocus. It is the most expensive spice in the world for good reasons. One evening the sun goes down, the field is bare. Then the flower appears overnight, lasts a day, and is gone. If you are not ready to harvest at any time, your crop, and possibly your livelihood, will be gone. It is a delicate, vulnerable thing, and to grow them takes a good deal of effort. It is the bright red stigma that gives the dye and the spice, the rest of the flower, the stamen and leaves are useless. And here is an oddity: the flowers are sterile. They cannot reproduce by pollinating, only by bulb offsets. So you will never find a saffron crocus in the wild.

In 2007 Buddhists  monks were at the forefront of the 2007 Burmese anti-government protests, the uprising has been referred to as the Saffron Revolution. It is worth noting, though, that their robes are not dyed with saffron, but with turmeric or jackfruit.

In 2013 the prices for certain spices (USD for 1ounce):

  • Saffron: $354
  • Vanilla: $8
  • Clove: $4
  • Cardamom: $3.75
  • Pepper: $3.75
  • Thyme: $2.74



In my native tongue, carrots are called “yellow root”, though the original carrots were purple, whitish and yellowish. Sometimes, an orange mutation would pop up, but it was not until the dutch developed a stable cultivar that the carrot became the carotene-rich orange root with the colour of the sunset. It was perfect timing, and it was apparently done to honour the House of Orange, who was in need of all support possible. Though the claim that the development of this cultivar was done by or at the order of William of Orange himself is doubtful, but it became a vegetable of national pride.

Today, some of the old “original” cultivars are back in business, you might find them either in extremely well-stocked supermarkets, various versions of farmers markets, organic co-ops and such might have the heirloom varieties. And seed packets. Look out for those.



..and to end on a slightly bizarre note, here is to evolution: Guppies. Small fish you find in fish tanks, and in fact in the wild over large parts of the globe. What all the males have in common are orange spots. When I say “all”, I mean “all that have a chance at reproduction”. How come that they all have this? Considering other species spread over the globe and adapting and changing, this cosmetic trait  is a little surprising. Why is it so important to keep the orange dots? Of course, because the girls like it.  And the guppy-girls have excellent vision. They have between four and eleven photoreceptors (we have only three), and one that is sensitive to ultraviolet light. So. The girls are more eagle-eyed than eagles.

But how does the male guppy do it? In all those different habitats, over vast distances and large timescales; to keep that one – we might say cosmetic – trait?

It gets the colour both externally and internally. Internal pigments give them red; external (diet) alter this, and can give the guppy warm yellow, light orange, deep orange to red. And here is the cool-o-rama: the male guppy adjusts his diet and his internal production of drosopterins to produce the colour. Some guppy-girls have photoreceptors more sensitive to different shades and will pick the male that impresses her with the right shade, this being dependant on her vision.

In any case; with more photoreceptors than we have, guppies see colours and luminosity that we can never understand.

More oddities on colours here

The information in this post comes from these books:

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