Are you seeing the world through
rose colored glasses?
Factors Affecting Color in
by Rich Sacher
New Orleans, Louisiana USA
Click images to enlarge
If life were truly simple, we could describe flower colors
in a concise and elementary fashion. We could say a flower is
red, blue, green, orange, yellow or white. However, we are blessed
with an entire rainbow of colors
varying shades of all
the above which require more precise observation and description.
Before we discuss environmental factors which can change the
actual or perceived color of a waterlily flower, we must first
look at communication factors which color our individual descriptive
I think there is a great difference in subtlety and vocabulary
between men and women when it comes to describing colors, just
as there is in their approach to shopping. Men often see shopping
as an obstacle to overcome: get in, buy that pair of slacks,
and get out
the faster, the better. Women, on the other
hand, approach shopping as an adventure in exploration and discovery.
Fabric, color, texture, style, and, finally, the price are all
part of the process. In a similar fashion, most men seem to have
a limited vocabulary for describing colors, while most women
have an entire pallet of color descriptions at their disposal.
A man might describe his new slacks as "brown", while
a woman might say the color was really "taupe". He
might say the Iris Black Gamecock was dark blue, while she might
say it was more "eggplant."
Perhaps women are more culturally attuned to the nuances in
colors, and have thus developed a broader vocabulary to describe
them. It is helpful to keep in mind that differences in vocabulary
can get in the way of accurate color description. If you don't
believe this, just go to any paint store and see how many different
colors of white are available for your ceiling!
Another communication variant may be the inaccurate color of
a flower as it appears in a photo, or in a book
on your computer screen! Photographic film is notorious for shifting
the blue color of flowers towards purple or pink in the printed
photo. This gives rise to inaccurate flower colors in books,
magazines and catalogues. I remember taking a photo of blue waterlilies
in a blue plastic pail. When the photo was developed, the pail
was still blue
but the lilies were pink!
Filtered film image
In older books, photographic filters were often used to correct
for this shift from blue towards pink, but this also darkened
and falsified the flower color in the printed photo. For this
reason, it may be difficult to get an accurate impression of
a flower's true color from a photo, especially if it is a blue
or purple flower.
Digital images are much more color accurate than photographic
film, but even they can suffer color shifts when images are emailed
to someone whose monitor is not calibrated to the same color
accuracy as the sender's computer. I once received an emailed
photo of a blue waterlily that was pink when I opened it on my
computer. I emailed it back to the sender, where it arrived blue,
the way it was supposed to be. Some color option adjustments
were needed to my computer to arrive at a true blue for future
emailed photos. And of course, digital cameras may be set with
different calibrations for color by their owners, and that will
affect what color shows up in the image, whether on the viewfinder
or a computer monitor.
ENVIRONMENTAL INFLUENCES ON FLOWER COLOR
It might be a stretch to call sunglasses an environmental
but one time a customer came into my office to
express disappointment that we did not have any blue waterlilies
for sale. I knew we had at least ten different varieties of blue
waterlilies in bloom, so we walked outside to the ponds, where
I asked her to take off her sunglasses. She laughed out loud
when she saw all the different blue lilies she could chose from.
She was wearing the famous "blue blocker" sunglasses,
which makes blue appear pink. (Reminds me of the expression "looking
at life through rose colored glasses.")
The actual color of waterlily flowers can be greatly influenced
by the growing season. The first few flowers which appear in
early spring may have a much lighter or darker color than they
will have in mid-summer. In fact, early in the season, these
flowers may be smaller, have fewer petals, and even be shaped
differently than their mature forms.
In climates where summer days are long and temperatures high,
waterlily flowers may attain their full size, but their color
can actually be bleached somewhat by the heat and sun; a first
day flower may often have a deeper color than a third day flower,
not only because of the bleaching action of the sun, but also
because the flower grows and expands each day, diluting the pigments
over a larger area as the petals expand in width and length.
For example, 'Wood's Blue Goddess' will have a medium blue color
flower the first day it opens, but will fade to almost white
after three days in the hot summer sun. In some varieties, variations
in color between first, second and third day flowers can be an
they may even be promoted as "changeable".
However, if the third day flower loses most of its color, I think
most people would find that unattractive. The darker colored
tropical waterlilies are more prone to bleach out in the summer
sun than are hardy lilies. One of the reasons may be the fact
that many hardy lilies close their flowers in early afternoon,
while tropicals may stay open for several hours longer each day.
The time of day, the number of hours of direct sunlight, and
even cloudy conditions, can alter not only our perception of
a flower's color, but its actual color, too. For example, you
could have two identical varieties of waterlilies growing in
the same pond, where one gets 12 hours of sun daily and the other
only six hours. It would not be unusual to see a noticeable difference
in the color intensity of the flowers on these two plants.
Our perception of a flower's color intensity will also change
if we are looking at it under the full summer sun at noon, as
compared to the same time of day when the sky is cloudy. This
is one reason that photographers avoid the midday sun. They prefer
early morning and late afternoon, when the sun's rays are less
intense, knowing that this will result in better color saturation
and more desirable reflections on the water's surface. For photography,
even an overcast day may be more desirable than working in the
midday sun. This is true for both film and digital photography.
Different shades of pink
The intensity of the sunlight, along with the day length, will
affect the color on most flowering plants, not just waterlilies.
Travel to England or the northeastern part of the United States
at the height of summer and you will see a deep intensity of
flower color which is impossible to attain in the southern part
of the United States. The latitude, day length, number of sunny
days, time of year, and even altitude can affect the intensity
of flower colors.
in summer at left, winter at right
I have noticed an interesting seasonal anomaly in my night blooming
lily 'Elysian Fields'; when grown in full sun in the middle of
the summer, the leaves are bronze colored, and the flower is
a rich, even pink. This very same plant, when grown in the greenhouse
under the shorter, cooler days of winter, has green leaves and
a pale, apple blossom pink flower. The flowers are such different
colors that you would think these were two different plants.
Since the flowers open at night, the pale winter color is not
due to fading from intense sunlight, but rather a reduced pigment
production in leaves and flowers because of the limited sunlight
Some tropical lilies will actually develop flowers of a completely
different shape when grown in the winter greenhouse, as compared
to their normal summertime appearance. The tropical lily 'Midnight
Star' has fertile stamens in the summer but, in the winter greenhouse,
those stamens morph into small petals, and the flower does not
produce pollen. This gives the appearance of a semi-double flower
which is quite different from the form we see in the summer.
We have been concentrating on color changes in tropical lilies,
because they seem more prone to the sun's bleaching effect
but as we have already mentioned, some fading in flower color
is also possible among hardy lilies.
We have discussed that both the actual and the perceived color
of a waterlily flower (and other kinds of flowers, too!) can
be influenced by vocabulary, time of day, the growing season,
latitude, and the quality of the printed or digital image. Now
let us consider how we can manipulate our lilies to get more
of the color we want from our flowers.
MANIPULATING WATERLILY FLOWER COLOR
Hybridizing for new forms and colors is one of the classic
methods for developing something new. Perhaps a plant breeder
is working toward a particular color or bicolor, or a hobbyist
notices an unusual chance seedling or a sport in an existing
variety. By vegetative propagation of these new varieties, new
colors of waterlilies are introduced to the trade. In waterlilies,
recent introductions have exhibited more flower petals, unusual
flower shapes, and new bicolored flowers. Hybridizer Craig Presnell
in Florida has been particularly prolific in creating new bicolored
waterlilies, among them 'Foxfire', 'Ostara', and 'Rachel Presnell'.
Craig Presnell photo
Lou Belloisy photo
N. 'Rachel Presnell'
Craig Presnell photo
Some of the newly created hybrids in Thailand also exhibit
new and delicate shadings of flower color. 'Soft Cake' is an
excellent example of this trend.
< First day | Second day >
While hybridizing can be a long term project, there are several
cultural things we can do to maximize flower color in our waterlilies.
We have already made the point that dark colored flowers are
likely to lose some of their color in the summer sun. If you
have some shade on a portion of your pond, that would be the
choice spot for a dark blue, dark pink or deep red lily. Their
color will remain more vibrant if they are not in sun for 12
to 14 hours a day.
It is a little bit of work, but I know hobbyists who have
several ponds, with one of them too shady to bloom waterlilies.
They will often rotate a lily from their sunny pond to the shady
one, exchanging them every week. This provides all the plants
with enough sunlight to remain in bloom, while helping to prevent
excessive fading of the flower colors in mid summer.
Probably the most important factor in maintaining vibrant
flower color in tropical waterlilies is to maintain high soil
fertility at all times during the growing season. The warmer
the weather and the bigger the pot, the more fertilizer is needed,
because these tropical beauties grow so fast. Frequency of feeding
is important in the rapid growing season, and many growers fertilize
their plants every 10 to 14 days, using the tablet equivalent
of a teaspoon of granular fertilizer for a 7 by 10 inch (18 to
25 cm) pot. Fertilizer tablets come in various sizes and in many
different formulations. Sometimes I use four tablets every two
weeks in a 16 inch (41 cm) pot; sometimes I broadcast a quarter
cup of coarse granular fertilizer right on the soil surface.
I may use 13-13-13 or something similar as long as it is coarse
and slow dissolving. Sometimes I cover this fertilizer with a
thin layer of soil, sometimes not. The point here is this: do
not let your tropical lily go hungry during the peak summer growing
period. If you are using this heavy application of fertilizer,
it may result in some green water, but it will not hurt the lily.
Of course, very young plants and seedlings should not be given
the heavy dose of fertilizer recommended above.
I should mention here that I have always had a heavy hand
when it comes to fertilizing plants, both aquatic and terrestrial
but I have never managed to kill a mature waterlily by
giving it too much fertilizer!
So, if you want to maximize the color potential of your waterlily
flowers, keep a faithful feeding schedule, and remember that
a little too much fertilizer is preferable to too little.
TOTAL CHANGE OF COLOR IN A FLOWER
"My blue lily came up yellow this year!"
Some hobbyists will insist that their waterlily (or Iris,
or some other flowering plant) became a completely different
color when it resumed growth in the spring. While we may have
some differences of opinion on which color is purple or blue,
it is hard to argue with blue verses yellow. In the case of a
blue tropical waterlily "turning" yellow the following
spring, it is pretty obvious what has happened. A small rhizome
of a yellow hardy lily was growing in the same pot with the blue
tropical, but no one notices the difference in their leaves.
The tropical goes dormant in the fall and its leaves disappear.
The yellow hardy begins rapid growth in the spring, completely
overwhelming the dormant blue lily. Finally, that pot of lilies
begins to bloom, and behold! The blue lily "comes back"
People have claimed their Louisiana Iris changed color
in the spring
or their day blooming lily came back as
a night bloomer! In all these cases, a stray seed, tuber or rhizome
was present in the potting soil, and it was a more vigorous grower
than the original blooming plant. Nature takes its course, and
the strongest growing plant eventually takes over.
ACCURATE COLOR DESCRIPTIONS
We have already discussed that people have widely varying
vocabularies for describing colors, and that images of flowers
may not be color-true. The Royal Horticultural Society of England
has a very expensive set of color charts with each shade of a
color having its own number. One can fan out these cards next
to a flower, and find which number corresponds most closely to
the actual flower color. So, if you say the color is RHS 42,
anyone who has access to the same charts will know exactly which
shade of blue or red, etc., to which you are referring. Problem
is, without a color chart at your disposal, the color number
is meaningless. I often wonder if we would do just as well with
a full set of paint chips from a major paint manufacturer! Surely,
if someone said their flower was exactly the same color as the
paint chip "Orange Sherbet", we would have a pretty
good idea of the color by looking at our own identical set of
paint chips. Meantime, it seems that multiple adjectives, rather
than one-word colors, are more helpful in conveying an accurate
color description. Instead of saying "brown", we could
say "paper bag brown", or "chocolate pudding brown",
or "cinnamon brown". Just don't ask me to describe