Colors used in The Compleat Botanica
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Colors used in The Compleat Botanica

The beauty in plants is often brought to its peak by color. Sometimes intense but more frequently subtle, the colors in bark, leaves, flowers, and fruit is usually the first thing we notice about a new plant. Describing color is hard to do because we have so few words to describe the continuous visible spectrum. Often the very best words such as chartreuse, turquoise, or vermillion are not understood by everyone. Other borrowed words like cinnamon and egg-yolk are evocative but imprecise. And who knows what navy-blue, barn-red and sea-green really mean?

Each paint manufacturer uses its own set of color chips and proprietary mixing schemes, so attempts to piggy-back off their efforts are futile. Computers use a hexadecimal system to cause monitors to fire cathode-ray tubes with different mixtures of red, green and blue thus producing a discrete set of colors. Computer printers use a similar system to mix dyes on paper. These systems produce similar results but are unfortunately subject to manufacturing differences.

The Maerz and Paul �Dictionary of Color� published in 1957 used a color scheme composed of 84 color patches beginning with the yellows (1:cream, 2:mimosa, 3:canary, 4:buttercup yellow) and continuing through the greens (81:lettuce green, 82:moss green, 83:fern green, 84:olive green). These are fun names, but can you guess what they look like? In this scheme plants were identified by number with three modifiers: + to indicate a darker shade, - to indicate a lighter tint, and x to indicate a blend of two colors.

In 1976, the US National Bureau of Standards published a list containing 7,500 color names and their definitions.  See "Color: Universal Language and Dictionary of Names", U.S. Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards, NBS Special Publication 440, 1976.  This is weighty stuff; too cumbersome to be useful for plantsmen.

Overall, the best system for the description of plant colors is the one developed by The Royal Horticultural Society. In use since 1966 and updated most recently in 2001, this system is the standard among serious botanists. The RHS Colour Chart is composed of four fans. Each fan contains approximately one quarter of the 221 sheets. Each sheet contains four color patches labeled A, B, C, and D. The complete chart is composed of 884 colors.

To obtain the RHS Colour Chart write to:

RHS Garden
Surrey, UK GU23 6QB

or send e-mail to The approximate cost is �117.50.

See also

   Soil types used in The Compleat Botanica

   Climate zones used in The Compleat Botanica

   Checklist of botanical names used in The Compleat Botanica

   Sample database citations

   Fragrance classifications used in The Compleat Botanica

   Distribution classifications used in The Compleat Botanica

   Citations and references

Last reviewed January 26, 2004   


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