My friend is mourning a cedar tree she passes each day on her way to work. The droopy foliage has abruptly turned orange, an indication the tree has died, perhaps of infection with cedar apple rust or another disease or just due to a peculiarly hot and dry summer. I don’t know the tree she is describing. It is likely the native western red cedar, Thuja plicata, and named for the color of the lumber harvested from the tree, or it could be an introduced cultivar such as arborvitae. What is not in doubt is that the tree has died and it is bright orange. Orange is not a color most people would associate with death. It is a juicy hue.
Orange as a color name entered English in the sixteenth century but the color had always existed, of course, and had previously been called “yellow-red,” ġeolurēad in Old English. The word itself traces its lineage from fourteenth century English, back to Old French or perhaps Spanish through the Arabic nāranj, the Persian nārang, and eventually to the Sanskrit nāranga, meaning orange tree, a word that might derive from an even earlier word meaning fragrant. Our word for the color orange and the fruit have an ancient co-existence, but the citrus fruit came first.
There are synthetic citrus flavors and scents. In fact, lemon and lime and orange are among the easiest flavors and scents to synthesize. What is complicated and thus wonderful about the real orange is the cut wedge of fruit, pockets of juice sliced through and dripping, teeth biting into those tapered slices of juice, the flavor running across the tongue, down the throat and chin. The sticky, flavorful residue, then taking a strip of orange peel and folding it inside out to rupture the cells in the peel, and the mist of orange oil visible in the air. No chemical creation matches that experience, and no synthetic scent lasts as long as the real thing.
The citrus family includes limes, lemons, mandarins, pomelos, grapefruit, as well as oranges. The actual colors or peel and pulp range from the green of limes to the ruddy maroon of blood oranges. I am a fan of all these fruits. In Paolo Bacigalupi’s much-lauded bio-punk science fiction novel, The Windup Girl, the entire family of citrus fruit trees have been killed off by a virus and the younger generation has no idea what they are missing. This was one of the most striking images I found early in the novel. Imagine all the citrus in the world gone, never to return! How would I explain to my grandchildren the taste of an orange, what one was like? Describe eating the pulp out of a quartered orange and how I placed the emptied peel in my mouth to make an orange smile when I was nine. Imagine generations of children never able to do that in real life.
I could not explain that.
The orange fruit is a symbol of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and of weddings in many cultures.. The House of Orange, Huis van Oranje-Nassau of Netherlands was founded in the sixteenth century by William the Silent or William of Orange. But the color does not appear on the royal coats of arms, which shows blue, red and yellow. None of those old royal coats of arms include orange, though many use its components, red and yellow—no mixing of those primaries allowed. Orange is a secondary color on the painter’s palette, primary only in flames.
Orange is the color of settled-down-for-the-evening driftwood fires and of sunsets over the sea. Unlike sunrises which most often tint clouds pink, the sunsets in my sky are livid orange, glowing coals settled along the horizon. “Red” hair is orange. Orange is the color of many flowers such as the the six-petaled Montbretia and the darker orange crocosmia, a variety named “Lucifer,” that naturalize locally, and the many-petaled daisy-like British Calendula, used since the middle ages to control fever and heal wounds. There is the dust of burned ferrous oxide, oxidized iron, what we call rust, FeO. Gone with the Wind’s “red earth of Tara” is not red, but ruddy orange from iron oxide in the soil. The first time I visited Georgia, I was thrilled to see this orange-blushed soil.
An article in Forbes cites research suggesting that warm colors such as orange can create an illusion of physical warmth, and that orange in particular is associated with good value—not moral values, but monetary ones. Maybe that’s why so many sale stickers are orange. It is also likely that orange is one of the more striking colors, a noticeable color, unlike green or blue or neutrals that might fade into the background. Orange is the color of warning signs and labels. A color we might find untrustworthy. Orange is often called bright. Add white to it and orange becomes a tender different fruit: peach or apricot. Orange darkened with black morphs into a shade we label brown, but few people associate pale peach and brown with orange in the same way they recognize sky and navy as a tint and shade of the same blue.
A little smoke and some white turns orange into a discontinued Pratt and Larson paint color called Caravan. We painted a bedroom in Seattle that color and then our bedroom in Oregon the same hue. This pastel owed nothing to baby shades, more to stucco walls, tropical fruit, pale carnelian, the bottoms of baby feet. A paler tint of flicker’s flight feathers, life rafts, sweet and sour sauce, colors screaming for attention. Caravan lifts the eye without compelling attention.
I feel juice sliding down my chin from a slice of peach pie—I think more often of food than of warning when I think of orange.
A name for the color orange does not even exist in many languages. All languages identify the sky as blue, blood as read, but like the red-yellow of Old English, orange is the least likely hie to have its own label in hundreds of languages around the world. But oranges! Those luscious fruits dripping across my tongue—the flavor and scent is unmistakable. The tongue and eye know orange even without words. Orange as a name comes from flavor.
The cliché of orange is Halloween pumpkins and autumn leaves. But pumpkins, born in Mexico not in New England, come in many shades. And the maple trees we watch for on our morning drive turn pale yellow in the fall or maroon if the nights are cold. The colors we might expect are oranges I find in agates and scallop shells, daylight in the late afternoon shining through ears, the wooden beads on my son’s camp necklace, the teacup filled with markers, my favorite handknit sweater. the spines of Penguin Books, cantaloupe flesh and copper wire, a spool of thread, chrysanthemums and bittersweet and witch hazel blossoms, the inner bark of alder trees cleaved by an ax, Chantrelle mushrooms I find in the duff of spruce glades and the bright shade of salmon eggs further upstream, ground chili and turmeric, carrots and caution signs, traffic cones, a dying leaf. The death of a cedar tree. The famous cedar tree, “Quinault Lake Redcedar” that lived due north of us, was killed recently in a series of winter storms. Less than two hundred feet tall, the was impressive for its nineteen foot girth rather than more unexceptional height. Maybe it turned orange as it died, but I did not witness that warning.
Orange may be a sign of trouble, but I prefer its more common role: the sweet, sharp, sticky, sour, succulent, salty sweetness of day’s end cry of joy.