poetry and prose about place

harvesting colour – the chemistry of colour

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I have done a lot of reading this week, mostly to brush up on some basic chemistry in preparation for my project on using plant dyes.


It took me a couple of years in university to discover that chemistry was not my forté.  I loved the mathematics of first year inorganic chemistry but I met my match with organic chemistry in my second year.  I came to the conclusion that chess, music theory and organic chemistry have something in common … Jane cannot win a chess match against a cat.  Jane cannot transpose music. And Jane cannot figure out elimination and substitution reactions in organic chemistry.  I did try.


In spite of my theoretical difficulties, I loved the labs in chemistry.  Creating little quantities of limonene and caffeine and aspirin was fun.  And I loved the visuals of the chemistry lab – the colours of the various chemicals, the architecture of the glassware and the various drips and sizzles and, occasionally, puffs of smoke.


My first introduction to chemistry lab was a simple titration demonstration, showing a way to use the colour of an indicator to determine an unknown concentration.  It seemed magic as I swirled the flask and watched for the solution to change its colour from clear to pink.  I saw the parallels to botany right away.  Today, I never look at a shrub of Hydrangea without thinking about the connection between the colour of the flowers and the acidity of the soil.  Alkaline soils promote pink flowers.  Increased acidity makes more aluminum available to the plant and the flowers turn blue as the aluminum associates with the plant pigment anthocyanin.  These are the kinds of interactions I expect to see in my dyeing projects.


And so, here is my first offering of poetry in the theme of ‘harvesting colour’.  It is not about dyeing fabric, but explores the idea of colour change as a metaphor for trying to understand human emotion.




                 – to determine the concentration of an unknown solution, we watch for change


all summer she sits, the sag of a meniscus

on the stair of the veranda, tucked,

at the start-point of the burette,

into stems of hydrangea


mopheads droop and rain adjusts

the soil, basic to acidic, drop by drop

pink petals turn violet

first titration always an estimate


as the corymb favours blue, we realise –

basic words and helpful anecdotes will not be

enough, the situation is complex, not merely a matter

of pH, but the interaction, aluminum with anthocyanin


titration demands a practiced hand, a careful

eye to mark the end-point when colour prevails

and makes sad chemistry, on the last day of August

when hydrangea succumbs to blue




detail of Aug. 10, 2013 `hydrangeas, Carlyon Bay` Jane Tims


Copyright  2014  Jane Tims

Written by jane tims

March 7, 2014 at 3:35 pm

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