The Gothic History of Periwinkle

I always found this name to be a funny name for a colour. Then I tried to think why was this particular colour called periwinkle. There had to be an interesting backstory about the history of periwinkle and there is. People most likely see this colour as a nice spring pastel blue. There’s a deep history of use and symbolism that comes from the growth place of the plant.

The colour name comes from the flower periwinkle. The word describes how the plant grows. It’s from the 12th-century English word “parvink”, the Old English word “perwince” and the Latin word “pervinca.” The breakdown of the word means “entwine” or “bind.” There are many names for the periwinkle plant because there are many subspecies of the plant. For example, vinca majors are also known as blue periwinkles and vinca minor is known as creeping myrtles. The flower grows like a thick carpet on a forest floor wraparound trees that love the shade. It is a groundcover plant that protects topsoil from erosion. It can easily grow in most conditions. The flower shape has five points like a star.

The plants are poisonous. They cause nausea and vomiting when ingested due to naturally occurring toxic alkaloids. It was once known for medicinal folklore in medieval times used as an ointment and to treat hemorrhages. The flowers were used for their acrid, astringent and tonic properties in early medicine.

It’s an invasive plant species originating from Europe in the 1700s as an ornamental plant, now found in Canada, the U.S.A., New Zealand and Australia. When it grows it can choke off other plant growth. There are two types of periwinkles. The light grey blue (sometimes very pale purple) periwinkle is the groundcover periwinkle that can grow in the shade. The pink-purple periwinkle is the annual periwinkle that grows mostly in sunlight. They are two different plants with similar names.

HEX Code of Periwinkle Blue

There are other names of periwinkle, for example, the French phrase, “poule-de-roche” means “Rock Dove.” The moniker was for the blue resembling the colour of a dove’s feathers. The plant goes by other names like the Devil’s Eye, Joy on the Ground, violette des sorciers (fr. Sorcerer’s violet), unsterblichkeit (de. Flower of Immortality) and Fiore di morte (it. death’s flower.)

The plant is known as the “Death Flower” because it often grew in cemeteries. They were often grown as bedding flowers as an ornamental plant for a damaged and missing marker. In Italy and England, the flowers were woven onto hairbands for children’s funerals. In medieval England, the flowers were made into garlands for condemned men sent to the gallows for execution.

“Crowned one with laurel leaves hye on his head set other with pervink made for the giblet.”

A medieval English rhyme

The tale of Sir Simon Fraser in 1306 was of an ex-Scottish knight of Oliver and Neidpath who fought in the First War of Independence for Scotland. He was hunted down and killed after King Edward of England (Edward I of England) ordered any supporter of King Robert the Bruce (Robert I, King of Scots) to be executed. When he was executed by being drawn and quartered on September 8, 1306. He wore a garland of periwinkles on his head for public mockery. His family crest was five periwinkle flowers. His head was impaled on a spike on London Bridge alongside William Wallace’s head (one of the main leaders of the First War of Independence for Scottland, think Braveheart (1994).)

Periwinkle growth in an old cemetery. Photo: Dreamstime.

In witchcraft practices, periwinkle flowers are set to banish negative energy and restore mental clarity. Periwinkle allegedly protects people against evil spirits, the devil and demons, and necromantic magic. Periwinkle was also used to make charms and love-philtres.

‘Perwynke when it is beate unto pouder with worms of ye earth wrapped about it and with an herbe called houslyke, it induceth love between man and wyfe if it bee used in their meales . . . if the sayde confection be put in the fyre it shall be turned anone unto blue coloure.’

The Boke of Secretes of Albartus Magnus of the Vertues of Herbs, Stones and certaine Beastes

In Welch folklore, if you plucked the flower from a grave it will bring you bad luck and have you haunted by the grave’s owner.

The flowers symbolized calmness, serenity and peace. It also symbolized winter, ice, blossoming friendships, sentimental memories and everlasting love. Its most symbolic meaning is existence throughout eternity, extending your time with who you love. In Christian art, it symbolized the virtue of chastity. Most wedding receptions during the Gothic period had the bride and groom wear a wreath of periwinkle to symbolize eternal love and rulers in their own households because they are linked to evergreen plants.


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Banner Credit: Purple and pink flowers – Unsplash
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