Story and Photos by Nebu
Purple: the color of kings and regality, of luxury, wealth, and sophistication. Purple invokes feelings of passion, romance, and sensitivity. Combine this mystically powerful color with trichome-crystal-encrusted buds, and you have such a gorgeously rare jewel that even the most jaded connoisseur’s jaw will drop as a severe Pavlovian response takes full effect upon their THC receptors. In two words, purple kind has BAG APPEAL. Just what is so captivating about purple buds? What factors are involved in the creation of these noble nugs?
History of the Color Purple
Purple is a very rare color in nature with a fascinating history in civilization. The earliest archaeological evidence for the origins of purple dyes points to the Minoan civilization in Crete, about 1900 BC. The ancient land of Canaan (its corresponding Greek name was Phoenicia, which means “land of the purple”) was the center of the ancient purple-dye industry.
“Tyrian Purple,” an ancient purple dye mentioned in texts dated from around 1600 BC, was produced from the mucus of the hypobranchial gland of certain species of marine mollusks. It took some 12,000 shellfish to extract 1.5 grams of pure dye. Legend has it that this discovery can be attributed to Herakles, or more precisely, to his dog, whose mouth became stained purple from eating snails along the Levantine coast. Mmmmm, purple escargot. Shortly thereafter, King Phoenix received a purple-dyed robe from Herakles, and decreed the rulers of Phoenicia should wear this color as a royal symbol.
Rome, Egypt, and Persia all used purple as the imperial standard color. Purple dyes were rare and expensive; only the rich had access to them. The purple colorants used came from different sources, most extracted from fish or insects. The imperial purple of Rome was based on the mollusk from which purpura originates. Aurelian, a third-century Roman emperor, refused to let his wife buy a purpura-dyed silk garment, as it cost its weight in gold. Today the same value is placed on cannabis, though this is due to the artificially inflated effects of prohibition on supply-and-demand economics.
Insect and snail-based colors were mentioned in the Bible for use in textile furnishings of the Tabernacle and for the sacred vestments for the High Priest Aaron. They also were used in King Solomon’s and King Herod’s temples in Jerusalem. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the use of Tyrian Purple also declined, and large-scale production ceased with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It was replaced by cheaper dyes such as lichen purple and madder root.
Pope Paul II in 1464 introduced the so-called “Cardinal’s Purple,” which was actually scarlet extracted from the kermes insect. This became the first luxury dye of the Middle Ages.
When Spain colonized Central and South America, dyes were exported extensively from both places. Among these were cochineal from Mexico and Peru.
The birth of the synthetic dye industry is attributed to the discovery of an aniline-based purple dye, called mauveine, by William H. Perkin in 1856. Perkin, an English chemist, accomplished this while searching for a cure for malaria, and is credited with changing the world of his time by making this purple color available to the masses. It became quite fashionable to wear clothing dyed with “mauve,” and Mr. Perkin became a very wealthy man. Today, genuine Tyrian Purple remains the domain of the rich.
If Emperor Aurelian were alive today, he might let his wife buy purple silk lingerie, but would likely say, “For the treasures of Rome, put that bong down, wife!” especially if her tastes in cannabis matched her color preference in silk. That is, unless he was skilled in the art of cannabis cultivation.
The origins of purple cannabis are as much of a mystery as the origins of the plant itself. However, purpling is as natural as the changing colors on the leaves of deciduous trees in autumn, which is attributed in part to the pigment anthocyanin. Anthocyanin expression is controlled by both genetic and environmental factors. Purpling is a simple dominant Mendelian trait, with quantitative expression.
Several pigments are responsible for color in plants: chlorophyll, carotene, xanthophyll, and anthocyanins. Chlorophyll is the pigment in chloroplasts of plants that reflects green light. Plants use the energy absorbed by chlorophyll in photosynthesis to produce food for their growth and development. It is continually broken down during photosynthesis and being replenished by the plant.
Carotene and xanthophyll are pigments that reflect orange and yellow light respectively. Both are present in the chloroplasts, with chlorophyll enabling the plant to absorb a wider range of wavelengths of light and thus capture more energy. These pigments are present in such small quantities that the more dominant chlorophyll typically masks them.
During flowering, with the passing of summer, days become shorter. The phytochromes, the light-sensing mechanisms in leaves, recognize the shorter day lengths. The shorter days and lower temperatures arrest chlorophyll production. Chlorophyll breaks down faster than it is replaced, allowing the yellow and orange pigments to be unmasked.
The molecules reflecting red wavelengths, anthocyanins, are water-soluble pigments that occur in the cell sap, creating the red, pink, and purple hues. These pigments may not be present during the summer, or vegetative cycle, but their formation is encouraged during a succession of cool nights and sunny days. During these days when photosynthesis and chlorophyll production are decreasing, an abundance of sugars accumulates in the leaf. The cool nights promote a separation layer of cells in the petiole—where the leaf attaches to the stem—that prevents sugar from flowing out of the leaf, and also arrests the flow of nutrients into the leaf. The formation of anthocyanin requires bright light, a diminishing water supply, and the accumulation of sugars trapped in the leaf.
Another factor that can cause purpling is nutrient deficiency, generally phosphorus. Although these stunted plants may bedazzle the novice, they are typically quite distinguishable from naturally occurring anthocyanin expression, due to the other visible adverse side effects of nutrient deficiency, such as leaf and bud malformation and low calyx-to-leaf ratios.
Genetics/Degrees of Purple
The discussion of Mendelian genetics, anthocyanin-expression traits and which genes at which loci influence them, mean and variance, and heritability in quantitative inheritance is beyond the scope here and will have to be left for a future article. However, there are easily observable indicators that aid in the quest for the purple kind.
The first degree of natural purpling in cannabis could be characterized as occurring exclusively in the leaves and petioles: the colors of autumn appearing in the fan leaves during cooler temperatures and close to harvest. The Akala hybrid is a beautiful example of the first stages in this level of purpling. The Akala is a four-way cross of a Northern Lights x Blueberry to a California indica x Hawaiian sativa. The aroma it produces is extremely pungent and skunky-sweet, smelling of spicy flowers and grapes with delicious buttery/toffee undertones. It has a very potent and extremely fast-acting high that is clear and energetic.
A more expressively first-degree purple hybrid, the Blue Ruskaya also responds to the same cooler environmental conditions, but, in addition to the fan leaves, the cola leaves also dominantly display its colors. The Blue Ruskaya is a “cherry phenotype” AK-47 x Bionic Blueberry hybrid that combines the power of its parentage in both taste and potency, with a uniquely sweet “cherry/berry” flavor and a stunning appearance.
In the search for purple hybrids, one factor to consider is, although purple leaves are pretty to look at during flowering, most of these are manicured away post harvest. With the onset of extensive purpling to the base of the bud leaves, we are beginning to gain some bag appeal, as the California-Orange and Blue Ruskaya nugs reveal.
The second degree is where purple begins to manifest beyond the leaves and on to the calyxes. The AB Hybrid is a jewel of an example of this level, purpling very dramatically in the leaves with splashes amongst the calyxes. We’re on to some serious bag appeal now! The AB Hybrid is a hermaphroditic cross between Emerald Triangle Funk and an old Oregon Purple indica/sativa hybrid. The taste is just dank and funky (inherited from the ET Funk). In fact, the particular AB Hybrid phenotype pictured has been appropriately dubbed “DAB,” an acronym for dank-ass bitch. However, this hybrid also possesses some very sweet, exotic perfume notes, and is so distinctive that it is quite difficult to put into words. “Smells like hippies,” some have said. Perhaps this is because of the combination of dank and incense. It definitely fills the room with its aroma, which lingers for hours.
Tasting of geraniums and cocoa, the Black Russian (a Blackberry x AK-47 hybrid) also falls into the second-degree category, but is unique in that the leaf largely remains green. It is the calyxes that are primarily affected, and these show purple from early flowering on through harvest even under extremely high temperatures, a trait for which it was bred from its Blackberry mum.
This brings us to the third and final degree of purpledom, the Blackberry. This rare phenotype exhibits a deep, dark purple bordering on black on all its calyxes (even nodal), under all circumstances except extreme high temperature, from the start of flowering through harvest. The Blackberry’s taste is as unique as its appearance, with scents all in the “high-note” range; tip of the tongue, if you will. There are no earthy, musky tones at all, but rather, elements of violets and opium with a slight antiseptic note. Even the trichomes of the Blackberry are purple, which makes extracting bubble hash a rewarding process, as both the water and the hash end up purple. (photos Blackberry nugs, BlackBerry bubble hash, Blackberry bubble H2O)
Therein lies the quest for cannabis breeders. As I raise a toast of vapor from purple bubble hash nested upon a bed of purple kind filtered through purple bubble water, I feel not unlike a king, and I decree: May the royal purple herb grace your garden, and may we all be blessed with life’s little luxuries.