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These are the first two in a series of stories about the color purple in honor of Kansas State University's founding on Feb. 16, 1863. To see the rest of the series, check for updates.


Ask Steven Maxwell what the color purple means and his answer is simple: turn the volume to 11 and open your mind, because purple is rock and roll in its prime.

"Artistically purple is a descriptive word, and I think that's why it's been adopted by some successful acts in the music world," said Maxwell, assistant professor of music at Kansas State University.

In 2008 Maxwell created a class about the history of rock and roll, where he teaches about the genre's evolution and its relationship to history.

"The really cool thing about rock and roll is that it ties into the American culture and really reflects what's going on in the country," Maxwell said. "It serves as the voice of the common person and has been associated with some important historical moments in the U.S. It was a part of that voice in the civil rights movement in the '60s and used in protest of the Vietnam War in the '70s."

Rock music's history runs purple, with the color being adopted by some of the most influential musicians.

"Think of the deeper concept of what a song like 'Purple Haze' means, especially when it first came out," Maxwell said. "The late '60s was all about looking at things differently. Jimi Hendrix perfectly captured that psychedelic era in the country, that time of opening the doors of perception in one's mind and really looking at something on a deeper level."

He said the "purple" Hendrix is referring to is that new, unknown, almost analogous way of thinking.

"Metaphorically, purple was a blend between the standardized 'primary colors' introduced by mainstream society in the 1950s and mid-1960s," Maxwell said.

Other artists, such as Deep Purple and Prince, adopted the color because of its ambiguity in the musical soundscape and pop culture.

Deep Purple was one of the pioneers of hard rock and heavy metal, Maxwell said. The group was the first rock band to record with a full Concerto orchestra, as well as the first to turn the volume to 11, a feat earning them the title of the world's loudest band by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1972.

And then there's the song "Smoke on the Water."

"When that song came out it was such a fresh thing," Maxwell said. "No longer was the focus just on the lyrics. That guitar riff made the music as important as the words. Today most people don't remember the lyrics, but they know that guitar lick."

In 1984 Prince released "Purple Rain," an album that took the newly introduced music video to the next level as a full-length film.

The album also introduced Prince's backing band. The Revolution, an apt title due to the soundtrack's revolutionary nature, Maxwell said. The album has since been seen as an avant-garde piece of work and has been named one of the greatest albums of all time by outlets like Time magazine, Rolling Stone, VH1 and others.

"Purple's taking the softness of blue, the loudness of red, and meeting in the middle to make things a little ambiguous. It's a blend of those two primary colors and is therefore a different way of looking at things," he said.


Purple flowerKansas State University isn't the only place where the color purple rules. In the plant world, many plants are defined by their purple color.

Jason Griffin, associate professor of nursery crops and director of K-State Research and Extension's John C. Pair Horticultural Center in Wichita, says the importance of the color purple in plants is measured not only in ecological and evolutionary impact, but also by its pleasing appearance.

"From a human perspective, we love purple plants," he said. "Purple is one of the most popular flower colors, yet one of the rarest colors in fruit and foliage."

A great amount of research has investigated the synthesis of purple and how to manipulate it, Griffin said. The color is highly desirable in flowering landscape plants. Purple foliage plants, despite their rarity, are extremely popular. The green leaves of autumn give way to red, orange and yellow. However, a few lucky species will turn a shade of purple, which is rare in the fall color palette.

"Purple is both rare yet highly sought after by consumers and landscape professionals alike," he said.

The color purple also functions as a guide for pollinators. Flowers of many species have purple stripes on their petals, which are called nectar guides. These guides clearly lead toward the reproductive structure, or center, of the flower, increasing the chances for pollination, according to Griffin.

Purple seed, pods and other forms of fruit then influence the reproductive cycle. The color purple will attract herbivores, which consume the seed and deposit it elsewhere.

"So in this case, purple helps distribute the species across the landscape," Griffin said. 

Purple foliage can most easily be explained by genetic mutation, he said. Humans then artificially reproduce the foliage for ornamental purposes. Typically, purple foliage provides little benefit to the plant. Most botanists feel if there were an evolutionary advantage in having purple foliage, purple leaves wouldn’t be so rare.

"We would be surrounded by purple plants," Griffin said.  

But the popularity and capabilities of purple plants set them apart from any others.

"In many ways, the ability of a plant to produce a purple color gives it a distinct advantage. Humans will cultivate it, eliminate any competition, ensure it reaches maximum reproductive potential, and even disperse its seed for it -- often over great distances," he said.