Alice Walker’s fictional coming-of-age narrative The Color Purple has captivated audiences with memorable dialogue and heartfelt moments since the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel landed on bookshelves in 1982.
Written in the form of letters, the impassioned cultural sensation follows the life of Celie, a teenage Black girl in search of freedom beyond her troubled life in early 20th-century rural Georgia. The popular tale has been reimagined over the past four decades, beginning with the 1985 movie directed by Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg and starring Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. A musical version of Walker’s story premiered on Broadway in 2005, backed by Winfrey and record producer Quincy Jones. And now, a film adaptation of the musical is set to release this Christmas Day, featuring big vocal performances from actresses and singers Taraji P. Henson, Fantasia Barrino, H.E.R. and several others.
Self-discovery, sisterhood and spirituality are recognizable themes of the feminist poet’s era-defining title, but there’s one underlying element of The Color Purple that may not be as obvious to fans of the book and movie—nature.
In celebration of the new film, the Smithsonian Gardens, in partnership with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, hosted a webinar this month to unearth the nature-related themes of The Color Purple. Inspired by H. Hamilton Williams’ pioneering Black horticulture publication, Handbook of the Negro Garden Club of Virginia, the “Let’s Talk African American Gardens!” group sat down with plant influencer and Black in the Garden podcaster Colah B. Tawkin to discover the botanical literary motifs and plant-based symbolism woven into the tapestry of both the novel and the original film.
As the star-studded flick trends on news feeds and social media pages, here’s a look at a few botanical connections mentioned in The Color Purple to add to the national enthusiasm. The following are quotes from Walker’s storybook characters accompanied by analyses by Tawkin, along with Cottage in the Court podcaster and horticulturalist Teri Speight.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” fictional character Shug Avery says in the novel and film.
In this iconic movie scene, blues performer Shug Avery walking alongside her confidante Celie in a massive field of purple flowers. In the preface of the novel, Walker refers to herself as a “worshipper of Nature,” describing how as a child she was drawn to trees and wind outside of the church windows during Sunday service. The sharp-tongued words of Avery reveal the purpose of Walker’s narrative to connect spirituality to nature.
“If it is true that it is what we run from that chases us, then The Color Purple (this color that is always a surprise but is everywhere in nature) is the book that ran me down while I sat with my back to it in a field. Without the Great Mystery’s word coming from any Sunday sermon or through any human mouth, there I heard and saw it moving in beauty across the grassy hills,” Walker writes in the preface.
Tawkin, founder of national tree-planting nonprofit Underground Arborist, says Walker’s emphasis on the divinity of nature is why the novel exists.
“Cinematically, we saw them start in a field of purple flowers, and we saw them also end in a field of purple flowers,” Tawkin says in an interview. “Seeing them [purple flowers] there and then knowing that the title of the movie and the novel actually was derived from an observation that Shug Avery was making … I just love to know that there was a botanical origin to the story in just the title alone.”
In addition to lavender blossoms, Tawkin says the landscape of Celie’s gardens surrounding her—captured in a spectacular aerial view in the original film—also help demonstrate the importance of botany in Walker’s work.
This was an intentional detail that Tawkin says symbolizes Celie’s character evolution over a span of 20 years as she grows, heals and is ultimately reborn into an independent woman with confidence and self-esteem, despite the domestic abuse, poverty and societal hardships she’s forced to endure.
A flower that comes to symbolize Celie’s challenging self-exploration is the sunflower. “One of the most joyous moments from the movie is when Nettie [Celie’s sister] got to come and spend time with Celie,” says Tawkin.
“And they had this moment where there was no dialogue, but you saw the sunflowers pop up via personification of them,” she says. “Also, it’s a very beautiful cinematic illustration of them being joyful, and being innocent, and being at play. That was so significant considering what those two young Black girls were experiencing.”
“But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed,” Shug Avery says in the novel.
The comparison of people to trees is a reoccurring idea of The Color Purple. Avery—who despite the “Shug” nickname is really named after a lily flower in the novel—describes herself as being so deeply connected to saplings that she can feel whatever a tree feels. Speight, author of Black Flora: Profiles of Inspiring Black Flower Farmers + Florists, explains how this deep-rooted relationship with nature is an homage to African American culture, tradition and legacy.
“Big trees mean there is history there, and there’s a firmness of a foundation there,” Speight says in an interview.
Black American horticulture dates centuries back to their ancestors in Africa, who lived off the rich land of the continent.
According to Speight, people shipped to America in the trans-Atlantic slave trade smuggled grain and seeds from Africa into the United States for cultivation.
“If you dig through history, we stuck seeds in our hair when we were put on these boats that transferred us to a new land that we knew absolutely nothing about,” Speight continues. “We grew up on a continent that was blessed with warm weather, great soil and adequate rainfall, as far as we know, but when we were stolen, we put seeds in our hair, because we weren’t sure if we would ever see the motherland again, but we knew that we had to eat.”
The Washington, D.C.-based plant expert says the skill of gardening that she inherited from her parents is a part of her DNA. “We know how to grow things. We’ve always known how to grow things. We even grow community when given the fertile soil to do so,” she says. “So that’s what I mean when I say it’s in our DNA.”
“I smoke when I want to talk to God. I smoke when I want to make love. Lately I feel like me and God make love just fine anyhow. Whether I smoke reefer or not,” Celie says in the novel.
The power of flowers to promote healing and emotional relief is also expressed in Walker’s multifaceted novel. This moment from the book is a breath of comedic relief for readers as fictional characters Celie, outspoken Sofia and her husband Harpo make funeral arrangements for Sofia’s mother.
Tawkin, in the Smithsonian webinar, explains how Celie was in desperate need of a “botanical escape.”
“It unveils a nuanced exploration of the herbal escape from Celie’s experience with trauma and oppression. The mention of ‘something that makes you feel good’ suggests a coping mechanism, and a form of herbal remedy that helps Celie find solace and relief,” Tawkin says. “The plot implies a connection with joy and sensuality that might be absent from Celie’s everyday life.”
Plant-based medicine, Speight says, and the use of gardening as a restorative healing process is a part of Black heritage.
“The women of The Color Purple, and in life African American women, we go through some stuff. They went through some major stuff, and yet they still found time to put a little bit of beauty in their lives by gardening. … The gardens have always been a place where we could find common ground and heal,” Speight says.
In keeping with the tradition of both the novel and the original film, movie trailers promoting the upcoming new movie provide assurance that fans of The Color Purple are in for a lush experience of towering trees, draping greenery and, of course, signature purple flowers.