by Nan DeGrove

Nan Hollyhock

A garden is a perfect alchemical laboratory. We work with earth, water, wind and sun, moderating the extremes of nature’s whims where we can, and coaxing beauty out of often rocky, stubborn soil. The aim of alchemy was, through a series of steps, to change something ordinary, even ugly, into something rare and beautiful: lead into gold, but not in the literal, material sense. “Our gold, claimed the alchemists of the Renaissance, is not the common gold.”

Color is basic to alchemical symbolism, as colors symbolize stages of transformation, which occur not once, but many times, in the garden as well as in the gardener’s soul. As I have gazed at the color schemes in my garden, some planned, most not, I’ve thought of how the colors work to inspire, excite, calm, heal and balance.

Nan petunia

Black is the beginning stage of alchemical work. It represents going inward into the subconscious, like a seed in the earth. The work begins in the dark. Retreat and solitude awaken the soul. Black flowers are exotic; they speak of mystery and have something of a hypnotic effect with their hidden depths. They are not completely black, of course, but a rich aubergine. The black hollyhocks and petunias bring a quiet balance to the bright yellows and pinks of a summer garden.

Nan datura

Alchemy strives to unite opposites, and the black, or “lead” phase is followed by the white, or silver stage. White represents illumination; what was unearthed in darkness becomes illuminated. Silver light is like moonlight ─ soft, not glaring. White flowers in the garden are like the white highlights of a painting. They brighten other colors and, best of all, cast a spell of beauty at night. Some, like the mystical datura, bloom only at night.

Nan poppies

Red is the third stage and is considered to be the transmutation into gold. It is the color of blood, the essence of life, of the heart and of passion. Red flowers are often the ones that attract the most pollinators and hummingbirds. They pulsate with life and energy. At this stage white, associated with the Moon, is joined with red, the Sun, resulting in the marriage of opposites.

An alchemical transformation in the garden, or in life, may occur over years, happen in a day, or an hour, when a leaden mood turns to gold. Any garden, large or small, is a sacred space where transformation is endless, and the opposite forces of dark and light, life and death, Sun and Moon, are in motion.

Nan De Grove is a gardener, painter and astrologer. She writes the monthly full-moon column for The Lore of the Garden, as well as other occasional contributions. She can be reached at