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Yellow coloring matter contained in the leaves of trees in autumn. — Webster, 1882

How curious it seems, and strange / That poets should be raving still / Of autumn tints. It’s just the change / From chlorophyll to xanthophyll. – The State (Columbia, South Carolina), October 28, 1921

Xanthyphyll is a plant pigment responsible for the yellow and brown coloring in autumn leaves. See the yellow autumn leaves in the navigation button photo that brought you to this page, taken by Janilyn Kocher and used with permission. Xanthophyll is also found in most green plants, and plays a part in the process of photosynthesis, whereby plants convert the energy in sunlight into chemicals used to fuel the plant’s growth. The yellow, red, and orange colors of carotenoids, of which xanthophyll is an example, are masked by the green chlorophyll pigments until these are lost in the autumn. Although not specifically mentioned in Little House in the Big Woods, when Caroline Ingalls uses a grated carrot to “color” the pale winter cream that is churned into butter, she does so because the cow is unable to eat fresh, green grass which would supply xanthophyll naturally.

But let’s face it. The reason Little House fans are the least bit curious about xanthophyll is because it’s one of the spelling-bee words in Little Town on the Prairie (see Chapter 18, “Literaries”). Charles Ingalls “spells down” the whole school by besting Mr. Foster, a brilliant speller who nevertheless misses the tricky ending of xanthophyll. In the manuscript for Little Town, however, Mr. Foster isn’t mentioned, and the spellers who miss the word prior to Pa’s winning attempt are Almanzo Wilder, then Laura!

As a Little House completest, I always wanted to find an old spelling book with xanthophyll in it, if there really was such a thing. Pa’s “blue-back speller” didn’t have it, but after searching for years, I found one back in 1998: Thomas Edmondson’s The Spelling Bee Manual for Competitors, Comprising a Selection of Upwards of 6000 Scientific and Other Difficult Words, published in London in 1876. (To show how long ago this was, I had to communicate with the university who had the copy in the U.K. via snail mail, and they mailed me a copy of the page with the word on it, but nothing more.) I don’t know for sure that there was an actual spelling bee in De Smet, that someone had this book, and that it was used, but I’d like to think so. It’s known that the Literary Society in neighboring Lake Preston had a spelling bee in 1882, but the early De Smet newspapers weren’t archived to consult. The Edmondson speller has been scanned and put online; you can read/download it HERE.

The fact that Laura thinks about the ending of the word Grecophil with it’s -il ending is exactly the way that spelling is approached in the Edmonson speller, which organizes words in the later part of the book by prefixes, root words, and suffixes, always showing exceptions to any rule. The book itself lists words alphabetically instead of by difficulty, unlike what Wilder implied in the speller used by Mr. Clewitt at the spelling bee, as he seems to give easier words from the front of the speller, proceeding to harder words at the back.

I wonder if Laura and Pa were able to spell steganopods, boustrophedon, and thaumaturgy, all found on the same page as xanthophyll…


xanthophyll (LTP 18), see also spelling / speller