Using Purple in the Garden

Follow these keys to understanding the harmonious use of purple in the garden.
By: Maureen Gilmer
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The high-performance Wave petunias produce an intense purple on fast-growing annual bedding plants. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

The high-performance Wave petunias produce an intense purple on fast-growing annual bedding plants. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

Barney the dinosaur's color was not chosen serendipitously. Studies show 75 percent of pre-adolescent children prefer purple to any other color. Some home-shopping channel demographics prove customers in general clearly prefer purple-colored products. And purple mood lights are believed to enhance creativity both at home and at the office.

Purple is perhaps the most intriguing color because it has two faces. It runs hot and cold. It is the high-frequency child of two primary colors.

Combining fire red and cool ocean blue can result in ultraviolet, which da Vinci clearly preferred when tackling his most challenging projects. When the two primaries merge to form purple, there is a range of hues divided by the emphasis on one or the other primary parent. The red-purples will be warm and vibrant--seen as more energetic to the human eye. The blue-purples are subdued and seen as peaceful and contemplative.

Nowhere else but in the garden does the full range of hot and cold purples appear. Merely looking for a purple flower can vastly over-simplify a very complex set of hues. If you become aware of the two temperatures, it will provide you a far more powerful grasp of color in garden design. It will also help you train your eye to recognize these subtle differences.

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SHNS_YardSmart10_10a

Heliotrope blossoms are the cool purple on the blue end of the spectrum. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

Heliotrope blossoms are the cool purple on the blue end of the spectrum. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

Above all you want to strive for harmony in your flower-color palettes. Those combinations that are not harmonious will affect you in two ways. First, the colors may be so understated that they are dull or even boring. On the other hand, colors that are overstated or combined without consideration of each may appear chaotic. Essentially these will either put you to sleep or drive you nuts.

The color wheel is vital to understanding the harmonious use of purple in the garden. Directly across the wheel from the purples are lime green and yellow. These are complementary colors that when paired with the purples create a dynamic contrast that really brings out the best qualities of both hues.

While lavender and magenta are common colors in nature, true purples are not. Nature uses purple sparingly, almost as an afterthought. If used carefully in precise locations relative to other colors, you can create dynamic results.

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SHNS_YardSmart10_10c

Lamium is grown as a foliage plant, but its vivid purple blossoms stand in striking contrast to silver foliage. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

Lamium is grown as a foliage plant, but its vivid purple blossoms stand in striking contrast to silver foliage. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

Red-purple is the complement of yellow green or lime green. Blue-purple's complement is canary yellow. If you were to create purple flowers in a field of green foliage, the purples would be gobbled up by the greens. But when you use these purples with their complements to create three hues in a palette of green, yellow and purple, there is a harmonious combination.

You can also explore analogous colors. These are colors that match. You'll find analogous colors contiguous on the color wheel. For example, red, orange and yellow are analogous.

When using purples, your analogous hues will be different for each one. The analogous range for red-purple would be red and orange. This gives you a hot-colored palette for flowers that work with that type of purple.

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The iris is one of the most reliable and intense plants for purple blossoms. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

The iris is one of the most reliable and intense plants for purple blossoms. (SHNS photo courtesy Maureen Gilmer)

When using a blue-purple, the analogs would be blue and turquoise or green. This is the start of a cool-colored palette bouncing off that blue-based purple.

With a new knowledge of the two purples and how they relate to other colors, you will have the basis for a great garden. It tells you how to choose plants by color, and it dictates that you choose those that bloom at the same time to achieve the desired results. A plant that blooms purple in May will not benefit from a complementary yellow daisy that flowers in August. Getting bloom time, color and size just right is the formula for picture-perfect color-garden design.

So if you love purple, use it with aplomb and flair. Paint it with full knowledge of its two faces. Then celebrate with flowers of this same hue of passion reserved for pharaohs, priests and patriarchs.

Purple Plant Photos

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Dahlia

Introduced in the 1940s, dahlia 'Thomas Edison' still adds splashes of bright purple to modern landscapes. Dahlias can take full sun, although Southern gardeners may need to give them afternoon shade. They're available in a range of sizes, from 10-20" up to 5' tall. Depending on the species, some dahlia tubers will die when the ground gets cold. You can treat them as annuals and replace them each year, or dig up the tubers and store them for the winter.

Photo By: Longfield Gardens

Verbena

Verbenas are great plants for summer gardens, able to tolerate both heat and drought. They thrive even in poor soils, as long as they have full sun and soil that drains easily. When the blooms slow down, trim the plants to encourage more flowers. Most annual verbenas grow 6-18” tall. Perennial types, which tend to be short-lived, grow best in Zones 5 and above. ‘Santos Purple,’ pictured here, spreads up to 12 inches.

Photo By: PanAmerican Seed

Gladiolus

Gladiolus are popular flowers for cutting gardens. You’ll find them in a variety of colors and in sizes that range from 2-6’ tall. Plant the corms in loose, well-drained soil that gets plenty of sun, and stake any tall stems that might be toppled by the wind. Once the flowers fade, cut off the stalks but leave the foliage, so the corms can store energy for the next growing season. Glads should be dug and stored in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 or colder.

Photo By: bulb.com

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)

Lo & Behold ‘Purple Haze’ Buddleia (butterfly bush) produces fragrant, purple-blue flowers that start in mid-summer and continue until frost. It needs full sun and is hardy to Zone 5. While butterfly bushes provide nectar for adult butterflies, you may want to grow host plants for their caterpillars, too. Your county extension service agent can tell you what kind of plants to grow.

Photo By: ProvenWinners.com

Calla Lily

Elegant calla lilies are popular in wedding bouquets. In the garden, they’re undemanding plants that thrive in well-worked soil and sun. In warm climates, they can take part shade. Callas sold in gift pots often wind up in the compost pile after the flowers fade, but the bulbs are perennials and can be planted outdoors. Hardy in Zones 7-10, the plants can grow 24-36 inches.

Photo By: Bulb.com

Viola

Cheerful violas can tolerant a light frost, which makes them good candidates for early spring gardens. They take full sun to part shade, although they usually stop blooming or die when the weather heats up. (If you live where the winters are warm, your violas may keep blooming into spring.) These sweet flowers grow about 6-10” tall and make pretty companions for spring bulbs like early daffodils. Shown here: ‘Sorbet Purple’ viola.

Photo By: PanAmerican Seed

Angelonia

Angelonias, sometimes called summer snapdragons, have a sweet scent reminiscent of grapes or apples. Angelface 'Wedgewood Blue' is usually treated as an annual since it’s hardy only in Zones 10-11. This sun-lover tops out at 18-30” tall and blooms until frost. Wait until the weather is reliably warm to plant angelonias in your garden.

Photo By: ProvenWinners.com

Heuchera

Heucheras, also known as coral bells, are ideal for partly shaded to shaded spots. Dolce ‘Wildberry’ is an eye-catching perennial that forms mounds of glossy, purple leaves. Expect it to grow 10-14” tall; it’s winter hardy in Zones 4-9. Heucheras produce bell-shaped flowers that attract hummingbirds, although most gardeners value them for their colorful foliage.

Photo By: ProvenWinners.co,

Purple Basil

After you’ve admired the purplish-bronze leaves of ‘Purple Basil’ in your garden, snip a few to add spice to salads. Basils can take part shade but grow best in full sun. Depending on the variety, these herbs grow 12-24” tall. They’re tender annuals that die when the temperatures drop, although some gardeners pot up their plants to overwinter indoors.

Photo By: Van Chaplin/Bonnie Plants

Tulip

Bold purple tulips wake up beds and borders. 'Yume No Murasaki' is a lily-flowered type that lasts a long time in the garden or when it's cut for bouquets. It loves full sun and well-drained soil. On warm, bright days, when the blooms are wide open, you can peek in and see a spot of white in their throats. It's hardy in USDA Zones 3-7.

Photo By: Colorblends.com

Lavender

Snip a few stems of fragrant, purple lavender to dry for potpourris or tie into sweet-smelling bundles. These deer-resistant herbs take full sun and don’t need rich soil. They dislike high humidity, so while most lavenders are hardy in Zones 5-9, Southerners may need to grow them as annuals or in containers. This variety, 'Ellagance Purple', matures at 12-14” tall and has silvery-grey leaves.

Photo By: PanAmerican Seed

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit: www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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