Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
If chartreuse gets the distinction of “the new neutral,” then dare we describe purple foliage as the horticultural equivalent of the little black dress? Well, in my reality, work boots and a boonie hat are the perfect accessories for any outfit, so I’m on thin ice making fashion-related analogies. But I think I have a grasp of the theoretical concept of the LBD, as being perfect for almost any occasion because you can dress it up for drama or leave it unadorned for an effect of understated elegance. And if that’s right, then I’d say that those qualities definitely apply to purple foliage (like that of Pseuderanthemum atropurpureum ‘Rubrum’, above) as well.
Dark foliage is a natural addition to combinations featuring bright colors, adding a touch of moodiness that keeps the effect from getting too gaudy. Brilliant ‘Jacob Cline’ bee balm (Monarda) is one of my favorite reds, but even I’ll admit that it can be overwhelming in large amounts. Green companions don’t help, because they just make the red that much more intense; the same goes for silver or chartreuse, to my eye.
So most of the time, I pair ol’ Jake with purple-leaved partners, such as the lacy leaves of this seed-grown dahlia from the Bishop’s Children strain (above), or I give him a dark backdrop, such as ‘Velvet Cloak’ smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) below.
Now, I realize that some of you would disagree that orange looks good with anything. But I tend to think that it pairs with purple as well as red does. Below is ‘Sedona’ coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), which can appear rosy red, brick red, or peachy orange (or all three), depending on the weather, the age of the leaves, and the amount of sun it gets. I love it, but its variety of colors makes choosing good companions a challenge. Green and chartreuse foliage work well here, but purple is even better.
The partner shown in this photo is a terrific little tender perennial sold simply as Euphorbia ‘Flameleaf’. I haven’t found it locally for the last few years, but it looks like Glasshouse Works is still selling it. If any of you know it by another name, I’d be grateful for the info. Purple fountain grass (usually sold as Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) is another one of my favorites for dark leaves, all the more so because there are relatively few other solid purple-reds with grassy foliage.
In the August shot above, it’s paired with the rich orange of ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnias, as well as ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). Across the path from that combination is a mid-May pairing (shown below left) of the same ‘Velvet Cloak’ smokebush mentioned earlier, here paired with ‘Fireglow’ spurge (Euphorbia griffithii).
And below is a July combo of rich orange Dicliptera suberecta, yellow-leaved barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea’), and near-black Alternanthera dentata ‘Purple Knight’.
‘Vesuvius’ Arkwright’s campion (Lychnis x arkwrightii) includes both purple and orange on the same plant. The new growth is solid purple, but by bloom time, it’s mostly only on the stems.
This hardy perennial is showy surrounded by bright greens, as in the photo above, but I think it would have been even more dramatic with deep-purple partners to echo the stems. I’ll have to try that this year, perhaps with ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ sweet potato along the edge of the border. And behind it, maybe I’ll try red orach (Atriplex hortensis ‘Rubra’), as shown in the combinations below.
This upright foliage annual looks good with the orange-and-red of ‘Arizona Sun’ blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora), shown above. I also like the grouping below, with the contrasting rich petals and echoing deep purple centers of ‘Chim Chiminee’ coneflowers (Rudbeckia hirta).
Part 2 will show some other high-contrast options for purple pairings, but no more orange: I promise.