Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Purple foliage lends itself so well to high-contrast plant pairings that it seems almost a waste to try it in quieter combinations. In my garden, this usually happens only by accident: The purple foliage is there waiting for the bright flowers to do their thing, and it ends up looking good with another leafy partner. Well, I’m inclined to enjoy beauty where I find it, and these unplanned pleasures often delight me more than my carefully considered pairings.
Above is a little vignette of ‘Husker Red’ foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) next to Trifolium rubens (an ornamental clover), with some Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’) at the bottom. In this image, the penstemon is a week or two away from flowering, after which it loses most of the purple in the leaves, but this little corner is quite pretty until then.
Below is a somewhat longer-lasting combination in the same bed, of ‘Velvet Cloak’ smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) underplanted with ‘Iron Cross’ oxalis (Oxalis tetraphylla). It’s shown here in late June of 2007, just before the rosy pink flowers of the oxalis really got going, and while the new growth of the cut-back smokebush was in its richest color. Once the smokebush shoots elongated, the scene wasn’t quite as tidy and color-rich, but by then, showier combinations were firing around it to steal the show.
Below is a wider shot of that bed, also taken in late June but two years earlier. I had a canna in place of the oxalis, but overall, the effect is still pretty much one of quiet anticipation; the scene is set but the stars aren’t yet on stage. Still, the varying forms, textures, and colors add interest of their own. I particularly like how the dark stems of the self-sown Joe-Pye weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus) echo the similarly dark smokebush, the Tropicanna canna (Canna ‘Phaison’), and the Diabolo ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Monlo’).
Purple-mottled foliage is as good as purple stems for creating color echoes in combinations. I actually can take credit for the pairing below, but not much credit, because it was so obvious at planting time that the Euphorbia cotinifolia and the banana (Musa zebrina) would look great together.
For those of you with some shade, below is an elegant example of echoing dark stems with dark foliage, from my friend Nadeen’s garden: maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) with Cryptotaenia japonica ‘Purpurea’. I could definitely see ‘Obsidian’ heuchera, with its even darker leaves, as a superb substitute for the cryptotaenia.
Pinks and pinkish purples are colors I often have trouble working with in the garden. Hot pink isn’t so much of a problem, but the rosy pinks and pastel pinks usually look dreadful with my favorite reds, yellows, and oranges. Silvers and blues would be better companions, but those soft combinations bleach out in my strong sun. So once again, purple comes to the rescue.
Above is a simple July pairing of drumstick chives (Allium sphaerocephalon) with ‘Grace’ smokebush. It’s a pretty quiet combination, but not too precious, I think. A darker smokebush, such as ‘Velvet Cloak’, would be a zippier partner than ‘Grace’, who is pretty pinky herself by midsummer. Below is a late October grouping of ‘Redbor’ kale with Salvia ‘Paul’, another odd purple I had trouble finding other companions for.
And below is a clump of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in what was supposed to be my purple-and-red bed out front. I hadn’t at all intended for pink to sneak in there, but once the Joe-Pye weed had seeded in and filled the center so well, there was nothing for it but to give in and add more pink.
At least the dark centers of the coneflowers do a nice job echoing the Midnight Wine weigela (Weigela florida ‘Elvera’) and some of the other dark-leaved plants. Ok, I think I’ve about beaten purple into the ground (so to speak). I wonder if I have enough time to trot out some of my yellow-theme pictures before this month’s Design Workshop is over….