Fabulous Foliage from Seed: Purples and Reds

‘Purple Majesty’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and ‘Osmin’ basil (Ocimum basilicum) with golden elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’) and ‘Limelight’ four-o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa)

Whether you’re a fanatic for foliage-focused plantings or simply appreciate the many ways that colorful leaves can enhance your flowers, it can be hard to resist the latest anything-but-green perennials and woodies in nursery catalogs and garden-center displays. Take one look at the price tags on these beauties, though, and you may be contemplating a loan to bulk up your plant-buying budget. And then, you’ll still have to wait a couple of years for them to settle in and fill out to their full glory.

There’s a way to make your gardening dollars go further and get faster results at the same time: by taking advantage of the many annuals and tender perennials that are easy to grow from seed. They come in a wide range of heights and colors, so you’re sure to find some that can complement just about any bed, border, or container planting you can dream up, and you’ll be waiting only weeks to start enjoying them.

Lovely in their own right, seed-grown foliage annuals are also useful for testing combinations or large-scale planting plans before fully committing to them. If the heights and colors work out, you can then replace them with similar perennials or shrubs; if not, you can easily replace them with another option the following year.

There are so many excellent seed-grown foliage annuals that I’m dividing them up by color. Let’s start the series with the deliciously dark-leaved options.

To add a dark note to the very front of a border, consider ‘Purple Lady’ iresine (Iresine herbstii), also known as beefsteak plant. It grows outward more than upward, generally staying less than around 6 inches tall but spreading several feet by the end of the growing season, swirling around the base of nearby plants, pooling in open spaces to create a beautiful burgundy groundcover, or cascading over the edge of a container. (Available at Seedman.com: Purple Lady)

‘Purple Lady’ iresine (Iresine herbstii) with ‘Red Splash Select’ polka-dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya), Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’), ‘Oakhurst’ pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa), bed of nails (Solanum quitoense), and ‘Australia’ and Tropicanna (‘Phasion’) cannas

The effect of ‘Purple Lady’ is like that of a fine-textured, purple-leaved sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)—which, by the way, can itself be started from seed, if you can find a source or collect from your own plants. (Sometimes I find self-sown seedlings of purple-leaved sweet potato the next year, or even years later!)

Dark-leaved lettuces are a super-quick foliage filler you might not have thought of for ornamental plantings. They too are typically in the 6-inch-tall range, at least while in leaf. ‘Merlot’ is my go-to strain for the richest color, but there are other good maroon to bronzy strains with different leaf shapes and textures. (Available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Merlot Lettuce)

‘Merlot’ lettuce (Lactuca sativa) with ‘QIS Scarlet’ sweet scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea)
‘Merlot’ lettuce (Lactuca sativa) with ‘Limerock Ruby’ coreopsis (Coreopsis)
‘Outredgeous’ lettuce (Lactuca sativa) with golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’)

Normally, you’d figure on pulling out the lettuce some time in June, or whenever it starts to bolt (rise in the middle in preparation for going to flower), then replace it with something heat-loving for summer and fall color. One of the neat things about ‘Merlot’, though, is that it looks pretty cool even at the bolting stage.

‘Merlot’ lettuce (Lactuca sativa) in July

Strains of mustard (Brassica juncea) with purple to red leaves are another option for quick cool-season color. I particularly like ‘Ruby Streaks’ because of its lacy texture. (Available at Hayefield: Brassica juncea ‘Ruby Streaks’ and High Mowing Seeds: Ruby Streaks Mustard Greens)

‘Ruby Streaks’ and ‘Golden Streaks’ mustard (Brassica juncea)

Yet another ornamental vegetable for dark, front-of-the-border or container foliage is ‘Bull’s Blood’ beet (Beta vulgaris). It has the advantage of being longer lasting—easily through the summer, at least, or until you pull it out for the edible harvest. (Available at Seed Savers Exchange: Bull’s Blood Beet)

‘Bull’s Blood’ beet (Beta vulgaris) with ‘Sunbeam’ coreopsis (Coreopsis)
‘Bull’s Blood’ beet (Beta vulgaris) with ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre), ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnia, and hummingbird sage (Salvia coccinea)

Moving into the slightly taller range…one of my top favorites in the super-dark range is ‘Black Pearl’ pepper (Capsicum annuum). The plants develop their richest leaf color in full sun and not-super-hot weather. If they get a bit of shade, or during the dog days, they may show a bit more green but are still mostly deep purple.

‘Black Pearl’ pepper (Capsicum annuum) with ‘Profusion Cherry’ zinnia and Electric Pink cordyline (Cordyline banksii ‘Sprilecpink’)

The upright plants generally reach about 18 inches tall, fitting easily into a container or near the front of a border, and branch out some along the upper half to two-thirds, leaving room to plant lower companions close to the base. (Available at Hayefield: Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’ or Botanical Interests: Black Pearl Ornamental Pepper)

‘Black Pearl’ pepper (Capsicum annuum) with Petunia integrifolia, ‘Jams ‘N Jellies Blackberry’ rose periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), and ‘Blackie’ sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas)

Purple-leaved basils (Ocimum basilicum), such as ‘Osmin’ basil and ‘Red Rubin’, have smaller leaves but are very similar in height and growth habit. (Available at Pinetree Garden Seeds: Osmin Basil and Swallowtail Garden Seeds: Red Rubin Basil)

‘Red Rubin’ basil (Ocimum basilicum) with ‘Jams ‘N Jellies Blackberry’ rose periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)
‘Osmin’ basil (Ocimum basilicum) with ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnia

Another especially dark option in this height range is ‘Purple Knight’ alternanthera (Alternanthera dentata). The heavily branched plants usually reach about 2 feet tall and can reach about as wide. Planted in masses, it can make a medium-height, single-season groundcover. In a border, a single plant tends to mingle its stems with nearby companions to create striking combinations. (Available at Kitchen Garden Seeds: Purple Knight Alternanthera)

‘Purple Knight’ alternanthera (Alternanthera dentata) with ‘Dancing Flames’ scarlet sage (Salvia splendens), Hint of Gold blue mist shrub (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Lisaura’), and love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
‘Purple Knight’ alternanthera (Alternanthera dentata) with ‘Limerock Ruby’ coreopsis (Coreopsis)
‘Purple Knight’ alternanthera (Alternanthera dentata) with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and golden elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’)

Generally reaching 2 to 3 feet tall in a pot or in the ground, black-leaved cotton (Gossypium herbaceum ‘Nigrum’) has broader leaves, which give it a bolder texture. (Available at Hayefield but sells out very quickly: Gossypium herbaceum ‘Nigrum’)

Black-leaved cotton (Gossypium herbaceum ‘Nigrum’) with a bit of ‘Red Dragon’ knotweed (Persicaria microcephala) and ‘Red Rubin’ basil (Ocimum basilicum)

The cotton plants are quite upright, so it’s a good idea to plant bushier partners around them. Pairing it with the low Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) wasn’t one of my best ideas, but it did really let the cotton plants stand out.

Black-leaved cotton (Gossypium herbaceum ‘Nigrum’) with Mexican daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) and common thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

You’d normally think of celosias (Celosia argentea) for their flowers, but some of them are just as good for foliage. ‘Dragon’s Breath’ is a plumose type usually topping out at 18 to 24 inches, with red-blushed green to distinctly red leaves. (Available at Park Seed: Dragon’s Breath Celosia)

‘Dragon’s Breath’ plume celosia (Celosia argentea var. plumosa)
‘Dragon’s Breath’ plume celosia (Celosia argentea var. plumosa) with ‘Zauberflote’ spurge (Euphorbia palustris ‘Zauberflote) and ‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)

‘Mega Punk’ is a strain of spike celosia (Celosia argentea var. spicata) that popped up here at Hayefield years ago. Generally in the 2- to 3-foot-tall range, its foliage has a purple-red blush. (Available at Hayefield: Celosia argentea var. spicata ‘Mega Punk’)

‘Mega Punk’ spike celosia (Celosia argentea var. spicata)

Seeds also offer some exciting options for dark foliage in grasses. ‘Black Madras’ rice (Oryza sativa) typically reaches about 18 inches tall, in spiky clumps that are narrow at the base and wider at the top. (Available at Hayefield: Oryza sativa ‘Black Madras’)

‘Black Madras’ rice (Oryza sativa) with Brazilian bachelor’s button (Centratherum intermedium)

The odd thing is that the color can read as purple, red, or bronze, depending on the light. The two photos below show ‘Black Madras’ growing in the same place but at different times.

‘Black Madras’ rice (Oryza sativa) with mignonette (Reseda odorata)
‘Black Madras’ rice (Oryza sativa) with Petunia exserta

The purple-leaved millets (Pennisetum glaucum) are an excellent choice if you need something taller—in the 3- to 5-foot range. Their leaves are wider than those of most grasses, and with their deep color, they have a very bold, eye-catching appearance. ‘Purple Majesty’ is a good one, but I particularly like ‘Jester’ because it gives different color effects through the growing season: chartreuse at first, then kind of bronzy, and then finally deep purple. (Available at Hayefield: Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jester’)

‘Jester’ purple millet (Pennisetum glaucum) in early July with ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnia and drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalum)
‘Jester’ purple millet (Pennisetum glaucum) in mid July with ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnia and golden catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’)
‘Jester’ purple millet (Pennisetum glaucum) in late July with ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre), ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnia, and golden catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’)

‘Jester’ also tends to be more compact (shorter by a foot or so) than ‘Purple Majesty’, so it fits more easily into a container.

‘Jester’ purple millet (Pennisetum glaucum) with peppermint geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum), ‘Spitfire’ coleus (Coleus scutellarioides), and ‘Sweet Caroline Light Green’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)

There are even some shrub-sized annuals that can provide substantial foliage impact in just one growing season. ‘Mahogany Splendor’ hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella) looks much like a lacy Japanese maple, with deeply lobed, rich burgundy foliage on bushy 3- to 5-foot tall plants. It’s a real beauty! (Available at Select Seeds: Hibiscus ‘Mahogany Splendor’)

‘Mahogany Splendor’ hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella)
‘Mahogany Splendor’ hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella) with great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) and ‘Henry Eilers’ sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)

‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth (Amaranthus) gets even taller: typically 4 to 6 feet, but even higher in really good soil. A single plant makes a strong vertical accent; a group of them creates a bold mass of color.

‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth (Amaranthus) with ‘Sweet Caroline Yellow Green’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) and ‘Profusion Cherry’ zinnia
‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth (Amaranthus) with ‘Becky Towe’ summer phlox (Phlox paniculata)
‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth (Amaranthus) with podcorn (Zea mays var. tunicata)

Though amaranth plants are typically much taller than they are wide, you can keep them lower and wider by snipping out the stem tip when the height is close to what you’d like. (Available at Hayefield: Amaranthus ‘Hopi Red Dye’)

And for foliage color on an annual with serious height and substance, it’s hard to beat ‘Carmencita’ castor bean (Ricinus communis). It never fails to amaze me how a single, bean-sized seed produces a terrifically tropical plant that can easily reach over 6 feet tall and several feet wide in just a few months, even here in decidedly non-tropical Pennsylvania.

‘Carmencita Red’ castor bean (Ricinus communis)
‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth (Amaranthus) with white South African foxglove (Ceratotheca triloba ‘Alba’)

Who needs shrubs when you can fill a whole lot of border space with a single packet of castor-bean seeds? (Available at Hayefield: Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’)

‘Carmencita’ castor bean (Ricinus communis) with pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii), orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida), ‘Lemon Queen’ perennial sunflower (Helianthus), and ‘Gibraltar’ Japanese bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii)

That’s hardly an exhaustive list of purple- to red-leaved annuals you can grow from seed, but it gives you some idea of the many possibilities for single-season foliage plants.

From a combination-planning perspective, near-black to burgundy foliage annuals look fantastic with flowering partners in rich pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows. Or, for a high-contrast effect, consider pairing them with white flowers or silver or bright yellow foliage. All of these dark-leaved beauties are excellent for echoing deep purple to wine-red blooms, as well as dark-leaved perennials and shrubs. And don’t overlook the possibilities of using them to pick up dark centers, speckles, or whiskers in nearby blooms, or the dark stems or leaf markings of more permanent garden partners, adding a subtle but sophisticated touch to your plantings. Have fun exploring your options on the dark side!

‘Jester’ purple millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth (Amaranthus) with ‘Smallwood’s Driveway’ coleus (Coleus scutellarioides) and Golden Spirit smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Ancot’)

17 Comments on “Fabulous Foliage from Seed: Purples and Reds

  1. “When I grow old, I shall wear purple.” (Jenny Joseph) I love the color theme! Good to see you back.
    Verna

    Good morning, Mrs. Colliver! It is good to hear from you. Yes, due to the sudden cold snap here, I finally had a few “free” days to work on some posts. I have a couple more in this series to get through, and then I’ll get back to doing Bloom Day this summer.
    -Nan

  2. As always, such amazing ideas. I love purple-leaved plants and try to grow “Black Madras” rice every year, but I often struggle with germination. I might need to get my hands on that “Jester” millet. It’s charming!

    Hi Gabriella! That’s odd about the ‘Black Madras’ giving you a problem. It does like to be really warm but otherwise doesn’t seem to need anything special. I do recommend the millet: besides being a beautiful foliage accent, the plants’ seedheads provide a feast for wild birds.
    -Nan

  3. smallwoods driveway coleus (funny named), very pretty tones!

    Gosh, yes, it is a beauty. The colors vary depending on the light and temperatures, so every photo you see of it is different, but it never disappoints. It can be a bit challenging to find, though.
    -Nan

  4. Dang good inspiration on a cold, damp PA day! Will Spring ever arrive? Great post Nan gives me hope we will actually have Summer in a few months! I hope!

    Thanks, Rebecca! Gosh, what crazy weather. Monday we had snow and didn’t get above freezing, and today we are supposed to hit 70, maybe, but with possible tornadoes tonight. Who knows what will be next? This is always a rough time of year, isn’t it?
    -Nan

  5. Hi Nan. My favorite color combos. Just stunning.

    Hey there, Melanie; thanks for checking in! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.
    -Nan

  6. So many beautiful choices! I use purple-leaved and light green potato vines together in containers and I love dark-leaved basil, at least one on our terrace to have lots of bees humming around. Salad in the border is a fun idea, I think I might try it.
    Susanna

    Hi Susanna! It sounds like we have very similar taste in combinations. Thanks for reading and commenting!
    -Nan

  7. So glad to have you and your wonderful garden pop up again, Nan.

    Hi Sandy! Thanks so much for checking in. Here’s looking forward to a good growing season!
    -Nan

  8. Fabulous foliage indeed! Thanks for the warming views on an out like a lion day! But, I did spot my first bloom today-a snow drop, joining its namesakes 🙄

    Out like a very angry lion, indeed. I forgot it was the last day of March. Good to hear from you, Donna!
    -Nan

  9. Very inspirational, Nan. Especially after our brief return to hard freezes! Purple perilla is a fave to combine with bold red and orange blossoms(like crocosmia) in a planter. Happy gardening, we’re at the starting line!

    You’re right, purple perilla is a great one too. I have always been wary of it because of the self-sowing potential but finally took the plunge in the last year or two. I don’t have any good photos of it yet, though. May you enjoy a rewarding gardening season, Ginny!
    -Nan

  10. Glad to see your are still hard at it. I was reminiscing over my garden blog and haven’t really visited the bloggersphere (if that’s a word) for quite some time. I plan reviewing your wares for sure. Greggo

    Hey, Greggo! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I was wondering if I should keep up with the blog, but based on the visits and comments today, a lot of people are still reading, so it’s worth the time. I guess there are plenty of folks who still have the patience to look at something longer than a tweet or video clip. I’m glad you stopped by!
    -Nan

  11. thnx so much for the eye candy and inspiration. i am going radical and trying to grow as many pollinator plants as possible, so appreciated the tip about the Jester millet. any other info for butterflies, bees and wasps would be great! gale : gardening in NH

    Good for you, Gale! I often see bees and wasps on the flowers of ‘Mega Punk’ and other spike celosias. And, as was mentioned in another comment, basil flowers also attract pollinators–particularly bees.
    -Nan

  12. Gorgeous post, Nan! Thanks for all the fantastic ideas. ❤️

    I appreciate that, Kris; thanks. I hope your spring is going well so far!
    -Nan

  13. Nan,

    So happy to receive your excellent post. Your great photos and plant combinations are always inspiring. I especially like how you show a feature plant in slightly different settings. Options always expand one’s horizons. Thank you for sharing your unique perspective.

    Thanks, John! Good to hear from you. I hope the family and business are going well!
    -Nan

  14. Beautiful color combinations! And what a great reminder that annuals can have a big impact.

    Indeed! They may not have the “latest and greatest” factor of new perennial and woody cultivars, but they are beautiful, fast-growing, and much less expensive. Happy spring, Amy!
    -Nan

  15. Nan, this post is excellent. I grow so many of these. I’ve never tried the rice, but I’ve grown Mahongany Splendor hibiscus, almost all of the iresines, the alternantheras, love Purple Knight. It is such a great dark purple. The lime green four o’clocks are also fab. Happy planting! I just about worked myself to death in the garden today, but it was worth it.

    Thank you, Dee! I know we share a fondness for many of the same plants. I too spent the day outside and am worn out now. Apart from starting the day finding that mice had gotten into my seedlings in the greenhouse (sigh), it was a gratifyingly productive day. Happy spring to you too!
    -Nan

  16. I love your posts! Showing so many combinations is really inspiring and you are very kind in even suggesting sources for seeds when they are not always you. Anxiously awaiting a real spring and hoping we don’t go right away to summer.

    Thanks so much! I have mixed feelings about providing sources, because these blog posts can be around for years and sources come and go. But when I read about a cool plant, I want to get seeds right away, so sharing possible sources seems only fair.
    Amen to waiting for spring! It was percolating along just fine, then suddenly stopped, and it’s been slow to get restarted. I wouldn’t mind it staying cool for a while longer but I’m running out of indoor space for seedlings!
    -Nan

  17. Nan, so enjoyed seeing all of the beautiful purple foliage plants! I do not have near enough of the purple foliage in my garden. I just planted seeds for Red Shield hibiscus which has purple foliage and deep red/burgundy blooms. I had the parent plant but it died. I’m hoping to have better luck this time. Wishing you a beautiful Spring.
    Jean

    So happy to hear from you, Jean. I often send good thoughts your way as I enjoy the plants from the seeds you have shared with me. Yes, ‘Red Shield’ is lovely too–a bit more red than the aptly named ‘Mahogany Splendor’.
    -Nan

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