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The Southern Gardener: Purple plants give a garden the royal treatment

The color purple has an illustrious history. As far back as 1900 B.C., individuals were using purple dyes. “It took some 12,000 shellfish to extract 1.5 grams of the pure dye — barely enough for dying a single garment the size of a Roman toga,” according to the website Color Matters. Thus, purple became the color of clothing for emperors and people of privilege.

Purple dyes became easier to produce and more common over the years, but the color purple has remained the symbol of nobility and luxury.

On the other hand, in the United Kingdom, Italy, Thailand and Brazil, purple is the color of mourning or death.

In 2018, Pantone (the worldwide authority on color) named “ultraviolet” (a shade of purple) as the color of the year.

Who can forget Elizabeth’s Taylor’s violet eyes?

Other authorities have suggested that purple, in addition to being a color associated with royalty, indicates nonconformity and mindfulness.

I was not aware of the influence of purple in our lives; I simply admired the color for its beauty and its effect in the garden.

A color wheel is a handy tool to help gardeners create wonderful vignettes with color. Allow it to inspire you.

To make the best of it, keep in mind that the primary colors on the color wheel are red, yellow and blue. Violet or purple is a secondary color, formed by mixing two primary colors (in this case, red and blue).

Technically, there is no such color as “purple” on the color wheel. It is “violet.” Some experts do not believe that purple and violet are interchangeable, but many do. I am one of those believers.

Some shades of violet are considered cool colors because they have more blue in them: violet, blue-violet and violet-blue. These three provide a harmonious color scheme. There are six varying tints or shades of violet, with the same number for blue-violet and violet-blue.

Some violets are considered warm colors because they have more red in them: red-violet and violet-red. Sitting side by side on the color wheel, many secondary colors are considered harmonious, or closely related.

In the flower world, violet can vary from the light shade of lavender of a phlox, to the darkest purple of an iris or the ‘Black Knight’ butterfly bush.

A complementary (or contrasting) color is one that sits directly opposite on the color wheel. Yellow provides a dramatic partner to violet. Using complementary colors allows the gardener to create wonderful combinations in the garden.

We can use the color purple (also a movie starring Oprah Winfrey) in foliage and flowers. Either way, we add a touch of drama to our gardens.

Purple can almost disappear by itself in the shade. Surround it with lighter-colored plants. Chartreuse and purple are dynamite together.

Purple, too, can be found in fruits. Blueberries add a healthy snack as well as another way to have violet in the garden (if you have the space, the sun and the right soil).

Gardeners have long recognized the power of purple. Purple gives our gardens the royal treatment.


In our search for violet flowers we can sometimes overlook the impact of purple foliage.

• Purple leaves adorn many Japanese maples during the growing season and in their fall color. ‘Tamukeyama’ is a splendid example of a tree with purple foliage. Its limbs weep toward the ground, creating a beautiful purple skirt. Mix trees with darker foliage with brighter colors in golds or yellow to create a stellar design.

• Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygia) is majestic deciduous tree with exquisite purple foliage. Its name comes from the flowers, which look like puffs of smoke as they fade. This tree growing in full sun is a joy!

• Loropetalum, an evergreen shrub that can come in sizes from 2x2-feet to taller than my roof line, has leaves in elegant shades of purple. Pink-fringed flowers flutter in the spring. Loropetalum is one tough shrub (or limbed up as a small tree). It is at its best when surrounded by light-colored neighbors.

• Butterfly bush (Buddlei) ‘Black Knight’ bears long spikes covered with masses of tiny dark purple flowers. This deciduous shrub or small tree is a draw for butterflies, hummingbirds and people. It grows best in full sun with regular water as it is not drought-tolerant. Gardeners include this plant for the delicate flowers and their delicious fragrance.


• Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ (aka coral bell) has intense purple foliage. For contrast, mass it with the bright leaves of another heuchera or a plant with bright yellow or green foliage. Heucheras, known for their colorful foliage, make excellent container plants. The shopper will literally find heucheras in every color in the rainbow, lots of them in shades of violet.

• Purple heart is one of my favorite perennials. It has a clumping habit and seems to brighten anything planted close to it. With its deep purple leaves and tiny pink flowers, it is a tough summer perennial welcome in any corner of the garden or container.


• ‘Sweet Kate’ spiderwort has lovely purple blooms and knockout chartreuse foliage. This easy-to-grow perennial has lovely manners and does not spread to the four corners of the garden.

• ‘Homestead Purple’ verbena is an easy-to-grow perennial in the garden. This sun-loving groundcover has a spreading habit and can fill the garden with clusters of purple blooms.

• ‘Jackamanii’ clematis, a deciduous vine, is one of the most beautiful of the purple-flowered plants. Climbing on a trellis or a fence, this gem will be the highlight of any garden.

• The smell of vanilla from the dark purple flowers on an annual heliotrope is a delight. This summer standout is a magnet for summer pollinators. Keep it watered and in afternoon shade to help it thrive.

• Some cultivars of angelonia (the summer snapdragon) sport spikes of charming purple flowers. Other cultivars have light purple flowers. It is a great performer in the summer annual garden, whether in containers or in the ground. Keep it pinched to encourage continual flowering.

• There is probably nothing more stunning than the dark purple flower of an iris (a bearded iris growing from a rhizome). It is regal! Beardless irises also grow from rhizomes, but flowers and rhizomes differ between the two. The Siberian iris, a beardless iris, is available in a dark purple.

• When we talk about the color violet, we must include the violets that grow wild in our gardens and lawns. Some may refer to them as a charming flower, while others may refer to them as a weed (a plant out of place). Violets are prolific spreaders; at some point the tiny purple flowers and the foliage may become a nuisance.

• Crocus, the tiny corm, which often signals the end of winter for an optimistic gardener, is offered with small purple blooms. Beloved by squirrels as well as humans, it is worthwhile planting, even if it does not have a long life span in the garden.


• A large bed of rosemary is pretty and practical. The leaves flavor our food, and the light violet flowers are delicate and charming.

• The fragrant flowers on lavender are a wonderful shade of purple or lavender. The tall spikes of the blossoms are used to make perfumes and soaps. The narrow leaves are greenish-gray with their own special scent. Lavender may not often survive, however, because it does not like our wet winters or our high humidity. I keep trying new cultivars in hopes of getting one to produce those spectacular flowers.

Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star.