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A Rich and Purple Summer


The blizzards of early 2010 were a pain, so I think I”ll give myself a rich, warm treat this summer. A garden thrill. That would be purple plants.

Purple, a wild and dreamy color, is found in many kinds of flowers, leaves, fruits, and vegetables. Synonyms for purple and closely related colors can be plant names—orchid, plum, eggplant or aubergine, lilac, fuchsia, heliotrope, and violet, for instance. Many purple plants are associated with sunshine and tropical or warm areas, and that is no accident.

The natural anthocyanin pigment, a main source of purple plant coloration, has a couple of jobs to do. It is like sunscreen, blocking excessive rays and preventing sunburn in hot, sunny situations. Sometimes juvenile leaves are reddish or purple for the same reason. You’ve probably seen sunburn on plants—the leaves dry out and turn beige or brown and become desiccated where the sun hits too hard. Anthocyanin acts as an antioxidant and is responsible for a health benefit from blueberries and plums, which both turn purple when cooked. Some flowers that are called black, such as black pansies and black tulips, are actually deeply, intensely purple.

Purple is a mood. Purple prose, passion, hats, and houses all seem over the top. Purple does not care what people think but it calls for attention. It is a knowing color, rarely used in baby clothes. The thousands of women in the Red Hat Society wear purple outfits and red hats and face middle age with parties, trips, fun, and humor. I am so ready for a splash of purple. Are you?

In the garden, the flowers of petunias and orchids can be purple, but so can foliage, fruit, and roots, and that includes many vegetables and herbs. Purple pigment is somewhere in their gene pool. It can be brought out by breeders, as you can see in certain types of asparagus, peas (easier to see and pick), beans, beets, peppers, tomatoes (Cherokee Purple), carrots (Purple Haze), broccoli, cauliflower that is pale lavender, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, chives, sage, basil (Purple Ruffles), and more.

Purple peas, beans, and broccoli change back to green when they are cooked, so if you want them in full color, eat them raw. Blue corn and blue potatoes are actually purple, cooked or not. A farmer’s market is a great source for fresh vegetables in these richly colored varieties. Too much purple food may not be so appetizing, but the right amount is great!

Purple flowers and leaves work well in summer and fall planters. One of my favorite purples is the shiny purple of a tropical foliage plant, Strobilanthes diyerianus (Persian shield). The leaves shine with darker and more silvery splashes of purple and green. A plant can live for many years if protected from freezes in winter. It combines well with smaller plants in mixed containers.

Another possibility is frilly purple cabbage or kale. The whole plant looks like one enormous waxy flower. It can be a foot across and it will last outdoors from now until after Christmas.

There are a couple of approaches to designing with purple plants, depending on how outrageous you want to be. In garden containers or beds, or in bouquets, the companion colors will send up or tone down the volume, as you wish. Enjoy a cool, elegant look or a wildly vibrant one. Here are some color combinations to think about.

Purple/white/green. This combination offers contrast but is cool, sophisticated, and easy to live with. An ever-blooming possibility for light shade is a simple combo of pachysandra, ivy, or ferns with purple and white impatiens. In sun it could be white cosmos combined with purple heliotrope, purple verbena, and red or purple-leaved grasses. It could be as simple as a bed of purple and white zinnias with green leaves. The ornamental sweet potato ‘Blackie” is a good source of purple background foliage. A chef told me that the leaves are edible.

Purple/lavender/pink. This is a run of related colors and it always looks good. Purple-leaved basil or perilla (a purple-leaved annual that self-sows with vigor) is great as filler in bouquets as well as in the garden. Spark them up with contrasting pink, mauve, and lilac flowers of any sort. Branches of small, shiny purple peppers work with this mix, too. A plant that has this combination of color all on its own is the purple-leaved oxalis, Oxalis triangularis, which has lavender colored flowers. It will grow outside in summer, but bring it inside for winter.

Purple/gold/green/rust/yellow. These colors together make an autumn palette. Our wild areas can blaze with reddish fall foliage, goldenrod, tawny grasses, and purple-flowered New England asters with bright yellow centers.

The rainbow of colors. I am not a fan of purple with chartreuse, but I like it when those two are part of a mix that includes splashes of pink, magenta, lavender, orange, red, yellow, blue, and green. Purple foliage ties it together into an exuberant display. Sometimes I need that kind of thing, especially this year.

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