The Color Purple (with no apologies about the title)

So purple is the color of nobility, royalty… Prince and Barney. It’s the color Red Hatters wear and little girls adore. In the garden, I’ve found it can be even more. It’s a great bridge color between the sexes; it’s neither masculine nor feminine. Purple strikes a chord with both Victoriana admirers and the modern living urbanites. I am not talking about subtle shades of lilac-y lavender or indigo blue, but vibrant purple in flower, leaf or fruit. Let me tell you about some of my favorites.

Heliotrope ‘Marine’ – The name would lead you to believe that it’s blue. But it’s the epitome of richest purple, the sort you could dive into and swim around in. The scent is strong… of newborn babies and wildflower honey even from many feet away. The rich green leaves of this plant create a certain old fashioned drama. As an annual, I have found it to be a bit fussy but worth the effort. Water it, cut it and you will be rewarded with blooms all summer. I think it looks its most amazing with Helichrysum ‘Icicles’- full sun to part shade.

Purple Heart (Tradescantia palladia)- This is a love it or leave it plant, and men usually love it. It is a bit unnatural looking, with strappy purple leaves jutting out at all sorts of odd angles and teensy purple flowers peeking out the ends. In a container, its ability to break up a sea of green foliage is exceptional. Its habit is mainly that of a trailer, but also has a mind to do some vertical work. Simply stick a small tip in some soil and neglect it, almost like it was a plastic flower being stuck in a random bare spot, and it will root right away. When you want a plant to grow in a thimble-sized pot without thrice daily maintenance, just stick a tip of Purple Heart in it. This plant’s succulent nature helps it to thrive when water isn’t on the menu. Versatile? Ha! It does well in most sun situations and it also does well as a houseplant. It would probably do okay on the moon. Looks it’s best with chartreuse plants, like Coleus ‘The Line’ or with rich greens like fiber optic grass (Scirpis cernuus).

Purple Basil- Ocimum basilicum’s scent and color are richer than any other! Deep, almost black leaves are topped with spikes of lavender colored sweetly scented flowers… if you let them bloom. I am an unstoppable basil-bloom-snipper but I make an exception for this most dramatic herb. Fabulous and tasty cut in ribbons and dancing upon a platter of salted yellow tomatoes.


Buddleia davidii ‘Black Knight’- This plant is a factory of color and fragrance that brings around all sorts or winged creatures. I have noted a variety of butterflies, hummingbirds, but sadly, no Pegasus. Topping out at 6 feet and brimming with panicles of rich purple with orange eyes, with the energy of a black-light poster, from mid-summer until Autumn’s last throes… why would you not have one? A perennial in my zone (6ish) it is cut back hard in March to a nub of about 5 inches and the reward will be a tall, wide, open shrub that is even bigger than last year’s growth by the time it starts to bloom. It looks good with silvery or yellowy grasses like Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ or ‘Strictus’ or a tall rose like Benjamin Britten, with its cherry pink blooms with a tinged with orange. The roses Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I have chosen partially for the name, or a no-frills Robusta will match the Buddleia in height and flower production. These colors, when together, have enough energy to run a small power station. A great unexpected pairing is a tomatillo plant, which is about the same size as the Buddleia. Plant one about 4 feet away and let them grow into each other- the effect is almost fairy-tale. Full sun.

Purple passion- Gynura’s flowers are awfully weed-like and when buds appear I am quick to pinch them off. Take my word on it, they are not worth it. And with my hasty pinching they become compact and full of Martian-like interest in their odd-shaped pointy little leaves covered with brilliant purple hairs. Fabulous for containers and as a houseplant, did I mention how ugly the flowers are?


Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus)- This is a tall, shrubby annual that a friend of mine calls ”the drag queen of plants”. It has purple, almost reptilian leaves with accents of black and silver. As the center of a container planting or as a back-of-the-border garden plant, drama will follow wherever you plant Persian Shield. By planting it in back of a plant like Mango Meadowbrite Echinacea or a Coleus ‘Pineapple’ and using it as a frame you can best utilize the way it haphazardly branches. A thirsty plant, its maintenance is low as long as it’s watered often and trimmed to be kept tidy.
Eggplant ‘Neon’ (Solanum melongena)- It doesn’t matter if you like the taste of eggplant or not, we are talking garden impact here. What an impression the 3” wide and 8” long fruit make! Their solid, almost obscene coloring make for a different pattern in the garden- denser than most garden textures. ‘Neon’ is fast growing and quick to bear fruit. Imagine a garden with this plant next to a Golden Vicary Privet and a Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’ or Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ and then using Platycodon grandiflorus (balloon flower) elsewhere in the garden to mimic the color and shape of the eggplant. Now that’s what I call gardening! Oh, and it tastes good too- mild and almost seedless. Full sun.

Dahlia ‘Thomas Edison’- This deep purple, dinner plate Dahlia could quite possibly stop traffic. It bears 10-inch blooms on nearly 4-foot stalks- and several blooms at a time. It seems that cameras are not able to capture the velvety richness of its color. I would love to have a field of these… and giant stalky sunflowers. Full sun- Here in the North, I pull up the tubers after the first frost and keep in a cool, dry place.


‘Ruby Ball’ Cabbage- Eating it is just an added bonus. Less shiny than a gazing ball, it’s round, dense shape is unusual in the ornamental garden. It may be reddish on the inside, but the outside is pure, dusty-matte purple. Planted in front of something stalky, like Echinacea or Gaillardia, a visually interesting cover-up can be achieved. At more that 70 days to maturity, you can have a friend in the Brassica family all summer long.


By now I have you convinced that I am some sort of purple freak but let me tell you that is not true. I have a sickness for pink. However, these excellent purples make my favorite pinks pinker and my yellows much more dazzling. Purple can make the greens richer, don’t even get me started on the silvers... and another thing.... Oh nevermind....