Passion for purple

Posted on: 12 February 2010 by Mark O'haire

Gardening expert Maxine Farmer explains why purple leaved plants are set to be one of the top trends in 2010.

Visiting various horticultural shows last summer I was struck by how use of purple leaved plants continues to be one of the persistent top trends in garden design.  And if the latest plant catalogues are any guide, this colour is set to be big in 2010 too.

To me, this is no surprise: purple-foliage, ranging from reddish-plum through to near-black help to create drama and prevent the gardener from having to rely on flowers to add zing.  And let’s face it: given the wet summers we have experienced in recent years, where blooms have suffered badly, us gardeners need all the assistance we can get to inject some colour into our plots.

But people often seem to be a bit nervous of experimenting with purple, though once they take the plunge, are invariably delighted with the results.  Having given it a lot of thought, I’ve decided that many people are just not sure how to use this powerful part of the spectrum in the garden.  So before I provide a list of purple-leaved plants, here are some thoughts on how to integrate this colour.

Wear it well

It is a bit like starting to wear a new colour: take it slowly and use purple occasionally until you are really sure you are comfortable with the effect.   Introduce a couple of plants to see how they work and try them out in different parts of the garden.  Purple can sometimes be dramatic in shade, but equally, sometimes it can be completely lost.   Likewise, it can be spectacular in the bright sun, but can also look washed out. 

Much has to do with companion plants and this is my second tip: plant purple together with pale green or other strongly contrasting foliage.  Here is an example: I planted a dark-purpled-leaved cimicifuga racemosa, a stately late summer perennial with dainty fluffy cream plumes in a bed against some dark green euphorbias.  The cimicifugas just disappeared into the background.   Then I replanted them against a backdrop of a golden elder and immediately became an interesting focal point in a rather dull spot in a shady border.

Go temping

Temporary investment in purple is good way to experiment with this colour range.  There are some excellent annual foliage plants available, including coleus, which is often rejected by garden snobs as one of the more ubiquitous bedding plants used in civic garden features.  However, elevate it to the status of a specimen plant and you have something quite special  This year I have grown a single coleus into a bush about eighteen inches high and wide, its crinkly fleshy leaves elevated above a dramatic hexagonal pewter pot.  It has received many compliments.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’, as its name suggests, has purple leaves that are almost black and is typically grown as foliage in a hanging basket, but it works equally well trailing over the edge of a raised border, or even surrounding other summer annuals.  I like to grow it together with the purple leaved dahlia ‘Bishop of Landaf’ which has vivid pillarbox red blooms from late summer until early autumn.  If the dahlia tubers are lifted and stored carefully, they can be replanted the following year.

Longer-term commitment

Once you have fallen in love with purple, there are plenty of perennials from which to choose, such as persicaria ‘Red Dragon’.  Its leaves are an unusual dark mauve with a subtle white stripe and at just 50cm when fully grown, is a useful plant for filling gaps in borders.

Purple can be subtle: clematis recta purpurea, with its dainty dark-hued leaves, is a great way to weave strands of purple into a border, rather than imposing a bulky new colour block.  My specimen scrambles its way unchecked through a large border of white roses, popping up every now again to create a contrast against lighter plants.

For some purple drama earlier in the year, euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ is one of the spurge family and like many of its relatives, bears bracts of yellow ‘flowers’ in spring.  It is a great plant for difficult dry shade and will overcome most weeds, though it can be a bit invasive.

At the other end of the main growing season, there are a range of purple-leaved iceplants (sedum spectabile) cultivars now available.  I have only started experimenting with these in the past twelve months and have been impressed with their contribution to my garden.  Like their more familiar green-clad cousins, they have fleshy thick leaves that emerge during late spring, steadily grow throughout the summer and then, come August and September, sprout dark pinky-red broccoli-style florets that persist for weeks on end.  Strong cultivars to try include the almost-black Vera Jameson, and Purple Emperor.

Don’t forget shrubs and trees

Of course, once comfortable with the idea of purple, there is no need to think small.  One of my all-time favourite shrubs-come-small-tree is the purple-leaved elder.  Happy in heavy clay, able to withstand periods of sogginess and a surprising amount of drought, this is a fast-growing addition to any garden, though as a plant that can grow upwards of ten feet high, it will require some strict pruning in a small plot.  ‘Guincho Purple’ is widely available and I also rate ‘Black Beauty’. 

For anyone lucky enough to have acid soil, a purple-leaved acer has to be on the shopping list and for those of us with alkaline soil, I can report from personal experience that acer palmatum atropurpureum will thrive in a larger container for many years.
Cotinus coggygrygia, the smoke bush, and berberis thunbergii atropurpurea, the barberry, are easy, large shrubs that are found in most good garden centres and nurseries.  A little more unusual is rheum palmatum atrosanguineum, the ornamental rhubarb.  Really a perennial rather than a shrub, I tend to treat it like the latter as it makes a statement with long tough stems, up to six feet high, topped by broad umbrella leaves.  It can be a little tender though, so avoid planting in a frost-prone spot.

This is just a taste of the range of plants that are available.  With many of us already thinking ahead to warmer weather, now is a good time to start planning on some developing a passion for purple this year. 

By Maxine Farmer

Maxine FarmerMaxine Farmer: Garden Writer & Consultant

Maxine Farmer is a professional writer and garden designer, and has had articles published in The Daily Telegraph, Housebuilder & Renovation, and the RHS’ members magazine, The Garden.

She developed her passion for making the most of challenging gardens by moving to a riverside plot that not only floods regularly, but is often bone dry in summer.  Since the mid-1990s, she and her husband John have experimented with plants that are able to survive these extremes.  The garden has been featured in national newspapers and magazines.

Maxine has also created a website for fellow gardeners who have gardens that flood:  She occasionally provides gardening consultancy and is available to speak at garden clubs.

To ask Maxine a gardening question, please email

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