The color purple has evolved well beyond links to Barney the dinosaur to become a favorite color for politics, hair and flowers.
It’s little understood as a hue because royal purple is not the only shade offered. In fact, purple has two faces. It runs hot and cold. It is the high frequency child of two primary colors.
Purple is the result of combining hot fire red and cool ocean blue. When the two primaries merge to form purple, there is a range of hues divided by the emphasis on one or the other primary color. The red-dominant purples will be warm and vibrant, seen as more energetic to the human eye. The blue-purples are subdued, cooler and seen as peaceful and contemplative.
Nowhere else but in the garden does the full range of hot and cold purples appears in full sunlight. Merely looking for a purple flower at the garden can vastly oversimplify a complex set of hues. If you become aware of the two temperatures, it will provide you a far more powerful grasp of color in garden design. It will also help you train your eye to recognize these subtle differences.
While lavenders and magenta is common in nature, true purples are not. Nature uses purple sparingly, almost as an afterthought. If used carefully in precise locations relative to other colors, you can create dynamic results.
Above all, you want to strive for harmony in your flower color palettes. Those combinations that are not harmonious will affect you in two ways. First, the colors may be so understated as to be dull or even boring. On the other hand, colors without consideration of each other will appear chaotic. Essentially these results will either put you to sleep or drive you nuts.
The color wheel is vital to understanding the harmonious use of purple in the garden. Directly across the wheel from purples is lime green and yellow. These are complementary colors that when paired with the purples create a dynamic contrast that brings out the best qualities of both hues.
Red-purple is the complement of yellow green or lime green. Blue purple’s complement is canary yellow. If you were to put purple flowers in a field of green foliage, the purples would be gobbled up by the greens, a primary color. But when you use these purples with their complements to create three hues in a palette of green, yellow and purple, there is a harmonious combination.
You can also explore analogous colors. These are colors that match. You’ll find analogous colors contiguous on the color wheel. For example, red, orange and yellow are analogous.
When using purples, your analogous hues will be different for each one. The analogous range for red-purple would be red and orange. This gives you a hot-colored palette for flowers that work with that type of purple.
When using a blue-purple, the analogs would be blue and turquoise or green. This is the start of a cool-colored palette bouncing off that blue-based purple.
With a new knowledge of the two purples and how they relate to other colors, you will have the basis for a great garden this year. It tells you how to choose plants by color, and it dictates you choose those that bloom at the same time to achieve the desired results. A plant that blooms purple in May will not benefit from a complementary yellow daisy that flowers in August. Getting bloom time, color and size just right is the formula for picture perfect color garden design.
So if you love purple, use it with aplomb and flair. Paint it into the garden with full knowledge of its two faces. Then celebrate with flowers of this same hue reserved for pharaohs, priests and patriarchs.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com.