Imperial Pretensions

It’s the middle of winter and I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms. The ground is frozen. I can’t garden. A scattering of tiny cyclamen are in flower, a few reticulata irises have peeked through the earth and the bluebell foliage is starting to appear but the garden generally looks sad. I want spring to arrive with colour and the impetus that makes me go out every morning to see what has burst into flower.

I have a passion for purple – from deepest, brooding, almost-black to lightest mauve. All year-round there are shades of purple in our garden – even now, in mid-winter there are one or two purple violas braving the frosts.

Like most colours, purple is enhanced by its association with different hues. Even an addict like me has to admit that unrelieved purple can look sad, or worse still, depressing. But purple in all its variations gives lots of scope for mixing and matching. Plant several lilac-purple-lavender shades – wallflowers, pansies, stoechas lavender, irises or Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurea’ with its purple/grey foliage – beside silver, such as Artemisia ludoviciana or A. ‘Valerie Finnis’, add a pink climbing rose in the background – ‘Cecile Brunner’ is always lovely – and you’ll have a heart-warming combination.

I. setosa

The yellow iris with fine, burgundy markings on the falls is a reliable old bearded variety I. ‘Gracchus’. It makes a perfect companion for the purple blooms of I. setosa

When it comes to contrasts, purple crosses the boundaries easily between pastel shades and vivid hot colours. I once saw dark purple, tall bearded irises blooming in profusion in front of the climbing red rose ‘Dublin Bay’ and the effect was stunning.

I have experimented with purple and orange – orange violas beside dwarf purple irises, Erysimum ‘Apricot’ with lavender ‘Major’ and an orange calendula that arrived voluntarily to cosy up to another lavender bush. ‘Jolly Joker’ viola combines the best of both worlds with the two colours on the face of each ‘joker’.

For those who like mixing dark shades, blend clumps of violet violas among heucheras with plum/burgundy coloured foliage and add Anthriscus ‘Raven’s Wing’ as a background. It’s a member of the parsley family and has purple/brown, fern-like foliage and sprays of tiny, delicate, white flowers. (It dies down in winter in frosty climates but reappears in spring and quickly produces flowers in its second year.) Add the skeletal, twiggy plant, Calocephalus brownii for a gleam of silver.

Purple violas

Purple violas are a reliable standby and make a great show with the brilliant yellow flowers of Euphorbia polychroma.

Purple and gold are naturally meant for each other. Regal colours, they add richness to the garden palette and this is a colour scheme to aim for in late summer and autumn when sunflowers, rudbeckias and dahlias will give you rich golds and yellows. Try teaming them with Salvia ‘Purple Majesty’, the common but colourful S. leucanthe with long, chenille-soft flowers of lilac-mauve, or the striking S. ‘Indigo Spires’ for the purple touch. ‘Purple Majesty’ is a bushy plant, it starts flowering in early summer and in frost-free areas will continue through into winter.

You know of course that only the emperor in Roman times was allowed to flaunt purple. Nowadays we can all have imperial pretensions.


(First published in Weekend Gardener)

One thought on “Imperial Pretensions

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