The Garden Guru: A passion for purple

Posted Saturday, Sep. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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There aren’t a lot of young guys who appreciate plants that are purple, but one of the (few) advantages of having several decades under my belt is a true understanding of how functional this cool color is to our gardens.

Purple mixes with almost any other color of flower or foliage, and it’s much more widely available than shades of blue.

I’ve been getting used to a new computer, and in making the change, I’ve had to reload a bunch of my photos onto new external drives.

I’m still trying to find files, so I just did an image search using the word “purple.” I was amazed at how many plants showed up just by looking for that one word. I sorted through them, and I offer my favorites.

Purpleheart ( Setcreasea pallida). This ground-covering trailer is a cousin to equally purple tropical wandering Jew, but purpleheart is a perennial. It dies to the ground, but it comes back each spring. If you don’t mind bare spots in the winter, this makes a delightful ground cover.

Purple basil. The variety ‘Dark Opal’ was the first purple type I ever grew. In fact, it was an award-winning introduction several decades ago. Now we have maybe a dozen purple-leafed types, and they’re good for lookin’ ’n’ cookin’. Use them as summertime annuals in beds and containers, and use them as flavoring all the while, too.

‘Blackie’ ornamental sweet potatoes. First brought to market 12 or 15 years ago, this is now just one of many fine types of this fancy-leafed vegetable. (In answer to the next question, no, the roots aren’t anything you’d want to cook up and serve.)

Purple autumn sage ( Salvia greggii). I remember the first time I ever saw this plant species. It’s native to South Texas, and the first one on the market (at least that I saw) was a bright cherry red. It’s a fine perennial, indeed, blooming from early March all the way through until frost.

The ensuing years, though, have brought us many new colors, and deep and rich purple is just one of them. Grow it almost like you would boxwood, and shear it back by half in mid-February and by a third in early August.

Angelonia ‘Serena Purple.’ Also called summer snapdragons, angelonias have become hot-weather staples in the 15 or 20 years that we’ve grown them. They’re spike-form plants, so they bring drama to their surroundings. They’re perfect matches for most of the other plants in our list.

Purple coneflower ( Echinacea purpurea) even carries the word “purple” in its scientific name — funny, since its blooms are more on the pink side. But the purple hue is still there, enough that this perennial fits right into our purple-plant party. Many other shades are also coming into the market.

Purple fountaingrass. How purple can one plant get? This one’s a great measuring stick, and it just gets more intense as the fall weather turns cooler. Even its flower tassels have a purple-tan cast. Note that unlike most other ornamental grasses, this one is an annual.

Purple crape myrtles. There are many types, some more purple than others. Varieties like ‘Twilight,’ ‘Catawba’ and ‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ are some of the finest, and the best part about them is that they bloom all summer long.

‘Magilla’ perilla. The plain old-fashioned perilla looks a lot like a coleus. This dazzling improvement looks even more so. And it keeps going and growing from spring until the first freeze. Everybody loves this one!

Hyacinth bean ( Dolichos lablab). This ornamental vine belongs in Aggieland. Its leaves, flowers, stems and pods are all maroon, but we’ll say that they’re purple for the sake of this discussion. And once again, the cooler it gets, the cooler it looks. It’s an annual, so save seeds for the next year — just as we’ve done since Thomas Jefferson grew it at Monticello.

Purple wintercreeper euonymus ( Euonymus fortunei ‘Coloratus’). We’ll finish up with a plant that’s rich green all summer, only to turn a rich shade of maroon-purple with the first hard freeze of winter. It also happens to be one of our all-time best ground covers in sun or in shade.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.

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