We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life” – Prince, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, 1984
Majesty. Protest. Mourning. Homosexuality. Power. Bipartisanship. Bruising. Pain. Dignity.
Purple is a complex color. Made of red and blue, it’s the only color on the wheel that equally straddles warmth and coolness. It’s loaded with deep and often conflicting context, which like all perception of color, is totally subjective to cultural interpretation.
Color is a thorny beast. It highlights our differences – Red state or blue state? White dress or blue dress? (It was blue, by the way.) Pink or blue? Black or white? And yet, while it can polarize us, color also fascinates and delights us.
The best gardens fully engage all of the senses, and the alpha of the five is vision. Scent might sock us more deeply in the gut of our memories (more on that in weeks to come), but vision is the sensuous bully who claims rights as top dog every time. A first look at any given object will generally register its color as the most immediate and important piece of information, and with good reason. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors needed on-the-spot input when it came to receiving the “Don’t eat the bright red berry!” message.
Color is both the most and least important player at work in a garden environment. When foliage or flowers reach their full color intensity, everything around them pales in visual importance. But color in the botanical world is fleeting. The leaves of a maple die with a scarlet shout in the autumn, but soon after the tree is bare. Soft pink blossom in spring heralds the end of winter’s bleak outlook, until a big storm renders it mush on the ground. A summer peach signals its perfect ripeness with a burst of yellow, red and… um, peach. But wait a day too long, and it’ll be brown and overripe, its sweetness turned to rot. And maybe this is the intrinsic beauty of color in the natural world – it marks the passage of time. Its ephemeral quality is exactly what stops us in our tracks; take a minute, soak it in with your eyes and hold it as long as you can, because in a moment it’ll be gone for another year.
My instinct had been to begin this color series with red, as the good prismatic rainbow intended. But with the recent passing of Prince – RIP – it became very clear that the first color we’d visit would be purple.
The Purple One was majestic, without doubt, but purple’s association with royalty began in the Roman Empire, not the 1980s. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder published the until-then secret recipe for Phoenician purple dye: glandular secretions from the Murex snail, wood ash, water, stale urine. 250,000 snails were necessary to produce one ounce of dye, thus rendering the cost of producing it so fabulously high that only the nobility could afford it. Nonetheless, the Emperor Nero was so livid at having the secret process made public that he decreed himself the only rightful wearer of the color; anyone else caught in Imperial Purple would be punished by death.
“The Tyrian color is most appreciated when it is the color of clotted blood, dark by reflected and brilliant by transmitted light.” – Pliny the Elder, ‘Natural History’, c. 77 A.D.
On the other end of the sociopolitical spectrum is the Purple Rain Protest, held in Cape Town in 1989. Four days before parliamentary elections, anti-apartheid protestors marched against the ruling National Party. Police sprayed the crowd with a water cannon filled with purple dye in order to identify protestors for arrest. But a quick-thinking demonstrator turned the nozzle onto the local headquarters of the National Party, drenching it instead. Literal purple rain energized resistance to apartheid in South Africa and became a symbol of civil protest globally.
‘Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out for something new
That means you too
You say you want a leader
But you can’t seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain’ – Prince, ‘Purple Rain’, 1984
And so from prophetic Prince in 1984 to contemplative Alice Walker in 1982. Shug Avery tells Celie in The Color Purple, ‘I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.’
Asked about the title of her seminal work in 2012, Walker explained:
… I went walking through the redwoods and swimming in the river and noticed that in nature purple is everywhere… And in that sense, it’s like the people in the novel. You think … that what’s happening to them is unusual, but actually it’s happening somewhere on your block almost every minute. All the trouble, all of the trials and tribulations of Celie are happening to people all over the planet right now… [Shug is] explaining to Celie that … the beauty of nature is what reminds us of what is divine, I mean, that we’re already in heaven, really. It’s just that we haven’t noticed it, and we’ve been diverted by people who want us to believe whatever it is they are basically selling us. But if you pass by the color purple in a field and you don’t even notice it, why should you even be here on the planet? I mean, you should notice what is here, because it is wonderful and amazing and loves you back by its beauty and by its fragrance or however it can love you back.
There’s not really a more compelling case to be made for using purple in your garden. In my design work, I use it frequently, despite having to confess to a conflicted relationship with purple myself. As a child of the ‘80s, I was inundated with purple. I had two older cousins who wore matching purple everything, and so I inherited top-to-toe purple outfits not once but twice. I was given a purple duffel bag at my 8th birthday party, and my friend’s mom told me, ‘They had blue ones too, but you just seemed like such a purple person.’ It has been 31 years, and that comment still burns as one of the deepest insults of my life.
And yet, time and time again in my designs, I use Salvia leucantha ‘Midnight’, ‘Hidcote Blue’ lavender (it’s purple, not blue), Verbena bonariensis, Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace.’ Purple in the garden is not the same as ’80s purple. Purple is closer to black than white, unlike its opposite, yellow, which is very light. Purple’s inherent darkness gives it a brooding intensity psychologically, but it also makes it appear more intense in low light conditions. A yellow-flowered garden in a dark corner doesn’t sit right; deep purple foliage, such as that of Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding,’ lends itself to mystery and haze.
Depth can be created in a space by clever manipulation of color. Red and purple are happy partners – equally matched in their intensity and sharing similar values, red makes purple appear… purpler. But purple recedes and red advances, so to lengthen a short space, use purple in the background and red in the foreground. These colors generally come into full play in mid-summer, when the brightest sunlight can make them reverberate. Try Heuchera sanguinea or Dahlia ‘Tasagore’ at the front of a bed and Tibouchina urvilleana or Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ at the back.
Adding white to purple, to make lavender or lilac, sends the color forward. Mixing dark purple and pale lilac in a planted bed creates a shimmering effect; the levels of light in a color affect it as much as the primary admixture (namely how much red + blue + yellow). In a hot, dry, sunny space, try mixing Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ with the amazingly named Verbena lilacina ‘De la Mina.’ In a cooler, wetter climate – I’m looking at you, United Kingdom – try Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’ underneath the astounding vine Clematis ‘Jackmanii.’
Purple added to its opposite on the color wheel, yellow, makes for one of the most intensely contrasting color combinations. I don’t tend to use it often, because I find it a little jarring. Proceed here with caution, but if you’re going to try, vary the hue of the colors. Using deep purple with pale yellow will sit more comfortably than two equally deep hues. Think Rosa banksia ‘Lutea’ rather than Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ (I don’t know what sadist names these guys). Then again, if you’re bold, be bold. Go all in on the clanging cymbals.
And ultimately that has to be the one and only rule about using color: do what you like. The hard and fast color rules of the past are over. Gertrude Jekyll advised against using too much purple in the early 1900s. The 1980s book Color Me Beautiful had women draping themselves in swathes of fabric, trying to ascertain whether they were summers or winters. And, well, then there was Nero, fiddling and burning in his purple robes. Understanding how a color works in a certain light is helpful. Being bound by arbitrary rules is not. Perception of color is deeply personal and subjective. If you like it, use it. And all hail the Purple Crooner, as he rides that shooting star into the cosmic, purple beyond.