A Preponderance of Purple

IMG_1886My tastes don’t generally run toward clear favorites or coveting the “best” of this or that. I favor variety and contrast and have a tendency to be suspicious of my strongest biases, regarding them with clinical curiosity and trying to figure out where they’ve come from and whether they’re worth hanging on to.

Evidently, though, I have a strong preference for purple when it comes to landscaping with flowering plants. I noticed this a few years ago, when the garden was in its early summer blooming phase. While the vegetables were still ramping up, many of the ornamentals were in full floral regalia: iris, May Night Meadow Sage, Rocky Mountain penstemon, Corsican pansies, violets—all with purple blooms. As the summer wore on and more plants came into flower, the trend continued with lavender, Echinacea, and a native milk-vetch that volunteered to weave its leaves into the silvery Partridge Feather groundcover. The rose-magenta tint of tiny blooms carpeting the creeping thyme and the wine-colored cups on the Poppy Mallow added to the widespread purple vibe.

Inside the walled garden’s confined space, the skew toward the ultraviolet end of the color spectrum was pretty remarkable, and visitors did remark. So I launched a program to bring in other colors, seeking yellow, white, pink, or red flowering plants. It took a few years to improve the balance, which is, I’ve found, still somewhat delicate. I arrived home from town this spring with two four-packs of adorable violas I’d fallen in love with at the hardware store. The second I walked into the garden, I had a Homer Simpson moment: “Doh!!” Purple, of course, which I hadn’t registered until too late. But in my defense, the violas are a most charming blend different shades of purple.

IMG_1887My proclivity for plummy shades is evident up at the house, too, where annuals spend the summer in pots (a number of which are, yes, purple-glazed) near the doors. Each container hosts a different mix, but there’s purple in all of them: petunias, pansies, a striking delphinium. Even plants I don’t grow for their flowers pitch in when in bloom, with culinary sage, catmint, lamb’s ears, and Russian sage each contributing their flowers to the lavender-to-purple summer show.

This year, we enjoyed an early flush of native wildflowers following our spring snows, and July monsoons have elicited an enthusiastic second act. As I wandered around and admired the floral gems, I noticed that my partiality to purple is apparently shared by the pollinators that have helped push the evolution of the local wildflowers. Although their bloom times are scattered, the flowers of the following native plants all lie somewhere along the purple spectrum:

  • harebells
  • pasque flower
  • lupine
  • showy locoweed
  • penstemon (several varieties)
  • blue flag iris (a misnomer, if you ask me; the flowers are lilac-hued)
  • sugarbowl clematis
  • closed gentian
  • spider-flower
  • sticky purple geranium
  • purple aster
  • milk-vetch (again, several varieties)
  • showy aster
  • Rocky Mountain clematis
  • prostrate vervain
  • blue lettuce (again, I’ll advocate for a lavender-leaning color classification)

Blue grama grass.

Weedy non-natives alfalfa and Canada thistle deserve a passing mention on the basis of their flower color. And depending on how you slice the rainbow (and who would be so heartless, or presumptuous?), I’d include nodding onion in the family of native purple flowers—it’s blooming profusely right now, sending up airy flower clusters that resemble miniature starburst fireworks gleaming lilac-pink among the grasses. And speaking of grasses, I should also include blue grama grass: the seed heads currently periscoping above the narrow leaves aren’t aiming to attract pollinators, but they’re a deep maroon-purple, like the residue of a hefty cabernet in the bottom of a wine glass. Similarly, the new pine cones on the Ponderosas are indubitably purple.

On the basis of all this, I’d say that my tastes are not freaky or eccentric, merely in tune with the local environment. I’ll continue to strive for variety, but will take comfort in the fact that being pleased by purple puts me in some good company.


Ponderosa cones.

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