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Pretty in purple: Gorgeous foliage to add dimension in the garden


I don’t know what spurred my recent interest in plants with purple foliage, but everywhere I turn, deep, dark leaves are catching my eye.

Like other plants with “special” colored foliage, including chartreuse, silver and variegated, purple plants have to be used sparingly, lest they lose  their impact. They also work better when set against a lighter background, like a house with light-colored siding or lighter green foliage.

Here are a few of the pretty purple plants that are catching my eye right now. 

The purple weeping beech Fagus sylvatica ‘Purple Fountain’ combines dark leaves with a weeping form for a double whammy of impact. I love that pleated leaf shape.

purple weeping beech
Photo used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Redbuds are stunning trees with big, heart-shaped leaves and flowers in spring. There are a few dark-leafed varieties, but the one that caught my eye is Cercis canadensis ‘Ruby Falls’, a short weeping variety that is probably more shrublike than treelike.

Ruby Falls redbud
Spring Hills Nursery photo


Of course elderberries offer amazing purple foliage, along with beautiful edible flowers. Sambucus nigra Black Lace is Proven Winners variety with lacy leaves and pink flowers. The only caveat is that elderberries are highly susceptible to verticilium wilt so you should avoid them if you have that problem. 

Black Lace elderberry
Proven Winners photo


I’ve shared my love of dahlias here on many occasions, and I have oodles of “favorites,” but some of the most useful dahlias are those with purple foliage, which adds an additional bit of interest to a plant we normally just think of for its flowers. 

'HS Flame' dahlia
The HS series (HS stands for “Happy Single” which makes me like them even more) has purple foliage, adding dimension and allowing them to play so well with others. This is ‘HS Flame’ with Verbena bonariensis Meteor Shower in my garden.

For whatever reason I’ve not paid too much attention to Alternanthera (aka Joseph’s Coat) much in the past, but since I’m on this purple foliage kick it caught my attention in a big way. I’m thinking it would make an amazing mass planting in my circle garden, perhaps dotted with frothy Diamond Frost Euphorbia. Purple and white is a stunning combo.

Plum Dandy Alternanthera
Plum Dandy Alternanthera. Proven Winners photo

Purple Oxalis (aka shamrock) is about as charming as a plant can be. Charmed Wine has a wide range of exposures so it could be combined with a lot of other plants, but I think it would look best mass planted on its own in a container. 

Purple oxalis
Proven Winners photo

I grew ‘Wild Magic’ basil last year for the first time and I’m completely smitten. It has purple foliage, pink flowers and a great deal of vigor. It’s sterile, so the flavor hangs on, but I didn’t dare eat it last year. It was just to beautiful to pilfer from. The only source I’ve found for it is Annie’s Annuals

'Wild Magic' basil
‘Wild Magic’ basil is even more beautiful than it is tasty.

Last year I grew Pennisetum Vertigo and it was a stunning centerpiece in large containers. Perhaps my newfound love of purple foliage started there, but I’d absolutely grow it again. However, if I were going to grow it again, I’d plant it in a large nursery pot on its own and sink the pot in a large container. It is an absolute glutton in a container and took up every bit of space I gave it, even in a 36-inch square container. Keeping it a little bit in check would at least make it easier to remove at the end of the season.

pink urn planting
Vertigo was a great centerpiece in this large container in the center of the garden last year.

This year I’m going to go all in on purple and make a statement with Colocasia ‘Distant Memory’, an enormous and stunning elephant ear. Dark foliage might recede into the background but with leaves this big, it’s all about being in your face.

Colocasia Distant Memory
Want to go all in on purple? The giant leaves of Colocasia ‘Distant Memory’ make a big statement. Walters Gardens photo

There are so many other great plants with purple foliage (Coleus comes to mind). With color like that, flowers are optional.

What are your favorite plants with purple foliage?

P.S. Want to know a secret? I hate the color purple and pretty much always have. But I see (and treat) colors in the garden and in nature differently than the colors that I wear or paint my walls. So in summary: Purple in the garden = good, purple shirt = nope, not going to happen.

11 Responses

  1. I’m a fan of physocarpus ‘Petite Plum’ never have seen any powdery mildew on it! I also like Cimicifuga ‘Black Negligee’ and am trying a new Astilbe called ‘Chocolate Shogun’ – foliage is sooo dark and looks cool with my blue hosta.

  2. I will have to see if I can find that basil as it is a looker. My redbud Forest Pansy comes out purple but it is not as dramatic as that little weeper because the leaves are overhead. And my purple Beech leaves emerge bronze then go purple and then greenish. I planted bronze leaved Astilbe and orange tulips under it. Looking good — except for the rabbit cages! Last fall I planted a purple Cotinus which is a smaller one. Somewhere I read that many pollinators ignore purple leaf plants. Need to find that again to see what it says.

  3. I have incorporated purple perennials and shrubs in my landscape. As Helen mentioned, coral bells are a good choice. I have purple palace coral bells planted by Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ . I have Summer Wine and Tiny Wine Ninebark and Spilled Wine Weigela. Both the ninebark and weigela have pink flowers which are pretty against the purple foliage. Purple fountain grass is another fun thing to add to your garden. I agree with you Erin, I love the way white and purple look together. I planted an Annabelle hydrangea in front of my ninebark. The fun thing about combining different colors of foliage plants with different leaf shapes is even when your plants aren’t in bloom, your garden is interesting.

  4. I’ve always been a huge fan of purple foliage in the garden and you just reminded me I had that Black Lace at my previous garden….I should have dug up all my plants and taken them with me, what was I thinking? I also had Black Mondo Grass, and of course anything purple had to be against something chartreuse….I just adore the contrast! You may want to consider Castor Bean as a dramatic centerpiece….it has amazing foliage and it’s so easy to grow from seed!

  5. I often use purple basil in pots for color. A bonus–deer will not eat it! Also, pick the stems and let them marinate in rice vinegar for a week or so. You will end up with a beautiful red vinegar that is tasty on tomatoes and salads. I mix it with a little olive oil and a small amount of Good Seasonings salad dressing mix and it is delicious.

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