Southern Roots

Pretty in Purple

Story and photography by Amelia Grant

Purple flowers bring vibrant color to spring gardens along with nectar for bees and butterflies.

A pop of purple is a wonderful way to celebrate spring and add color to the Southern garden. Bees and native pollinators such as butterflies are primarily attracted to purple, yellow, and white flowers, so adding purple flowers will not only provide the gardener with joy, but butterflies will delight in a sip of nectar and bees will grab pollen to make honey.

Plants have purple foliage due to a higher concentration of a pigment called anthocyanin. Some botanists theorize the purple pigment acts as a sunscreen for delicate tissues, while others think it acts as a protective device to notify hungry herbivores of poisons in the plant.

“Anthocyanins provide purple coloration and are protective pigments, masking the green color of the chlorophyll when both are present, making leaves appear purple or nearly black,” explains Scott Aker, supervisory research horticulturist of the U.S. National Arboretum. “They help plants by ameliorating temperature and drought stress and counteract the harmful effects on chlorophyll, membranes, and other parts of plant cells. They may also confuse herbivores that equate green coloration with palatable food sources.”

In the garden purple draws your eye with its depth of color and contrast to green. (Remember the color wheel? Green and purple are on opposite sides.) Other great complements to purple are whites, greys, chartreuse, and rose red for spice. Purple plants may recede into the background when used in shady places without whites and greys to bring out their colors. In sunnier locations, rose red and whites pop the purple hues. Chartreuse plants may be used in either exposure. Think variegated hostas with purple ajuga in shade gardens and a container filled with purple fountain grass, licorice plant, and a rose red geranium on a sunny patio.


Butterfly Bush – Buddleia davidii
This shrub is hands down the biggest butterfly magnet in the garden. A deciduous shrub that is available in sizes ranging from dwarf plants that reach about three feet to towering back of the border plants topping 15 feet. They are available in a range of colors, from whites, blues, and purples to nearly red.

Butterfly bush is extremely easy to grow, needing full sun (a minimum of eight hours of bright sunlight) and well-drained soils to look its best. If growing in clay soils, plant the shrub high in the ground so water drains away and go easy on the mulch. Spring is the best time of year to plant butterfly bush so it may establish before the wet winter weather sets in.

The new sterile purple varieties don’t reseed in the garden. “Lo and Behold” varieties are dwarf plants that are available in several shades of purple. “Miss Violet” is a bigger plant reaching five feet in height.

Purple Fountain Grass – Pennisetum setaceum ‘Dwarf Rubrum’
An ornamental grass sporting purple foliage and off-white bottle brush flowers during the summer, this touch of purple may be used in the garden as a thriller centerpiece in a container or added to a perennial garden as a focal point or contrast with leafy green plants. Happiest in full sun and well-drained soil conditions, this plant is considered hardy in Zone 9 but may return in Zones 7 and 8 with mild winters and a warm jacket of mulch applied in the fall.

Mona Lavender – Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’
While the name brings up visions of tropical fish, this plant boasts purplish leaves and flowers. It may attain 2 feet by 2 feet in a growing season. Sometimes called Swedish ivy, it is a relative of the familiar coleus and grows under similar conditions, partial shade, and abundant water. In the Mid-South Mona may be used as a house plant or summer annual, in containers, or as a bedding plant.

Bugleflower – Ajuga reptans
Bugleflower is a stalwart of shady, moist gardens in Zones 6, 7, and 8. A mat-forming groundcover that is relatively carefree once established, it provides an evergreen groundcover for year-round interest and flowers up to 10 feet in mid-spring. Potential pitfalls include crown rot during humid summers and an overabundance of bugleflower in conducive locations. Many varieties of bugleflower are available. Named variety “Purple Brocade” features purple foliage and flowers.

More Purple Garden Plants
Forest Pansy Redbud (Cercis canadensis “Forest Pansy”) is a purple-leaved alternative to the beloved spring-flowering redbud tree. Forest Pansy has rose-pink flowers and new red foliage turns to red-violet as it matures.

Burgundy Loropetalum (Loropetalum Chinese “Rubrum”), sometimes called Chinese fringeflower, these purple-leaved beauties with pink or red-fringed flowers are available in dwarf to small tree-sized plants depending on the variety.

Purple Queen (Transcandentia pallida), possibly the most purple available in one plant, is a creeper with purple foliage and flowers. It may be used as a summer annual, in containers or as a bedding plant. Plants may survive mild winters in the ground in Zones 7 and 8.

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