Orange Plants

About half my gardening life seems to be saying mea culpa. Mea culpa for all the plants I?ve been snobby about; for those I ignored; and now I have to doff the old forelock to the colour orange. I have eschewed orange as the one colour I couldn?t tolerate in my garden: out with Geum ?Mrs J. Bradshaw?, no to Lychnis chalcedonica and absolutely no orange tulips. All vulgar and impossible to place.

Well, maybe I?ve just been worn down by familiarity, maybe it?s actually buying an orange T-shirt in a snappy tone (one?s gardening eye can be shaped by what?s coming off the fashion runways after all), or being in Europe where they know how to use orange, but I?ve slowly come round. Christopher Lloyd, an English garden writer, whom I revere for style and sheer pigheadedness has been an orange fan for years and thought the rest of us were wimps for not embracing his taste.

He was right, I was wrong. Orange is a good colour in the garden and used properly it will add dash to what may be a fairly staid and dull border. Perhaps what threw me off was the annual cascades of a peculiarly neon orange rose bumping up against red brick walls so common in my own area. Or it could have been that trendy stuff going on a few years ago with The Hot Garden: vivid colours were flung together willy-nilly in such disarray that those of us with genteel refined taste turned up our noses at some of the eye-clawing horrors people managed to come with. Like any other aspect of gardening it takes time to figure out how to do bright colours well and they absolutely have to be suitable for specific sites. This was seldom taken into consideration in the rush to be at the cutting edge of a cutting garden (which most hot gardens turn out to be).

In their fascinating book on colour Nori and Sandra Pope tell us that they have a whole border of orange and they keep it going from spring to autumn. To look at these photographs is to swoon. Aha, that?s how it?s done. They have a helenium with one of the purple foliage dahlias and a climbing nasturtium. Each member of this trio has an orange blossom and it?s a heart stopping mix. Since all these plants are at their best in the autumn, they add fire to an already brilliant scene. And against an old brick wall, there?s a wonderful orange honeysuckle which looks just right.

I still like harmonies even when the colour is as strong as red or purple. So orange is going to be no exception. The Popes caution that the leaf and flower colour set one another off: brown and bronze come to life with orange. Orange and deep plum go well together (think Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona? and purple fennel). To me even in imagination this sounds delightful.

Tulipa Prinses Irene You could start in spring with Tulipa ?Prinses Irene? has a touch of purple on the outside and the combination would be a terrific jolt in the midst of all those forget-me-nots that seed themselves around. I think it would improve things vastly over the pink tulips in the sea of blue I now have. There are some really neon species tulips which I?ve always kept in a little corner but I?m thinking of getting them out of hiding for the occasion (spring that is).

For summer, phormiums are not only wonderful container plants they are now available in all sorts of interesting shades. I have a P. tenax ?Sundowner? and a golden potato vine. The strappy leaves of the phormium have greens and oranges (on the peachy side) in a direct contrast with the brilliant yellow potato vine spilling down the side of the pot.

If you are awash in pale colours during the summer, orange will keep a border from being boring. Garden consultant Victor Feodorov will throw a mass of impatiens, say salmon or scarlet, in an impossible dank north facing spot and then add three or four orange plants just as a zippy contrast to perk up the whole area. His favourite use of orange, however, is an autumn combination of marigolds and heliotrope. They peak simultaneously in September and October and are powerful in their intensity. This is a euphoric combination since they both like the same conditions and, as the season cools down, they just get better and better.

lychnis chalcedonica Asclepia and Lychnis chalcedonica seem to be another happy couple: both like semi-shade and one is short, the other taller. The same lychnis will also look good with the helenium shown here. Put them with some of the more vivid purple asters and it will definitely keep you alert. I rather like the idea of the nasturtiums near the smoky pewter of artemisias such as ?Lambrook silver? and ?Powys Castle?. Orange and lime green also has its appeal as well. Euphorbia grifithii ?Fireglow? has red orange heads and orange veins and E. martinii has bright lime green cymes to play off it. But I still can?t abide orange and pink, just too much like the Sixties for me. I like the more modern oranges with bronzey reds and pale yellows now available.

I?m not going to go crazy throwing orange all over my garden, the light is not strong enough to accommodate it to a great extent. But I can see that excluding any colour of the spectrum nature offers is foolish. I intend to mend my ways. A small amount of vivid is colour is always a knockout in any garden. It adds warmth, lightness and a brilliance even in a garden that is depends mainly on foliage for colour.

Color by Design: planting the contemporary garden, by Sandra and Nori Pope, SOMA books, 1998.

Originally published: July 20, 2002. Globe and Mail.