Wednesday, April 13, 2011


            Like all perception, color is illusion. Nobody knows unequivocally what color anything is because everything that has ever happened to every person up to any point is brought to bear on what he “sees.” Additionally, each individual’s rods and cones interpret the wave frequencies of light differently. Humans only perceive the ROY G. BIV spectrum—other creatures go beyond that. Bees, for example, see infrared “landing strip” indicators in flowers that aren’t apparent to our unaided eyes. Even color-blind people perceive color, just not in the same way as the color-sighted (for lack of a better term).
The color wheel

Light reflecting off surroundings influences perceived color as well. Anyone who has tried to match a specific shade of green to paint swatches has known this truth. Some of many fascinating facts about color I’ve learned from discussing art with Tim are, in paintings and in nature, shadows are never black, but the object’s complementary color, greyed; black is the absence of color because it occurs in the absence of light; and in painting and in nature, objects are never primary red, yellow or blue, but rather one of the infinite number of blends possible. Camille Pissarro encapsulated the dilemma of translating color to canvas when he wrote his son, Lucien, “Let us work hard to make dazzling greys.”  
Himalayan blue poppy

Despite all the science, I love blue. (Me and probably 80% of the world’s population.) It makes you feel calm, and comforted, and detached. It’s synonymous with sunny-day skies, deep water, and the faces of glaciers. Clunky squash-blossom turquoise necklaces evoke images of the Southwest. Blue is associated with sadness, in a wistful, nostalgic way. It’s the language you use when you’re furious, and what you sing to make yourself feel better. It’s what moms add to the wash-water for the whitest whites, and what old ladies use to take the dullness out of grey hair. It’s how we talk when the words tumble out in a torrent, a blue streak. Once in a blue moon is a very long time indeed. It’s the color of the stockings worn by the first feminists. It’s the color of laws that prohibit booze-buying on Sundays. It’s the color of denim. And, according to Andre Popp, it’s the color of love.

            When Tim and I visited Belvedere House’s walled garden in County Westmeath, Ireland, a Himalayan blue poppy stopped me in my tracks. Of course I snapped picture after (lousy) picture, but couldn’t capture that heart-breaking shade. (Tim, the former photo-interpreter, tells me blues never photograph true. He’s right, as usual: I spent 20 minutes on the Internet just now scrolling through hundreds of pictures of blue poppies, and only came sort-of close for the shot included here.) We can’t grow Meconopsis sheldonii ‘Lingholm’ here, like we can’t grow most things with “Alberta” or “Colorado” or “Canadian” or “mountain” in their names: but it set me on a quest to find true-blue flowers.

'Navy Blue and White' hybrid columbine
            Blue cools its surroundings. It recedes, giving an illusion of depth to small spaces. I read somewhere once that blue blossoms are bee magnets. All in all, a thoroughly useful addition to any garden. I’ve just raised it to the level of obsession.

            Blues can be tricky, though. What breeders call “blue” often turns out violet, or lavender or, in the case of roses, some horrid, muddy, mauve-ish color. Soil makes a difference in color expression, too: does your ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangea bloom pink? Bet your dirt falls on the basic side of the pH scale. Still, plants that flower with what my eyes perceive as blue-not-purple abound, and I’ve collected quite a few of them.

Plain ol' morning glory

            For really-blue flowering annuals, try Angelonia Angelface blue and Dresden blue; Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis); Lobelia erinus, including the Techno Heat series, which actually held up in my hot-summer garden last year; other-worldly looking columbine hybrid Aquilegia ‘Navy Blue and White’; and several viola cultivars, especially the Penny and Delta series. Then there are the old bedding reliables, Ageratum houstonianum (flossflower) and Centaurea cyanus (cornflowers and bachelor's buttons).

Want climbers? Try glory vine, Thunbergia grandiflora; the devastatingly beautiful blue butterfly vine with the unfortunate botanical name (Clitoria ternatea); and azure morning glories, Ipomoea nil ((the straight species and several cultivars) and I. acuminata. I have to treat all these selections as annuals. But that’s okay. 
Two-toned grape hyacinths

            When it comes to bulbs, if the blurb says blue, I’ve tried it. Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthiodes hispanica ‘Excelsior’); tiny Grecian windflowers (Anemone blanda blue shades); grape hyacinths (M. aucheri, M. armeniacum and two-toned Muscari latifolium are favorites); the fireworks flowers of Peruvian squill (Scilla peruviana); and starflowers (the infinitely variable blue tints of Ipheion uniflorum straight species, ‘Wisley Blue,’ ‘Rolf Fiedler’ and electric ‘Jessie’) have all earned permanent status in my spring garden. I’ve had little success with lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus hybrids) perennializing, but you still can’t beat those big blue umbels for summertime vertical presence.
Blue Grecian windflower

            Blue-flowering shrubs are hard come by. The only four I can name are: bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Blue Mist’ and ‘Dark Knight’); a few cultivars of butterfly bush (Buddleja x davidii, a plant the late, great, Brit gardener Christopher Lloyd termed “in the top flight of second-rate shrubs”), notably ‘Nanho Blue’; golden dew drop, the sappy-sounding but descriptive common name for the fruit of Duranta erecta ‘Sapphire Showers’; and, of course, the blue-blooming hydrangeas.

            Blue foliage proves more elusive. The Cheddar pinks (named after the Cheddar region of England and not the cheese that also originated in that area) come close, especially the greeny- to silvery-blue Dianthus gratianapolitanus ‘Baths Pink,’ ‘Feuerhexe [Firewitch]’ and their ilk. ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) forms neat clumps of hair-like steel blue blades. Blue lyme grass (Leymus arenarius ‘Blue Dune’) foliage is a dusty blue, but the plant tends to run before going sparse prior to disappearing all together. And then there is the entire pantheon of blue agaves (Agave americana, A. parryi).

'Caitlins Giant' bugleweed
and shades-of-blue pansies
            Sea holly (Eryngium planum) makes a good bridge between foliage plants and perennial flowers. This spiky touch-me-not puts out steel blue blossoms on steel blue stems with steel blue leaves. It’s short-lived in my garden, but I wouldn’t be without it. Blue globe thistle (Echinops ritro) is another less-traveled-by plant with ’way cool fake-looking spherical flowers.

            Other favorite blue-flowering perennials include the poisonous-in-all-its-parts southern monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii); bugleweed (Ajuga reptans); the blue stars (Amsonia tabernaemontana and A. hubrictii); false indigo (Baptisia australis and its little brother, B. minor); catmint (Nepeta x faassenii); balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflora); sky-blue, phlox-like racemes of Cape plumbago (Plumbago auriculata), also known by the less melodious name of leadwort; the welcome winter blooms of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis); mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea); blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica); and the blue veronica cultivars (Veronica spicata ‘Sunny Border Blue,’ ‘Darwin's Blue,’ etc.).

Rosemary in bloom

            The final category for adding blue to the garden is the blue berriers. First among these are the, um, blueberries (Vaccinium spp.). But don’t underestimate the appeal of the metallic-blue fruits of mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) and of tinus viburnum (Viburnum tinus, in case you were wondering). Often overlooked, the two-tone berries of Brown’s yew (Podocarpus macrophylla ‘Maki’) are not only a treat for the eyes, but for the palate as well.

The berries of tinus viburnum

            Dozens of other garden-worthy plants are blue-ish, leaning toward lavender or toward violet. I’ve had such fun researching this topic, I believe an all-picture, blue bonus post is in order. I’ll get on that tomorrow. And remember, you can make the photos larger by clicking on them.

            For now, though, thanks for dropping by. Hoping to get my new raised beds filled this weekend since those paychecks came through. Big doin’s in the vegetable garden these days!



  1. I've read your answer on blogspot help forum. I'm somewhat confused the ? seemed to be- when I type my url I get nothing, your response- give your friends your url and they can go straight to it! Hope it's not improper contacting you this way, but I'm at my wits end! Day's writing, and no friends or family may read? my url is http;// great blog by the way!

  2. Dave--
    My husband, Tim, is the computer nerd in our house. I just type. He did overcome the problem I had with new posts not being listed, but as far as I'm, concerned, it's all hocus-pocus. I'll have him write you here to explain what he did.
    Hi Dave
    I tried everything they told me and nothing I went to blog settings> site feed and deleated the feed burner url from the post redirect box. The next morning all of Kathy's blogs had been updated and her readers were getting the newest updates. I hope this helps. It can be very frustrating dealing with the computer word. Let me know how you make out.
    Tim Fitzgerald