Getting the blues

Veronica "Big Blue'                                                       Proven Winners                                   

Veronica "Big Blue'                                                       Proven Winners                                   

No color is more prized in the garden than ethereal blue, the color of clear skies, misty distances and still, reflective waters.

People invariably gravitate toward rich blue flowers. I have stood for long moments deeply absorbed in glistening blues of my delphiniums or the celestial perfection of my ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories. Were either of these grown in one of their other pretty colors – pink, purple or scarlet – the attraction would not be so powerful and so keen.

Other people in other contexts may shun “the blues.” Gardeners?  We revel in them.  Blue establishes a mood of cool, calm tranquility. It’s a perfect foil to stimulating hot colors like the reds, oranges and bright yellows that are so common among annuals that keep gardens in bloom through the summer.

As the British garden guru Christopher Lloyd points out in “Color for the Adventurous Gardener” (Firefly Books, 2001), true blue is rare. Some so-called “blue” flowers “stretch the interpretation of the word to the snapping point” as he says.  In many, the tints of purple, violet or mauve creep in, but that’s no reason not to value those that are close enough to represent blue in our color harmonies.

The secret to handling the variations according to that mistress of garden color, Gertrude Jekyll, is to isolate the true blues from the violet blues. Standing close together, they do one another no favors. In her borders, Jekyll kept the pure blues at one end and the purple-tinged hues at the other.

Good, true blues are certainly found among the delphiniums -- and if you’ve despaired of raising the stiffly upright, blossom-packed varieties of the English garden, try the more accommodating multi-branched species like the belladonna varieties. An easier class of plants altogether is the salvia clan, which includes true Cambridge blues and deep, sumptuous shades that practically vibrate in strong sun.

Other crayon-box blues are found in certain annuals – morning glories, lobelias, nemesias and nigella (also charmingly known as love-in-a-mist).

The several plants referred to as “forget-me-nots” also have clear, if often paler, shades of blue. “True” forget-me-nots are in the myositis genus and include the low-growing M. sylvatica as well as the water-loving M. scorpioides, which will happily grow along a stream or pond.  Don’t write off the annual type, a compact little plant in the genus cynoglossum. It bears clouds of deep blue blossoms above fuzzy (and rather sticky) foliage.

Pale blues also are found in varieties of the vining wisteria, some Rose of Sharon and select cultivars of Siberian iris (‘Sky Wings’ is my favorite). Looking for deep, electric blues? Look among the grape hyacinths, perfect with spring tulips and daffodils, or at the saturated colors of the slightly sinister monkshood with its hooded flowers.

The key thing to remember about positioning blue flowers in the garden is that they need companions – since blues tend to recede, optically speaking, they call for contrast so they don’t get visually lost.  This phenomenon can actually be exploited to give beds the illusion of depth. A sea of blue floss flower or plumbago can make the far reaches of the garden seem just a little more distant.

Most colors play well with blue. It’s wonderfully crisp with all shades of yellow, from pale primrose to the brash golden shades. Pair blue catmint, salvia or lavender with yellow roses or golden coreopsis. Try a hybrid goldenrod like ‘Fireworks’ with the vibrant aster ‘Sapphire.’ Or go for a late-season classic – black-eyed Susans or purple coneflowers with the airy branches of Russian sage.

Pink is another happy choice. Pair a blue clematis with a climbing pink rose like ‘New Dawn,’ or let the spiky flowers of sea holly overhang a carpet of pink hardy geraniums like ‘Wargrave Pink’ or the paler ‘Ballerina.’  Orange provides maximum contrast. No one will pass a bed of felicia daisies and deep orange daylilies without taking notice. Reds, on the other hand, can be problematic, so beware: Warm reds do not play well with purplish blues.

Don’t forget foliage contrasts. Blue paired with silvery leaves – found in artemesias and lamb’s ears, for instance – is very effective. And for a really zingy combination, try deep blues with chartreuse foliage. A cascade of pale green sedge, the foamy blossoms of ladies mantle or the fleshy leaves and flowers of euphorbias will do the trick.

Whatever your choice of color companions, embrace the blues. Nothing in the garden will make you  happier. 

Morning glory 'Heavenly Blue'         Robert & Pat Rogers/Flickr

Morning glory 'Heavenly Blue'         Robert & Pat Rogers/Flickr

Bulbs, corms and tubers

Agapanthus ‘Midnight Blue’

Bearded iris ‘True Navy’

Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica)

Dutch hyancinth‘King of the Blues’

Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) ‘Blue Spire’

Native hyacinth (Camassia species)

 

Annuals

Baby-blue-eyes (Nemophilia menziesii)

Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile)

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) ‘Blue Diadem’

Floss flower (Ageratum)  ‘Artist Blue,’ ‘Stellar Blue’

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascene) ‘Miss Jekyll’

Morning glory ‘Heavenly Blue’

 

Perennials

Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’

Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvestris)

Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Monkshood (Aconitum species)

Sea holly (Eryngium species)

Siberian iris ‘Sky Wings’

 

Shrubby plants

Bluebeard (Caryopteris species)

Hydrangea

Russian sage (Perovskia species)

Rose of Sharon ‘Blue Chiffon,’ ‘Blue Satin’

Viburnum ‘Blue Muffin’ (blue berries)

Wisteria ‘Blue Moon’