Purple leaves me crabby



Guest Post by veterinary surgeon and master gardener James Roush/Garden Musings

Please listen to ProfessorRoush:  you must plan your garden carefully rather than submit to the whims of spontaneous plant purchases and spectacular momentary blooms!  Science suggests that in an infinite number of parallel universes, almost anything can happen. I’m sure, therefore, that somewhere out in the gardening universe, there exists a gardener who plans everything on paper, circles and borders and hardscapes each perfectly sized, and that mythical gardener later proceeds to shop for that clump of ‘Stella de Oro’ or that purple barberry planned to provide just the right size and color blob for each spot on the plan. It’s even conceivable that in one of those infinite parallel universes, there is a ProfessorRoush who plans his gardens before he plants. In the rest of those infinite gardens, however, there is a crabby ProfessorRoush who planted too many purple-leaved crabapples.

Like many great artists and gardeners, I have evolved through a number of creative periods; my bedding plants phase, my daylily extravagance, the iris collection mania, the weeping evergreen saga, and my ornamental grasses affair. My most notorious fleeting passion, however, was a “purple-leafed tree” period, which resulted in an entire front landscaping dominated by dreary dark-burgundy blobs, all individually beautiful, but collectively presenting a distressing and depressing display. You all know how it happens. In early spring, a local nursery seduces you with a ‘Royalty’ crabapple, whose perfectly beautiful pinkish-purple blooms are shown above. Those claret, delicately-veined blooms are gorgeous, aren’t they?  The fact that the plant will have burgundy leaves throughout the summer only adds to its theoretical interest and garden usefulness. Price doesn’t matter, we must have it!


Unfortunately, those burgundy leaves serve as an uncontrasting backdrop for the burgundy flowers and from over a few feet away, the flowers disappear into the foliage. Witness the tree in full bloom (above). Now you’ve just got a dark, dirgeful blob in the lawn, and you’re never sure when the plant is in bloom from a distance. Deep in your addiction phase, now add in a similar ‘Red Baron’ crabapple purchased before you’ve learned your lesson, and a ‘Canada Red’ Prunus candedensis tree with purple leaves, and a Fraxinus americana ‘Rosehill’ Ash whose leaves turn burgundy in the fall, and you’ve accidentally created a doleful landscape in purples. Thankfully, a copper-red ‘Profusion’ crabapple died under my care as an infant tree and the ‘Canada Red’ has since enlisted the Kansas wind in an assisted-suicide pact, both proof that God exists and is attentive to foolish gardeners.

A little variety, friends, goes a long way in a garden, and so does a little hard-won wisdom. We’ve all done it, and those who missed their purple phase likely just substituted a white phase centered around Bradford pears or suffered some other colorful catastrophe of their own making. Although I later succumbed to a minor “shaggy-bark” tree infatuation that caused a smaller area of my landscape to appear as if massive dandruff had afflicted all the trees, I learned a substantial lesson during my burgundy fiasco and have since added maples and oaks, magnolias and sycamores, and cottonwoods and elms to the garden. Given age and actuarial tables, I may never see the mature outcome of these efforts, but perhaps, someday, my landscape may look more like a planned garden and less like a watercolor scene created by a two-year-old with a penchant for purple. I still don’t have a garden plan, and I’m still subject to spontaneous purchases, but I persevere with the knowledge that time and nature will help correct my mistakes.


  1. Try to put a positive spin on it, Professor – you managed to create the ideal Victorian landscape – dark, dreary and depressing. Just build a Gothic Revival house to add to the doleful effect, and you’re all set. Wonderful post!

  2. At first I was prepared to be crabby about The Professor’s crabbiness. But I was laughing hard by the end. Here are some of my infatuations gone awry. Anything viney–especially if it will invade the lawn and the neighbor’s yard; daylilies all planted where the flowers would be facing the wrong way–that darn heliotropsis (sp?); an all white moon garden–can anyone say “mosquitoes at dusk.” I’m sure there are more!

    Btw, “dark dirgeful blob in the lawn” is a great line / image!

  3. This is an excellent opportunity for using lots of lime green shrubs, and foliage plants. I love lime green, but I really need some of that dark purple to make my lime pop. It is really unfortunate about the flowers fading into the foliage though. That is very discouraging.

    Lime green is the answer.

    I have had my different fazes too. Daylilies, Iris, Roses, White, Viburnums, Hydrangea, Delphiniums and Lilies (oh, still going through those with my lime).

  4. My husband has a thing for black red. I have made him a black red border. The scarlet black reds are east of the smoke tree and the blue black reds west.

    Fortunately, things with black red leaves almost never have black red flowers , and things with black red flowers almost never have black red leaves, your crabapple being the exception. The dark leaved Rhododendron ‘Ebony Pearl’ has bright pink flowers. The dark leaved Geraniums have lilac/periwinkle flowers. The new growth on the Pieris ‘Katsura’ and Rhododendron ‘Starbright Champagne’ is deep red, but the rest of the leaves are green. The flowers on Rhododendron ‘Starbright Champagne’, like those of the ‘Scheherazade’ lilies, are dark red and yellow. ‘The Prince’ asters have black leaves, but the flowers are white with pink centers. The flowers on the nameless black leaved phlox that came with the house are white backed with purple. The native, red leaved wood sorrel which I’ve let seed itself around (I may live to regret that) has yellow flowers. All the lilies, daylilies, iris, columbines, cosmos, callas, etc. with black red flowers I’ve planted have green leaves.

    In fact, there is so much green and other colors, I’m not sure anyone but me even realizes it is a black red border.

    • PS. The black red border is on the south property line. The sun shining behind the black reds make them GLOW! There is nothing the least bit dreary about them.

  5. Hmm…a black-red border in your mind only. That’s a new one. Might I suggest ‘Queen Bee’, a dark black-red Griffith Buck rose, for your border? BTW, Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’, blooming now in my front border, is another dark-leaved, almost dark-flowered plant you forgot. I find I much prefer the bright red/green foliage Weigelas such as ‘Red Prince’.

    • I don’t do roses, thank you. I’ve seen the Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’ and I like it. I’ll have to look up the W. ‘Red Prince’. Not that I have room for either at this point. Once things fill in, that border will be full, full, full.

      • I’m working on a black-red border too, but wasn’t brave enough to do both scarlet red and blue red. I’m trying to stay to the blue reds, although sometimes a variety creeps in that appeared blue red in the picture but wasn’t. I’m sure you have had to move a plant or two for a similar reason. My border is mostly full sun, so no rhodies. It’s a work in progress. So far I have the Physocarpus ‘Diablo’, Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’, Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ and Hibiscus ‘Fireball’, plus ‘Show Girl’ daylilies, Knautia ‘Mars Midget’, Penstemon ‘Husker’s Red’, Euphorbia ‘Chameleon’ and Geranium ‘Espresso’. To lighten things a bit, I am mixing in some chartruse and orange hues, with Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’, Lilium ‘Jacqueline’ (not sure yet if the bloom color will work out), and a geum called Alabama Slammer. What a gorgeous geum! The label description said “burgundy purple buds open to ruffled gold flowers with red-orange markings.” It’s as stunning as it sounds.

  6. Thanks for the laugh!

    I think I’ve touched all those fancies at some point but my wallet has prevented me from getting too many of one thing so perhaps my affliction is ‘too much of a little of everything’.

  7. Nothing makes me cringe more than those awful big black Crimson King Norway Maples. Not only do they become invasive (they revert back to green when they grow from seed and thus people don’t notice their woodland take-over), but growing-up on Long Island every funeral parlor had at least one planted out front on the lawn. I think of them as Trees of the Dead and have no idea why people want them anywhere near their house or garden.

  8. Nice post, Professor! I love honesty about the foibles of gardening, and most of us have been there (like you said, multiple times). And– I bet the birds and honeybees are very happy!

  9. The blessing, I suppose, Professor, is that so many plants we have-to-have die or are removed, so that in the end, their collective nuisance-selves fade over the decades.

    Case in point, our Pairie Fire Crabapple is almost dead – after 10 bleak years of being gorgeous for 3 weeks every spring.

    Garden on!

  10. I am guilty of a couple of “This will make a fabulous groundcover!” phases.

    Eco-lacquered Spider was a great idea on paper. Who knew it would just keep going? Forever? And then die out extravagantly in the middle after blooming?

    • I hope you didn’t fall into the Houttuynia cordata trap. In fact, to spell the name right, I simply googled “stinking ground cover”. But that’s a subject for a differant rant!

    • Sadly, I went through a campanula phase – campanulas are great, got to try all the campanulas. And then I met Campanula Cherry Bells. Beware! It’s as invasive as they come.

  11. Ah to be a gardener is human! I see you have also succumbed to the old “ring-a-round the tree look too! Just sayin! Loved your post, lessons for us all.

  12. I cringe everytime I see a purple Dodonaea hedge. It’s such a mindless modernist cliché here in L.A. and they as just so insipid.

    • Had to look that one up. Thankfully, Dodonaea doesn’t survive here in Kansas so I don’t have to look at it everywhere (and never grew it). We substitute Purple Barberry for our ubiquitous purple landscape shrub.

  13. This made me laugh with recognition, although I haven’t gone off the deep end with purple trees, I do have a bizarre number of purple flowering plants. Now I’m thinking of heading out to start disposing of some… Are there really people out there who plan out a garden on PAPER?! It’s so much for fun and exciting to just buy what strikes your fancy at the nursery and hope it works out 😉


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