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In the Garden

A Red-Hot Time for Color

July 29, 1999|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Has someone been fooling with the color and tint buttons on my garden? Where pale, peaceful, pastels predominated, there are suddenly sizzling-hot summer shades.

It's not just the weather that gets hotter--flowers that bloom in summer are often much warmer in color than those that bloom in spring. Think of bougainvillea, hibiscus and zinnias, with their fluorescing blooms.

When the sun is straight up and as bright as can be, pale colors almost disappear. Pink, lilac or even soft yellow flowers are nearly invisible.

This is not the case in spring, when the sun is lower and the days are often overcast. At that time of year, pinks and other pale colors look just fine. They may even look bright under an overcast sky. In the warm haze and glare of the summer sun, however, they just fade away.

To compete with the sun, you need the glory of the sun: golden yellow, orange and red. And these colors are filling garden beds and nursery benches.

A lot of people go out of their way not to plant hot colors. Orange and red are not easy to work with. Designer and nurseryman Lew Whitney of Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach told me that almost nobody requests those two colors in their garden plans, and "when we put out 100 flats of mixed primroses at the nursery, the only ones left at the end of the weekend are the oranges and reds." All of the other colors, from pink to yellow to blue, are gone.

Golden yellow does not suffer the same stigma. For one thing, so many summer flowers are golden yellow--from golden fleece to marigolds to gloriosa daisies--you almost couldn't have a summer garden without those golden hues.

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Not many people plant true orange and real red on purpose, although some plant them by accident, as I did this spring. I bought a new ligularia with big, bewitching purple leaves. If I had read the label on this Ligularia dentata Othello, I would have seen that it has orange flowers--Day-Glo orange. Admittedly they look incredible with the purple leaves, but they go with nothing else in the garden. Oops.

The happy solution was to plant more orange, and red too.

There wasn't much real orange in the garden. There happened to be some of those orange primroses mentioned by Whitney, but they're closer to apricot and I've got a lot of apricot-colored flowers.

Apricot is hardly orange, it is so soft and muted. Apricot goes with everything in the garden, even pink, and there is no challenge to using it. Of course, neither will apricot jump out at you and exclaim, "Summertime!"

Tithonia, the so-called Mexican sunflower, will. It's an annual that likes hot weather and it's a pure, solid, shrieking orange. It's also not easy to find. Last time I grew it, I had to start my own from seed, although I do see it at nurseries from time to time, in the bedding-plant section.

When I asked other gardeners for some bright, summertime selections, cannas were mentioned every time.

Del Pace, owner of Desert-to-Jungle Nursery in Montebello, likes the orange color of the flowers on Pretoria, one of the new cannas with striped leaves. Durban and Tropicana are two other striped cannas that Frank Burkard, of Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena, mentioned, but many cannas have flowers that are some shade of orange or red, or a mix of the two. If you like your colors hot, cannas are hard to beat.

Cannas are real summertime plants, grown almost like annuals. But instead of pulling them out when they finish blooming, you cut them to the ground for winter, then water and fertilize like crazy in spring and summer when they come back. The best-looking cannas I've ever seen were growing in a drainage ditch at a wholesale nursery, where they thrived on the heavy runoff of fertilizer and water.

Pace also mentioned the outrageous Mexican vine named Senecio confusus. I have never grown anything so orange. Although this vine is capable of climbing trees, it goes partly dormant in winter and needs to be cut back hard, so I grew it in hanging pots on the terrace. It prefers coastal areas and is not a common plant at nurseries, but I do see it from time to time.

Landscape architect Shirley Kerins, who coordinates the Huntington Library plant sale, mentioned the somewhat weedy but undisputed champ of that fiery red-orange color--Tecomaria capensis or Cape honeysuckle. It is certainly a tower of orange in summer. She also mentioned the marmalade bush, or Streptosolon jamesonii, one of my favorite orange-flowered shrubs.

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Many of the best orange or red flowers come on vines, shrubs or trees, so they're not something you can normally plant just for summer effect. Once, though, I planted some bright orange-red lantana along with my summer annuals. That way I could enjoy the color for the season, and all the butterflies lantana attract, taking the plants out along with the annuals in the fall before they got too big.

Lion's tail is a good orange perennial, with its stacks of fuzzy, orange flowers. And don't forget the obvious perennials, such as gerberas and gazanias.

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