Like red, yellow is an old color. Classical Greek painters used only low-voltage, earthy reds and yellows, procured from the native clays of Attica. It wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that clear, intense yellows and oranges began to sparkle in French Impressionist paintings. And it wasn’t until a decade or two ago that bright yellow found its way into our perennial borders.
Before that, most gardeners shunned bright colors—and yellow is the brightest and lightest color in the spectrum. Yellow commercial signs and yellow lettering prove more eye-catching than either red or orange. And in the garden, yellow blossoms carry farther, shine brighter, and remain visible longer in the evening than flowers of any other color, except white. The effect of yellow is warm, cheerful, and friendly. According to real-estate agents, if you want to sell your house, plant yellow flowers in front of it.
Even if you don’t want to sell your house, you and your neighbors will enjoy your front yard more if you fill it with lively yellow blossoms. Because yellow attracts attention, use it with an equally strong, bright partner, like white. One of the crispest, freshest, most appealing color schemes in nature and in horticulture is yellow, white, and green. Green, being the darker hue, sets off the two lighter, brighter hues, while yellow and white, well matched in value, vie for attention without detracting from each other. These light, bright colors succeed in front of a white house, where darker colors fail. Few colors—except yellow, yellow-green, light orange, and white itself—can compete with the large expanse of a light-colored exterior wall.
The yellow family
Primary yellow stands between warm golden yellow (red added) and cool lemon yellow (blue added). While most yellows coexist happily, some gardeners segregate the warm and cool versions, finding their contrast disconcerting.
Yellow, white, and blue constitute a wonderful trio, outdoors and in. Interior designer Tricia Guild describes these three hues as “the colors of summer days,” but they work best in the spring garden. Indeed, yellow is one of nature’s favorite colors for the season. From wildflowers, such as trout lilies (Erythronium spp. and cvs.) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), to shrubs, like early-blooming spice bush (Lindera benzoin), to the infant leaves of forest trees, the prevailing colors in the natural landscape are yellow-green and yellow. Garden shrubs with yellow flowers, such as witch hazels (Hamamelis spp. and cvs.), winter hazels (Corylopsis spp. and cvs.), and forsythias (Forsythia spp. and cvs.), lend themselves to being underplanted with carpets of blue and white bulbs, such as glory-in-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp. and cvs.), anemones (Anemone spp. and cvs.), and grape hyacinths (Muscari spp. and cvs.).
Many gardeners share nature’s enthusiasm for yellow: for pure yellow’s bright demeanor and carrying power, warm yellow’s role in creating harmony between warm reds and the oranges, and the many exciting contrasts of cool lemon yellows and cool dark reds. Lovers of yellow rejoice in the most striking contrast of all: yellow with violet. These two opposing hues are as different as night and day. Lightness is yellow’s stock in trade; while there are numerous light tints, there are no dark shades.
Photos, except where noted: Jennifer Benner