Design

Orange Plants for a Warm Palette in the Garden

This fiery color fits every season

Fine Gardening - Issue 183
For a taste of tangerine, plant ‘Flore Pleno’ Spanish poppy (Papaver rupifragum ‘Flore Pleno’, Zones 6–9) at the edge of a hot, sunny border. Photo: Lisa Roper/courtesy of Chanticleer

Why do so many gardeners shy away from orange? I have always been drawn to its warmth and flexibility. Orange is a versatile color; even those who dislike it often don’t mind a salmon hue or a peach accent. Although this color has a reputation for being hard to work with, I find that it fits well into many color schemes.

A flowering garden scene showing a mix of orange, purple and silver colors
‘David Howard’ dahlia (Dahlia ‘David Howard’, Zones 8–11), with its winning mix of hot blooms and inky purple foliage, works exceptionally well with violet- and lavender-colored companions.

Orange is an eye-catching accent throughout the year

I continue to be fascinated by how color is presented in plants and how the colors of a garden change and shift through the seasons. In the winter garden, warm orange stems and branches provide a welcome accent to evergreens and dormant woody plants. The citrus-colored blooms of flowering bulbs and tawny apricot-tinted blades of ornamental grasses offer a feeling of warmth that helps ease us into spring. In the high season, when orange is best represented, the intense summer sun enhances it rather than robbing it of its strength. And of course this color is a key player in the garden’s theatrical transition into autumn. In each season, this hue brings strength and character to the garden in a different way.

chartreuse and orange foliage plants
Sunny yellow and bright chartreuse are natural color companions for the strappy tropical leaves of a bromeliad (Aechmea blanchetiana, Zones 10–11).
rusty orange plants in a border
A dark, rusty bronze such as the foliage of ‘Dissectum Nigrum’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum         ‘Dissectum Nigrum’, syn. ‘Ever Red’, Zones 5–8) provides strong yet subtle contrast that seems to intensify the glow of nearby orange-yellow leaves and flowers.

In each season, this hue brings strength and character to the garden in a different way.

garden bed with orange flowers and pergola
Blue-violet and yellow-orange are opposites on the color wheel, which explains this combination’s appeal. The bluish leaves of ‘Orange Punch’ canna (Canna ‘Orange Punch’, Zones 8–10) add to the hot/cool theme.

Orange is an excellent color bridge

If you open yourself to the possibility of mixing orange with other colors, you will quickly come to rely on its flexibility as a bridge color. Orange blends effortlessly with yellows and limes and seems absolutely at home as a solo accent color, buoyed on a sea of green. This hot hue also works beautifully with cooler blues and silvers; such combinations feel innovative or even provocative. Mixing deep burgundy and purples with the vibrancy of orange is as bold a statement as one can make.

Gardening has a theatrical aspect, and we gardeners rely on certain plants to be our stars. When a specimen or a focal point can be a ­vibrant color, it quickly rises to the top of my list. Many of my favorite feature plants have at least a hint of ­orange. I love its unabashed strength and ­energy.

One of the challenges of working in a large garden is to have a thread of continuity that works through different spaces, but even a very small garden can appear unfocused or disorganized without a repeating theme.

This is when orange shines for me. Recognized immediately, orange connects multiple spaces visually, while allowing each to have its own personality. A few accent plants repeated in container plantings and garden beds can be used to repeat the theme and tie spaces together.

Orange plants used to create a visual theme
Scattered through a landscape, orange plants can be used to create a visual theme that ties beds and container plantings together. Photo: Lisa Roper/courtesy of Chanticleer
silver and orange plants
Set amid a frosty sea of silver, the blooms of lion’s ear (Leonotis leonurus, Zones 8–11) lend a warm, friendly note. Photo: Lisa Roper/courtesy of Chanticleer

Use orange to lend scale to gardens of all sizes

If your landscape is deep or wide, scattering an intense color like orange throughout the space can emphasize the sense of a visual journey. In a more compact garden, massing colors together reinforces a sense of continuity. In either case, creating smaller masses may be better than using one larger pool of color.

Whether you are eager or reluctant to use orange, it is a beneficial element in each season. Warming in spring, intense in the high season, appropriate as an autumnal tone, and vibrant in the bleakness of winter, orange deserves a place in your garden.

[ PLANTS ]

Four seasons of orange

Orange hues range from subtle to blazing. Here are some of Dan Benarcik’s favorite seasonal choices for adding orange to a design.


Spring

Flirtation® Orange diascia (Diascia ‘Dala Oran’, Zones 9–10)
This annual beauty tolerates the cool evenings and variable days of early spring, producing abundant but delicate pools of melon-toned flowers until the summer heat suppresses their enthusiasm.

‘Shogun’ tulip (Tulipa praestans ‘Shogun’, Zones 3–8)
With a short stature but a stout demeanor, ‘Shogun’ waves its fiery little flags from mid to late spring.

New Zealand hair sedge (Carex testacea, Zones 6–10)
Soft apricot blades form well-mannered clumps that harmonize well with the cooler blue and green tones of the season.

Summer

’Rustic Orange’ and ‘Sedona’ coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides ‘Rustic Orange’ and ‘Sedona’, Zones 10–11)
‘Rustic Orange’ is a tried and true favorite with sizzling chartreuse-edged foliage, but it is increasingly hard to find. As a substitute, try ‘Sedona’, which offers a more saturated, slightly muted red-orange.

Blanchet’s bromeliad (Aechmea blanchetiana, Zones 10–11; p. 64, left, and p. 66, top)
The orange form of this tropical plant is one of the most vibrant and therefore one of the most inquired-about plants Dan grows. Strappy orange foliage adds heat to plant combinations throughout the season, right up until frost.

Tropicanna® canna (Canna indica ‘Phasion’, Zones 7–11)
Trusses of tangerine-colored flowers rise above dramatic, multicolored leaves. Plant it where the sun will backlight the foliage to reveal the orange glow hidden within.

Fall

‘Orange Profusion’ zinnia (Zinnia ‘Orange Profusion’, annual)
Planted just after the final frost, this annual forms well-mannered clumps of color all summer long. In autumn it really shines, continuing to produce loads of blooms until frost without deadheading.

Asian spicebush (Lindera glauca var. salicifolia, Zones 6–8)
Glossy green summer leaves acquire the look of burning embers around the time of the first killing frost, then fade to provide a tawny mass of color in the winter landscape.

‘Gro-Low’ sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’, Zones 6–8)
A deep glossy green carpet of summer foliage 18 to 24 inches tall becomes a sea, a river, or a pool of fire in the final act of the growing season.

Winter

‘Midwinter Fire’ dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Zones 5–7)
This shrubby dogwood sheds its average green foliage of summer to reveal a stand of multicolored stems that evolve from deep orange to a lighter blend of tangerine and apricot.

‘Bihou’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’, Zones 6–9)
With its blend of warm leaf and bark colors, this tree is a delightful accent throughout the year, but especially in the winter when we need color the most.

Shogun tulip blooms
‘Shogun’ tulip. Photo: courtesy of White Flower Farm

Tropicanna® canna
Tropicanna® canna. Photo: Marianne Majerus/Marianne Majerus Garden Images

Orange Profusion zinnia blooms.
‘Orange Profusion’ zinnia. Photo: Michelle Gervais

Midwinter Fire dogwood
‘Midwinter Fire’ dogwood. Photo: Marianne Majerus/Marianne Majerus Garden Images

Dan Benarcik is a horticulturist at Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

Photos, except where noted: Carol Collins

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