May 12, 2014
Red - Some like it hot!
Colour in the garden:
Red - Some like it hot!

Papa Meilland has an outrageous red colour and a fragrance to match.


Red is controversial, in tests for colour preference, red (along with blue) is chosen most often as a favourite colour, yet, in our gardens, red is considered politically incorrect, proper gardens are better furnished in shades of blue and pink.

My mother's favourite colour is red. Let me be specific, I mean RED, not claret, ruby, crimson, cerise or any other diluted form; bright, bold, clear red.

It was evident several years ago when Mom got the final word on a new car my parents were looking at, you guessed it, a vibrant red. They had just spent a difficult winter battling cancer, along with numerous exhausting pilgrimages to Toronto for treatment. Perhaps they saw a red car as a sign of courage, hope and love. Once the car was chosen, my father even bought himself a matching red hat, perhaps to reinforce the positive effects of the new red car.

My own research has proven our preference for the colour. In several public displays of my photography this past winter, a shot across a bed of red poppies and blue bachelors buttons was chosen as the favourite by countless visitors to the exhibits. We love red but, unlike my mother who finally decided at 75 to act on her preference, we prefer to decorate with softer, safer colours.

Clear red climbers are suited to the Royal Botanical Garden's public garden space.
The red tulip is another park favourite.
A red zinnia from Grandmother's garden can burn a permanent visual image into a child's mind.
Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

Photos: Theresa M. Forte
Red is the colour of love and energy. It can be empowering, giving courage and the strength to cope with difficult situations. Red will revitalize you if you feel tired or depressed. In colour therapy, exposure to red causes measurable changes to the body. Blood pressure, pulse rate, temperature and energy levels are raised; circulation and breathing improve. These are temporary effects, which die down when the colour is removed. Red raises comfort levels, cool areas feel warmer. A walk through a garden enlivened with red flowers will support you when you feel sluggish or apathetic by increasing your physical and mental energy.


Some caution is advised when using red, you can have too much of a good thing. Too much red can be distracting and draining. Because of its arousing nature, red is not suitable for people who suffer from anxiety. Red appears to advance in the garden and will make a small space feel more closed in. On the other hand, red will make a larger space feel warm and welcoming.

In Feng Shui, red enhances fame; it relates to wealth and harmony in marriage, when properly placed. Red is a good colour to include in dining areas, red flowers on the table can increase appetite. It is a useful colour to promote energy in areas where activity is encouraged. Fast food restaurants (especially in areas where children are served) use red and yellow colour schemes to keep the areas lively. It is often used in public spaces to keep people moving along.

My slide library offers very few red selections taken in private gardens. It seems we are all cautious in our use of colour. Public gardens take advantage of the exuberance of red to add excitement and vitality to their plantings. Is there anything to compare with a massed planting of oriental poppies unfurling their scarlet petals under the brilliant June sky? Equally impressive are beds planted with canna, salvia, geraniums or roses in shades of vivid red. You are sure to notice them even if you are only driving by and seeing them at a distance.

In my own garden, a striking spring display of dwarf red tulips leads your eye around a serpentine perennial border. Planted toward the back of the garden, the bag of over 100 tulips was purchased on sale, colour unknown. Had I known they were red, they would still be in the store. However, planted amongst blue grape hyacinth, ajuga and creamy white narcissus, the effect is absolutely refreshing and just the tonic required after a dull winter. I no longer apologize for my red tulips, I celebrate my red, white and blue spring border.

Red is not bleached by sunlight in the garden like many other colours (in particular blues and greens). In photographing the poppy display I mentioned earlier, my tripod was set up for nearly an hour before the sun peeked through the clouds to enliven this particular garden of red poppies.

The effect was magical.

The complementary colour for red is green, so it is not surprising that displays featuring plenty of green background and exotic red flowers are amongst the most striking and invigorating. Envision a bed of rich red Papa Meilland roses, or a patch of Crocosmia 'Lucifer'; each offers a backdrop of dark green foliage to complement the exciting red flowers. Lime green and red make a dynamic combination, a ground cover of lady's mantle, or Euphorbia or backdrop of shrubbery will excite a planting of peonies, tulips or Japanese blood grass. Consider the lively effect of masses of red impatiens in a primarily green, shade garden.

In the spring garden, the following red candidates will invigorate: Tulipa 'Red Shine', Anemone de Caen 'His Excellency' and Aquilegia 'Crimson Star' (underplant with Galium Adoratum (sweet woodruff) for a pretty white and red combination).

It's easy to add red to the summer garden, here is a sampling of vivacious red bloomers: Papaver orientale 'Turkenlouis', P. commutatum 'Ladybird', and Lobelia cardinalis. Foliage plants include Acer Japonicum (Japanese maple) and Imperata cylindrical (Japanese blood grass).

In the fall and winter garden, red foliage, bark and berries add interest to garden plans: Acer saccharum (sugar maple), Sumac, Cornus alba 'Siberica' (dogwood stems), and Rosa rugosa (hips).

Red is a warm and energizing colour. It commands our attention. In the right situation, red is uplifting and healing, it renews our joy to be alive!

Theresa Forte is a garden columnist, photographer and garden consultant based in Niagara Falls, Ont.