Red is always a passionate hue. It represents many things to different people, including love, anger, revolution, prosperity, lust, and since it is the colour of blood, even danger. Also known as carmine, it is distinctly compelling, even at a casual glance. During the 16th century, red pigments used to dye cloth or create paints were second only to silver ingots in colonial exports to Europe. In historical terms, it became the colour of power as reflected by the robes of Catholic cardinals, the English "Redcoat" soldiers that were conquering the known world, and even the attire of royalty in waiting, such as Princess Elizabeth I.
And yet one of the best natural red dyes, known as Cochineal, was simply co-opted by Spanish conquerors from the indigenous peoples of Central America, who had a long history of production that dated back to their Aztec and Mayan ancestors. They harvested scale insects that infect Prickly Pear Cactus or Opuntia species and dried them to manufacture a dye that they used to create ceremonial textiles and ink for manuscripts or codices. The point of my little history lesson is to highlight the powerful impact of this colour, which may dissuade some gardeners from using this hue in a monochromatic fashion, although red borders can be found at both Hidcote Manor and Floors Castle in southeastern Scotland.
(📸 (L): Jengod - Wikipedia)
Unlike an alba garden, where greens, silvers, and whites are predominant tones, the red border would integrate plants with red to burgundy flowers and foliage, including autumn displays. The sparse addition of gold foliage or bright yellow flowers would take the place of the silver used in alba gardens, providing contrast and a sense of depth throughout the layers of red plants. For the most dramatic impact, it might be best to focus on the late spring to autumn season, as this is the height of perennial and deciduous plant colour. So, here are a few of my favourite red-flowered and foliage plants for you to ponder for your new border.
Red Annual Plants
Forget the little stuff when it comes to summer flowers and instead focus on the big and dramatic. Plants such as showy Dahlias, large-leaved Canna lilies, eye-popping Coleus and foreground clusters of Chocolate Cosmos (C. atrosanguineus) are your best bets, and many of these come in varieties with contrasting red to near-black foliage. And don’t forget the late-blooming Parrot tulips such as ‘Rococo’ with its fiery red blooms.
Red Vining Plants
B- or C-group clematis such as ‘Niobe’, ‘Westerplatte’ and ‘Rouge Cardinal’ will bring a true carmine-red to burgundy to your arbor or trellis, and they bloom continually from June to September. For honeysuckle, choose the hardy ‘Dropmore Scarlet’ which is not fragrant and yet still manages to attract the hummingbirds in droves. The climbing roses ‘Dublin Bay’ and ‘Don Juan’ are mainstays for red enthusiasts, while the Trumpet Vine Campsis ‘Flamenco’ provides a blast of fiery clusters in late summer. Last but not least is Parthenocissus which includes Boston Ivy and Virginia Creeper, with a favourite of mine being P. henryana with its blinding red autumn tones with contrasting white veining.
You need to look no further than the Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum) for some red inspiration, whether it’s the burgundy-leaved uprights ‘Bloodgood’, ‘Emperor 1’, or the more compact ‘Fireglow’. A favourite weeping form is ‘Red Dragon’ as it holds its strong deep burgundy colour throughout the season and for autumn glory, consider ‘Osakazuki’ with its fiery red fall foliage. The fibrous roots and restrained growth also make these trees a better choice in mixed borders.
If you are really looking to make a statement, then consider a backdrop hedge of Photinia x fraseri, whose new growth in spring and early fall is a brilliant coppery-red. Purple Smokebush (Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’) or even the hard-to-find Contorted Hazelnut ‘Red Majestic’ both bask on the burgundy side, while the Japanese Barberries (Berberis thunbergii) such as ‘Rose Glow’ (pink veining) and ‘Concorde’ provide a reliable reddish-purple foliage backbone. For flowers look to Japanese Azaleas such as ‘Hino Crimson’, ‘Hahn’s Red’ and ‘Mother’s Day’, while the newer Weigela such as ‘Electric Love’ or ‘Date Night Crimson Kisses’ are real standouts. In shade, you can use either Skimmia ‘Rubella’ or ‘Rubinetta’, which both carry red buds into spring while the sun-loving Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’) will bookend the season with eye-popping rose-red autumn foliage. Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus) bears brownish-red blooms from May-July with a delicious mulled wine fragrance. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Ninebarks (Physocarpus) such as ‘Coppertina’ that changes foliage colour constantly throughout the season.
Red Ornamental Grasses
Start with Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica) which pairs beautifully with Chocolate Cosmos, then consider the annual Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) whose bronze-purple plumes have no rival. For the background choose one of the taller red-plumed Japanese Silver Grasses such as Miscanthus sinensis ‘Rotsilber’ (‘Red-Silver’).
I saved the best for last because it is this category of plants that gives us the most visual impact. A few hardy mainstays should include the Daylily (Hemerocallis) ‘Pardon Me’, both herbaceous and tree peonies, burgundy-red Sneezeweeds (Helenium), Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and any of the red Echinaceas, such as ‘Sombrero Salsa Red’. Shorter-lived but worth the bother are the very showy Oriental Poppies (‘Brilliant’), Gaillardia ‘Spintop Red’, the newer Lupine Hybrid ‘West Country Beefeater’, Coreopsis ‘Hot Paprika’, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Cherry Brandy’ and Penstemons, including ‘Peptalk Red’. For shade choose Dicentra spectabilis ‘Valentine’ and for sheer sun drama, try one of the satiny-red flowered perennial Hibiscus (‘Lord Baltimore’, ‘Luna Red’). The deep burgundy Euphorbia ‘Blackbird’ (pair with Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’) provides evergreen coverage, while the ever-popular Bee Balm ‘Jacob Clime’ is sure to draw those hummingbirds in.
Most of these plants are stocked on a regular basis at Amsterdam Garden Centre, so it shouldn’t be too hard for you to create your own red border with a touch of gold for contrast.