A Dash of Red is Dashing

Current Issue
GardenMap Online
About NWGN
Miss Snippy's Garden Guide
Stories by Season
Vegetables & Fruit
Water Gardening
Soils and Compost
Book Reviews
Garden Specialty
Garden Authors
Wildlife & Pets
Mary in South Africa
Our Advertisers
Gardens to Visit
Plant ID Quiz
Your Garden Tips
Design Tips
Weather Forecast
GardenMap Information
Oh, my aching muscles...

Peony 'Red Charm'

By Mary Gutierrez

The color red stirs human emotions. We associate it with love and passion-as well as danger and evil. Red stops us in our tracks and commands our attention. It can be a hot, exciting color in the garden, or it can be lurid and vulgar. Pure crimson, for this reason, is often viewed as a difficult color to integrate into the sophisticated garden.

But just as people used to think you couldn't wear red and pink together, old attitudes toward color in gardens has gone by the wayside. The use of red (and orange) in flowers, foliage and garden ornament conveys a contemporary approach to the use of color.

The bias against "loud" color in gardens was eased as the popularity of tropical-style gardens came into vogue. The tropical garden almost demands the use of bright color. Hot color comes as a refreshing, invigorating stimulant for Northwest gardeners, as we seek to break our of our gray winter cocoon. If we can't travel to the tropics, we can at least evoke warmth with the use of color.

A case can be made for not using red with white. This combination is Christmas-y and feels unsophisticated. The purpose of gardening, however, is to please the gardener. If red and white is your bag, do it--and don't invite the color snobs over to see your handiwork.

Another nice aspect of using plants with red flowers or foliage is you can mix in the exotic with the ordinary to good effect. When you plant that luxuriant canna with red flowers and you want to echo the color throughout the garden, some good old-fashioned geraniums (Pelargonium sp.) fits the bill perfectly.

If you're looking for plants to provide hot spots in your border there are a number of excellent choices that will take you off the beaten path. For red accents from spring through late summer, here are a few for your consideration.


Embothrium coccineum.  Native to Chile and a member of the Protea family, Embothrium coccineum goes by the common moniker of Chilean Fire Bush or Chilean Fire Tree. Though it is uncommon in Northwest gardens, it is perfectly hardy to zone 8 (10°F), which encompasses a large portion of our region. In late spring, this large shrub or small tree (it grows to 20-30 feet tall) is covered with racemes of tubular scarlet flowers. Hummingbirds will argue about whose territory this choice feeding station belongs to.

Relatively easy to grow, E. coccineum thrives in a protected place in the garden, out of cold winter winds. Like other protea family members, it is averse to phosphates-the middle number in fertilizer N-P-K formulas. This family of plants usually does well in soils with low fertility, so applying fertilizer isn't necessary, anyway. Unlike the proteas of Australia and South Africa, Embothrium coccineum prefers garden beds that receive regular water. As it is native to the Andes, it enjoys a sunny woodland environment.

Callistemon.  Aptly called bottlebrush because of its flowers, Callistemon is an Australian native with narrow, evergreen foliage. Variable in size, it usually grows to about six feet tall and wide. Callistemon is a durable, drought-tolerant plant in the myrtle family (Myrtaceae). Reliably hardy in Seattle, and probably hardy to USDA zone 7, it is worthy of more widespread use in Northwest gardens. Planted in a sunny spot, once it gets going it is a carefree plant. It takes hard pruning in stride, but--as with any shrub--it's best to place it where it can reach its full potential. Look for the cultivars C. citrinus 'Splendens', and C. 'Woodlanders Red' or 'Woodlanders Hardy'.

Annuals and Perennials

Papaver.  A number of poppy species bring ephemeral red accents to the spring garden. Papaver rhoeas, known as Shirley or Flanders poppy, grow wild in central Europe, and become associated with the ravages of war during World War I. In the fields of Flanders (in western Belgium), the expanses of these single, red wildflowers became the scene of combat. After the war was over, and the fields were again left to nature, the graceful red poppy once again raised its tissue-paper petals. The single red poppy is the symbol of the American Legion, and is worn on lapels in Great Britain for Remembrance Day.

Hibiscus moscheutos 'Luna Red'.  This recent introduction will stop traffic with its six-inch (at least!) burgundy-red flowers that explode in midsummer. At a mature height of about three feet, 'Luna Red' is heat, cold, and drought-tolerant when established. In western Washington, the plant will die back to the root in winter, and will begin to leaf out just as you've given up on it the following spring.

Paeonia lactiflora 'Red Charm'.  'Red Charm' set the standard for double-flowering red peonies when it was introduced in 1944, and won the American Peony Society gold medal in 1956. It forms deep red bomb-burst flowers atop lush green foliage in May. Like all peonies, the plant may take a while to establish, but once it's settled in you'll enjoy decades of springtime floral displays.

Erythrina.  Erythrina herbacea, commonly called Coral Bean or Cardinal Spear, is a deciduous, woody subshrub that hails from the pea (or legume) family, Fabaceae. Unlike many legumes that have pinnate leaves, the leaves of the Coral Bean are an unusual three-lobed, triangular arrow shape, and are perfectly flat. Coral Bean commences flowering in midsummer, sending up its flowers just before the leaves appear. Tubular red flowers on tall spikes attract hummingbirds-and gardeners. The Coral Bean will be happiest in a warm, sunny spot, where it can send down its large roots. Erythrina herbacea is native to the Southeast United States from Texas to Florida, but is perfectly hardy to USDA zone 7.

Salvia.  The pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, has been referred to as a hummingbird highway. Its bloom arrives very late in the season, at a time when we can really use a good floral display. It dies back to the ground in our region, but will return with its fuzzy, fragrant leaves and hot-red flowers in the spring. It provides a clean folial backdrop (to about four feet) for our other plants through the spring and summer and then offers the hummers one last meal before they head south.

Pineapple sage's annual cousin, Salvia coccinea 'Lady in Red' is more elegant than the annual red salvias you find for sale at the big-box stores in spring. She grows to almost two feet tall and takes a fair amount of drought once she's settled in. If you're lucky, she'll set some seed and leave behind some offspring to grace your garden next year.


Many bulbous and tuberous plants (too many to list here) will add red-hot punch to the garden. Kick off the season with pure red tulips that are easy to find and easy to grow. Just as the tulips are dying back, be sure to get some jazzy dahlia cultivars in the ground. Native to Central America, the dahlia is the national flower of Mexico, where the ancestors of modern dahlias originated. The trendy 'Bishop of Llandoff' has bold red flowers set against maroon foliage, so is an asset to the garden even when it is not in bloom. 'Zorro' is a giant dark red informal decorative dahlia, and there are many, many more dahlias that come in shades of red. Find a great selection of hot-colored dahlias at a local dahlia society tuber sale in the spring.

While you're on your knees digging around with those dahlias, don't forget to plant corms of Crocosmia 'Lucifer'. This garden classic has tall, pleated foliage that is topped by spikes of clear red flowers in midsummer.

Back in Victorian times, when loud floral color in formal "bedding out" displays was the vogue, cannas were an important horticultural commodity. A decade ago, it was hard to get anyone excited about these beauties. Fortunately, the tropical-style garden trend has brought them back into popularity. A new development is the focus on foliage, rather than flower, which adds a longer season of interest to the plants. Canna 'Tropicanna' features leaves striped with bands of red, orange and yellow (the flowers are orange). At the back of the border, Canna 'Black Knight' will make a statement with its deep red flowers set atop broad, maroon leaves. The dwarf 'Firebird' has dark green foliage with fire engine red flowers. 'Red Stripe' sports foot-wide leaves edged in dark red and small red flowers. To get a good selection of red canna cultivars, visit the websites of specialist canna growers.


Campsis.  The trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is a North American native that has been popular with gardeners for decades. It is a vigorous grower, along the same lines as a wisteria, developing a thick, woody trunk after years of growth. It is perfectly suited to an exotic, tropical-style garden, but isn't often included in them-perhaps it is considered too common. It will take all the sun and heat you can give it, and will quickly cover an arbor, pergola, wall or fence with thick, luxuriant green foliage that is festooned with orangey-red tubular flowers from late summer to autumn. My experience is that it blooms a little later in western Washington, probably because we can't offer it as much heat as our neighbors on the other side of the Cascades.

Trumpet vine is very hardy-it takes more cold that I hope we will ever see-to USDA zone 5. Look for C. radicans 'Red Sunset' to ensure a truly scarlet flower. C. radicans 'Flamenco' has scarlet flowers that fade to orange in the flower's throat. Newer cultivars bloom in shades of orange, apricot and yellow. Oh—and like a number of the other red flowers discussed here, it is a hummingbird mecca.

Tropaeolum.  Nasturtium is, indeed, the genus of the happy little annuals we grow from seed every year. But there are a few species that grow from underground tubers that are hardy in our climate. Like the herbaceous perennials that they are, they die back to the ground once freezing weather arrives.

Tropaeolum speciosum, called the Scottish flame flower (who knows why-it is native to Chile), is a perennial climbing nasturtium with crimson blooms that will liven up a boring evergreen shrub. While its foliage enjoys sun, the tubers need cool, moist, humus-rich soil to thrive. Bury the tubers on the north or east side of a cryptomeria, or a cypress. It's a very manageable size, growing to ten or fifteen feet in one season. T. speciosum is hardy to at least 10°F.

Lonicera.  The native trumpet honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, offers a long season of scarlet trumpet-shaped blooms with a yellow interior. It's easy to grow in part sun to shade with the support of a small trellis, arbor, or sturdy small tree. At a reasonable twelve feet in height, it is enjoyable without being overpowering. It sports pairs of opposite leaves that are joined together just under the flower, giving the impression that it is a single, perfoliate leaf. In any case, it forms a sweet green collar to frame the flowers. Being semi-evergreen, the plant won't completely disappear in the wintertime.

The flowers are much simpler and more elegant than the ubiquitous Japanese honeysuckles. (Can you spell h-u-m-m-i-n-g-b-i-r-d?) They lack only the sweet fragrance of better-known honeysuckles.

When I was looking for the trumpet honeysuckle for myself, I found that an interspecific cross, Lonicera x brownii 'Dropmore Scarlet' was the most widely available. It will work just as well.

I've only begun to scratch the surface of the huge array of exciting plants that bring red to the garden. Hopefully, your interest is piqued enough that you'll want to add more red to your garden. Don't be afraid! If your friends snub you for being too crass, you'll have plenty of hummingbird friends to talk to all season long.

A Note About Red Flowers: Gardeners who are up on their botanical Latin will know that any plant that has the specific epithet coccineus or coccineum will give you the scarlet you're looking for. Botanical Latin, fourth edition, by William T. Stearn defines coccineus as "deep red, from scarlet to carmine and crimson." And the Latin root "erythrinus" is used in a variety of conjugations that describe red plant parts.

All stories on this website are copyrighted either by NWGN or the author, and may not be used without permission. For permission to use or reprint a story, contact us.