Marvellous magenta!

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
March 2023

Steffie Shields explains how this year’s in-vogue Pantone colour can add pizzazz to our gardens.

One single, award-winning corm planted four autumns ago, a radiating miniature winter-flowering Cyclamen coum, has been quietly naturalising, in among snowdrops and hellebores, enlivening the view from our family room window.

Now a small patch, with rounded, heart-shaped leaves, these tiny, vivid Persian violets embody this year’s fashionable colour: magenta.

If you wonder who dictates this annual decision, you would be right in thinking that paint firms, working with interior design experts, vie for attention and income just like in the cosmetics industry, and of course competitive clothing in fashion industry empires. Invariably, any such publicity permeates down to influence garden designers and plant nurseries.

Pantone, the influential American Color Institute, selected ‘Viva Magenta’, a bold, saturated shade that’s not for those who are shy and introverted!

This “nuanced crimson tone balances warm and cool. . .” and is heralded as “an unconventional shade for an unconventional time, inspired by the red of cochineal, one of the most precious dyes belonging to the natural dye family. . . one of the strongest and brightest the world has known.”

Origin of name
Magenta is an organic, aniline dye, first made and patented in 1859 by a French chemist, François-Emmanuel Verguin. He originally called it fuchsine after the fuchsia plant. Later that year, Verguin re-named his eye-catching dye after a major battle near Magenta, an Italian town in Lombardy, to celebrate the victory of the Italians and French over the Austrians in the Second War of Italian Independence.
Some say that the colour referred to uniforms worn by the brave Zouaves, a light infantry originally made up of African mercenaries, deployed by the French Army.

Artists have long been familiar with magenta as a vibrant paint, whether oil, acrylic or pastel. This is a secondary colour located exactly midway between red and blue on the colour wheel, from purple undertones to elements of ‘pinkish’ red or ‘mauvish’ crimson.

In digital terms in publishing and in television, however, magenta is a primary colour.

Most of us are nowadays familiar with this key colour, when we come to replenish our home printer’s ink.

Curiously, if you study a rainbow, you will not find magenta. Violet and red, the two components of magenta, are at opposite ends of the visible spectrum of light.
Optimism and joy

Out in the garden environment, predominantly green by definition, where nature is known to promote feelings of harmony and health, this pulsating colour both complements and combines well with every shade of green and yellow.

Notice, as refreshing spring flowers and foliage begin to emerge, how colours have a strong impact on our emotions. Magenta promotes optimism and joy in most gardeners. It makes a cheerful change and is thought to inspire kindness.

Beautiful, rich magenta is both charming and powerful, and as inherently romantic and feminine as the celebrated novelist Barbara Cartland. Then again, not everyone appreciates its domineering optimism.

Hardy hellebores
Today’s oriental hellebores, Helleborus orientalis, variously called Lenten or Winter roses, are popular hardy perennials bearing outward-facing, saucer-shaped flowers, in white, pink, green, primrose, mauve or smoky purple.

Hellebores perform well for many weeks from February onwards, growing in large clumps in partial shade beneath trees or shady borders, in moist but well-drained soil.

Specialist nurseries have excelled over the past 30 years in experimenting with hybridisation of hellebores and they are worth seeking out. Be wary though of amazing, unusual colours. Addictive coral, orange, slate or navy blue are more expensive, and likely to need dedicated care to survive extreme winters. Propagate by fresh seed, or divide plants in autumn or early spring. Start your own experimental cross-fertilisation or simply let the bees do it for you!

Choose those with subtle touches of magenta in the buds, or in spots or striations on some flowers, on the backs of the petals, to feature beside early spring-flowering shrubs such as forsythia or kerria. They also make an effective foil for golden daffodils and lemon primroses.

A cream hybrid hellebore with dashes of purple and magenta from Bressingham Nursery was given to me by a friend years ago. Buzzing, pollinating bees are attracted by its prominent creamy yellow stamens.

Plant care
When you plant anything this month, check all around for signs of perennial weeds nestling in among spring bulbs. Pull up, or better still dig up, those pervasive ground elder, nettle and ivy roots choking flower beds. Turn over the soil before adding a mulch of compost and/or leaf-mould around tender shoots of summer perennials that are beginning to feel hungry!

If you have not already done so, now is the best time to remove tired, leathery hellebore leaves that are often splayed out on the soil, asking for a quick, sharp snip, at ground level, if possible, with your best secateurs.

The turgid stems of the leaves are delightfully easy to cut. This job is enjoyable in the chilly, invigorating air, and beneficial for both plant and gardener, tidying while welcoming uplifting signs of swelling buds.
Take care not to leave those cut leaves lying around, for they are toxic for cats, dogs and horses. Also avoid putting tough old hellebore leaves in your compost heap, as they take an age to rot down.

Expecting visitors for lunch or supper? Harvest one flower from every mature hellebore to make an exotic table centre. Simply snip off the head and then let each saucer-shaped flower float in a shallow, smoky, glass dish of water, as if miniature waterlilies. You won’t miss it in the garden, and you’ll enjoy comparing faces. The downside, though: the display wilts after a day or two, whereas out in the garden Lenten roses are inordinately long-lasting even after their pollinated stamens have fallen off, when their petals, whatever the colour, fade eventually to light green.

Inspirational gardens
As days lengthen, roses and fuchsias will soon be blooming. By the way, mark your diary: the annual Spalding Flower Parade is back again – Saturday 13th May at the Castle Sports Field and Spalding town centre.

Here too are the dates for the major shows: RHS Malvern Spring Festival, 11th-14th May 2023; RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 23rd-27th May; and RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, 4th-9th July. If not visiting in person, let’s look forward to spotting on television any exciting new plant introductions and inspirational garden design ideas.

annuals and perennials in garden centres asking to be given a home. Be decisive yet sensible! Mull over how often we rely on marvellous magenta to give pops of colour to our patios and extra pizzazz to the borders. Let’s indulge ourselves and be assured that we are on trend!

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