Let’s Hear It for Color Echoes

– Posted in: Garden Design

I credit Pamela Harper as the first to popularize the notion of color echoes, in her book entitled, of all things, Color Echoes. That simple but supremely satisfying way of creating color combinations relies on pairing plants on the basis of shared color characteristics. Everything is fair game: leaves, flower petals, pistils, stamens, thorns, fruit or even seedpods. For example, the leaf of one and the flower of another may share a single hue, like the red of this coleus leaf and the red of the pentas flower.

Sometimes I don’t use flowers at all, as this pairing of Bed of Nails (Solanum quitoense) and coleus ‘Inky Fingers’ makes abundantly clear. What makes this combo work is that it has both contrasting and harmonious elements. The leaves couldn’t be more different in shape and texture, while the colors of the solanum’s veins and thorns and the burgundy blotches on the coleus are essentially the same. If the leaves were too much alike it would be boring; if the colors were as different as the leaves, it wouldn’t be nearly as appealing. That’s the trick, juggling elements of contrast alongside elements of harmony, and keeping the whole thing aloft. The colors establish a kind of dialog between the two plants, enabling to speak a common language.

Carrying things onwards, I sometimes use flowers to echo back and forth. Here the bloodflower (Asclepias curassavica) and the Canna ‘Tropicanna’ flower shapes and texture are distinct, but their colors are definitely talking back and forth. I like that the leaves of the canna have joined the conversation. You can get a lot more complex, and start matching, say the chartreuse eye of a daylily with the leaves of similarly hued, sun-tolerant hosta or perhaps the pistils of one flower with the petals of another. I don’t limit myself to using two plants. Hey, the more the merrier.


I was really pleased with my grouping of false dracena (Cordyline australis ‘Red Sensation’) with the variegated leaves of Gold-vein plant (Sanchezia speciosa) and the flowers of this cigar plant (Cuphea var. Home Depotus, just kidding!). The shapes and forms couldn’t be more different- a blade shape, a broader, more rounded leaf and a tubular flower—yet all three share a rusty red hue, which can be found in the cuphea’s flower, the cordyline’s leaf and in the veins in the gold vein plant. Works for me. Seeking out and making the most of color echoes is always a formula for fun.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Lisa at Greenbow February 11, 2008, 2:20 pm

Steve I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you have to be careful not to be to much alike as to be boring when making these color echoes. On the other side of looking at this I have sure messed up a seemingly good Echo when I have potted in a contrast. Very delicate operation these Color Echoes.

I also want to say I am thrilled that your post is at the top of the GGW page beside all the “stuff” in boxes. It was nice not have to scroll down a half mile to read your post.
I don’t know what happened me or the site but it is nice.

Lisa–You have to be careful about making them too much alike is right! Variety is the spice of the garden. I like using something that has just a hint of the unifying color–like that dark center line in the sanchezia’s gold vein, and mixing that with other plants where the color is more prominent.

As for the location of my post on the site..no clue! -Steve

Jim February 11, 2008, 2:59 pm


Last summer I had both Bed of Nails (Solanum quitoense) and coleus ‘Inky Fingers’ and never thought to pair them. Actually I didn’t know “Bed of Nails” was the name of the spiky thing either.

This year, I’ll look to pair my annuals by color echo and see what I get. I have more opportunities with annuals as opposed to rearranging all my perennials!

Hi Jim–That’s one of the things I most like about tinkering with annuals: it is so easy to experiment with making all sorts of combinations. I like growing them one to a pot, then mixing and matching pots until I hit on something that really strikes me.

Bed of nails is just one of the not-so-common names for that solanum. I’ve also heard it referred to as Golden Fruit of the Andes, which has a nice poetic ring to it. -Steve

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 11, 2008, 4:00 pm

I read “Color Echoes” several years ago, but have just started to give the concept a try with perennial flowers. It’s difficult when the plants don’t cooperate – 1 dies, another’s flower color looks different in shade than in the sun at the nursery…I should have started with foliage echoes – much easier.

Hi MMD-Yes, far easier to have one of the plants contribute foliage and not rely on both for flowers. If you like coleus it can be ever so easy to tinker with color echoes. There’s a coleus in just about every hue, so matching is a breeze. I made a fun combo last year with one called ‘Strawberry Drop’ and pink coneflowers.-Steve

Elly Phillips February 11, 2008, 6:12 pm

Hi Steve! Thanks for giving Pam Harper a mention. Pam is one of those modest people who is often undervalued if one doesn’t know her, but to me she’s a horticultural hero because she not only knows what she’s writing about, she waits to write about it until she knows it. For folks like me who were born with a dual love of words and plants, that restraint can be very hard won, if it comes at all. (I *am* trying…)

And thanks for sharing the great combinations! I especially loved the last, with Cuphea var. Home Depotus! (Though perhaps your nomenclature’s just a bit askew and it’s actually “Despotus”…)

Thanks Elly–I like your idea of the ‘Despotus’–though perhaps it applies better to my inner taskmaster than one of my plants. As for Pamela, she may exercise admirable restraint in not writing about her garden ideas until they have not only germinated but reached maturity, she still manages to get there ahead of the rest of us.–Steve

jodi February 11, 2008, 6:47 pm

I first learned about colour echoes through C. Cole Burrell’s ‘Perennial Combinations’, one of the books I”ve returned to time and again and again. He was just talking about perennials, of course, but from him and other inspired writers I began to experiment. Your combinations are just delicious!

Cole’s book is excellent, and since it covers so many good ways of combination making, it can really fire up the creative juices and inspire you to send your garden off in a whole new direction. Experimenting is what it’s all about. You can create color echoes with annuals, perennials, tropicals, woody plants, even parts of your hardscape. Have fun out there. -Steve

Elly Phillips February 11, 2008, 10:05 pm

Bless you, Jodi, Cole is one of my dearest friends! I’ll be sure to let him know you’ve enjoyed “Perennial Combinations.”–Elly

Hi Elly–you can tell Cole I liked that book too. And his Hellebore one. -Steve

Robin (Bumblebee) February 12, 2008, 7:14 am

I’m not familiar with the book, but after seeing your examples and reading your description, I’m going to hunt it down. I particularly like the canna photo. I have some on order for the spring with the vague idea of doing just what you described.

The difficulty, I think, is that you have to have a familiarity with the plant or rely on the photos in those catalogs. Is there another way to be confident of the color combinations? Perhaps it’s experimentation?

–Robin at Bumblebee

Hi Robin–Yes the trouble is knowing how–or even if–everything will grow together to match the picture in your mind’s eye. That why I like experimenting with plants in pots. Moving them around is so easy. Sometimes by putting a small plant on a pedestal or something, then placing it next to a larger plant, you can get neat color echoes that wouldn’t be possible in nature.-Steve

Anna--Flowergardengirl February 12, 2008, 1:41 pm

I’m adding Gardening Gone Wild to my blog list–this is all excellent info. I have always created my arrangements by marrying them together with their commonalities and sometimes their differences:) I love it when an arrangement finally says—Done!

Welcome Flowergardengirl–It’s all about combining likenesses and differences and hoping it makes for a happy couple. I learn as much from my mistakes as I do from my successes. One thing with plants though…it seems as if there’s always room for one more. –Steve

Pam/Digging February 13, 2008, 12:01 am

That Bed of Nails/coleus combo is brilliant.

Pam–Thanks so much. It came about by having the two plants in pots of their own, I put them together and they stayed that way. It was a good way to do it, as that solanum grows like crazy–it would have overrun the coleus had they been in the same pot. –Steve

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