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The Power of Purple

I picked a sprig of Purple Sprouting Broccoli today. It’s a beautiful thing - I admired it for ages before I snapped a bit off and had a taste. 

Image of purple sprouting broccoli

The purpelness of it is so rich, intense and just oozes health.  

Such is the power of purple...and there’s a lot to it. 

Purple science

Purple pigment occurs due to the presence of a group of chemicals called anthocyanins, and whilst being eye-catchingly gorgeous, those chemicals have several critical jobs to do.  

They protect the plant from cold (acting like an anti-freeze) and help defend against environmental stressors such as drought, disease and heavy metals in the soil. 

They also act like a sunscreen, protecting the plant cells from the Sun’s harmful UV rays. Too much light can put the brakes on some plants’ ability to photosynthesise. 

Most plants contain this purple pigment, but it’s rarely seen because it’s masked by the green chlorophyll, and in some cases, we don’t notice the anthocyanin until autumn, when the chlorophyll is breaking down. This is when spectacular colour changes start to appear, producing dramatic splashes of red and sometimes purple, particularly in sugar-rich plants, like maple. 

A healthy option

Mammals can’t produce anthocyanin, not that I’m particularly after a puce complexion right now, but I do want to reap some of the benefits of this colourful chemical. 

Purple vegetables are known for their health benefits. The deep purple colour is usually a sign that these foods have a good dose of anthocyanin. We’re used to hearing it referred to as a strong, powerful antioxidant, that is very, very good for us. It is. 

Science has shown that anthocyanins help protect and heal your cells from damage and protect you from many lifestyle diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular and neurological diseases. 

Anthocyanins have consistently been shown to reduce inflammation, and chronic inflammation is one of the underlying causes of diseases including Alzheimer’s, asthma, heart disease, allergies, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and joint disease, depression, some types of cancer, and obesity. 

Image of a purple radish

What’s not to love... and they look so good on the plate! 

It’s no surprise, given these remarkable health benefits, that there is a trend now of growing purple-coloured vegetables in our allotments and squeezing a few in between the ornamentals in our garden borders. 

What to grow

There are plenty of purple edibles, some are naturally so, like blackberries and bilberries. Others, like purple carrots, were originally cultivated in regions like Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East (orange carrots are a relatively modern invention, created in honour of the first Dutch King: Willem van Oranje).  

Purple heritage varieties like this and Purple Sprouting Broccoli are gaining popularity again, brightening up our salads and stews. 

Image of red cabbage cut in half

Heritage and heirloom varieties have had their genes tweaked slowly over the generations by selective breeding and now there are plenty available. 

Real Seeds is a fantastic organisation that sells a huge range of vegetable seeds that do well in the UK. They have intriguingly named Purple Sword Celtuce, Dragon Purple Carrot, Sicilia Violetto Purple Autumn Cauliflower, Pretty In Purple Rainbow Chile Pepper and many more. 

Playing with purples

Why not mix things up and add drama into your borders, with hyssop, chives, swishy purple amaranth and kale. They look fantastic next to other edibles, such as orange Calendula and yellow Daylilies. 

A word of warning with this purple cultivation though. Our indigenous plants, like the Elders and Hazels, for example, have developed in harmony with indigenous insects which have come to know and love them as a food source. These insects, on the whole, are deterred from eating purple-leaved plants, so when we cultivate indigenous plants to create new varieties that provide striking purple colours for our enjoyment, we deprive insects of a food source. With ornamental plants, and especially with our indigenous plants, we’re best off sticking to green leaves that balance our enjoyment with the needs of nature. 

Image of dark red chard

However, when we’re growing plants for our food, we’re in luck. In this case, the purple-leaved varieties add these extra health benefits and the anthocyanins deter insects, meaning we are less likely to see damage from nibbling. Any green caterpillars that do take their chances on the purple-leaved veg are also easier to spot for the birds.  

So there is a balance to strike. Go purple with the vegetables, for added health for you and less plant damage. And go green for indigenous shrubs, trees and ornamentals (like Elder and Hazel), for added health for your wild visitors and don’t forget, you can use pretty purple edibles in your ornamental borders too. 

Wild about purple

It’s not all about us after all, is it? What’s in it for some other species in our patches...? 

Bees, especially honeybees, are born attracted to the colour purple and can see it more clearly than any other colour. Flowers in the violet-blue range produce the highest volumes of nectar, for example alliums, Comfrey, and Catmint. 

Image of bee on chive flower

Purple is one of the favourite colours for most pollinating insects, including butterflies, and there are so many to choose from, including Buddleja, Verbena, Hebe and Violet.  

It’s good to remember though that different pollinating insects prefer different colours and scents on their flowers, so having a garden with lots of variety is key to

attracting a diverse range of beneficial insects. 

Image of bluebells

  Purple in the garden is a joy to behold. Within us is a deep instinctive appreciation of its aesthetic and we commonly enjoy it next to yellow, from the kale with the daylilies to another favourite of mine, purple Lupins and golden Yarrow. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, plant scientist and author of the wonderful book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ says, “science tells us that the two colours of purple asters and yellow goldenrod, having reciprocal colours in human and bee eyes and growing together, attract a greater number of pollinators than either would growing alone, therefore leading to better plant success.” She adds, “It’s a testable hypothesis, it’s a question of science, a question of art, and a question of beauty”  

Image of yarrow and salvia

Literally alluring, amethyst treasures in our gardens, providing us with visual and actual feasts, without using insecticides. 



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