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Cultivating Color: New FBTS Tools Aid Garden Design

Apr 25, 2015

Cultivating Color: New FBTS Tools Aid Garden Design

Have we got tools for you! No, we aren't selling Ginzu clippers, rust-free shovels, a miraculous compost-in-minutes machine or anything requiring payments. 

We're talking about a set of color tools for accurately visualizing and comparing the floral and foliage colors of Salvias. As you wander through the riot of hues in our online catalog at Flowers by the Sea, these tools aid plant selection and landscape planning.

For anyone visiting our website for the first time, we are an online plant nursery. Salvias are our specialty, and we grow all the plants you see here at our FBTS family farm on Northern California's Mendocino Coast. 

Royal Horticultural Society Color Analysis
Beginning in fall 2014, we began identifying the colors of all our plants based on the internationally standardized color system published by the U.K.'s Royal Horticultural Society. 

RHS publishes a boxed set of color swatches -- the RHS Large Colour Charts -- of all the floral and foliage hues it has found in nature. These swatches are arranged in fans, similar to what you might use when selecting house paint. Each color has a common name and a code combining a number and a letter from A to D. 

For example, the primary blossom color of Cold Hardy Pink Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii 'Cold Hardy Pink') is called "Vivid Purplish Red" and is RHS #57C.

Standardization of color descriptions is helpful, because gardeners can't always look at real plants when planning flowerbeds and larger swaths of landscape. Relying on photographs in books and catalogs can be misleading, because many factors can affect picture color including the time of day, season and conditions in which photos are created. 

In contrast, the RHS color system requires analysis of actual plants during their bloom season and, for consistency, in north lighting only.

Voyage of Color-Coding Discovery
To improve descriptions of plant colors and to make color comparisons of plants easier for you and for us, we embarked on this color-coding voyage of discovery through our test fields and greenhouses.

The project is ongoing, because we have hundreds of plants to study -- not all of which bloom at the same time. Another reason why this isn't a quick journey is because there are many ways to compare colors from similar to opposite (complementary) hues based on color-wheel theory. 

Due to fielding many questions from customers about plant colors and how to put them together in the garden, we know this is a useful project. The two tools it provides are  a color visualizer -- or profiler -- for individual plants and color comparison galleries. At present, we're creating galleries of plants with similarly colored flowers. In time, we'll publish mixed color galleries. 

Here are some basic details about the two tools. 

Color Visualizer
Many of the plant description pages in our catalog now have a Colors tab below the plant's scientific name and amid a number of gray tabs leading to useful information, including Cultural Icons (basic plant needs and characteristics).

The colors tab opens a page containing a visualization, or profile, that looks like a colorful torte and begins with a top layer showing the plant's primary petal color. Following any layers for secondary or tertiary floral hues, the subsequent bands of color indicate the plant's bracts and foliage. Each layer contains an RHS common name and code. 

Sweeping your eyes from top to bottom of the layers, you get a quick impression of the plant's colors and their order.

For example, the analysis of Navajo Autumn Sage (S. greggii 'Navajo Purple') , shows:

  • A primary petal color of Vivid Reddish Purple (RHS #74A)
  • A secondary petal hue of Strong Purple (RHS #80B) 
  • A tertiary throat color of Very Light Purple (RHS #76B)
  • Strong Yellowish Green (RHS#144C) bracts and
  • Foliage in a darker Strong Yellowish Green (RHS #143C).

Color Galleries
Our galleries of similarly colored Salvias are based on plants with closely related primary flower colors. It's what we think of as a "move up/move down" model. For Navajo Autumn Sage, we begin with the four shades of the primary color -- RHS#74 A, B, C and D. From there, we move up one color set to #73 A through D, then down one color set to RHS#75 A through D. 

Below the plant's color profile is a gray button that says "Learn more about how we analyze plant colors." It leads to a detailed explanation of the RHS system. Beneath this is another gray button that says, "See other plants with similar colors," which opens a photo gallery of sages in similar floral colors. One plant related by color to Navajo Autumn Sage is Orchid Glow Sage (S. 'Orchid Glow'), which has a primary hue of #74B. Here is the Navajo Autumn Sage gallery so far.

Galleries of plants with similar flower colors are useful when you're planning a monochromatic massing of color and need plants in varying heights. If you want to grow the 5-foot-tall, purple-flowered Bolivian Mountain Sage (S. raymondii ssp. mairanae) with a somewhat shorter, front-of-border plant, you could visit its gallery of what we call "similars" to find Midnight Mexican Bush Sage (S. leucantha 'Midnight').

Or perhaps you love the crimson of Red Velvet Mountain Sage (S. microphylla 'Red Velvet') and live in a subtropical area where the weather is simply too warm for it. You could visit Red Velvet's gallery to find the heat tolerant Venezuelan Red Sage (S. rubescens).

More Advice About Color
Our FBTS catalog, which we only publish online, contains a number of tools to make it easy to search for what you need. These include a broad range of menu choices found in the green band at the top of each page, such as Salvias by Color. Our product filters simplify searches based on cultural characteristics, such as whether you need drought-resistant or water-loving sages. 

Similarly, as our plant color profiles and galleries increase, they will make it simpler for you to design Salvia gardens based on attractive color combinations.

However, if you have questions, we're always here to help. Please call or send us an email. Whatever hue or shade you're looking for, we'll help you find it. We won't try to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, the moon or anything that slices, dices, chops or performs miracles. We'll just help.


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