A Gardener Comes to Term with Yellow

Over and Under the Rainbow, A Series on Color

By: Daniel Mount
Daniel-Mount
www.mountgardens.com

Daniel Mount hails from a long line of wandering gardeners, nurserymen and farmers.  He received his first shovel for his…

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Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) seed fields outside Salem, Oregon. Photo: Daniel Mount

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) seed fields outside Salem, Oregon. Photo: Daniel Mount

Not long ago, I planted the pink-cupped daffodil ‘Faith’ in a client’s garden only to be rather sternly chided, “Daffodils should be yellow.” My client is hardly chromophobic. She wears royal purple with confidence and, at one point, even dyed her gray hair a shockingly unnatural scarlet. Yet she forbade  the use of yellow in her garden. A request I couldn’t understand, yet obeyed. So I planted the pink-cupped daffodil.

Victoria Finlay author  of Color: A Natural History of the Palette, says, of all the colors “yellow gives some of the most mixed messages of all.” Garden designers around the world agree,  praising yellow as being “cheerful,” “joyous,” “luminous,” and for its “ability to harmonize.” Yet the same designers also warn of yellow being “a show-stealer,” “aggressive,” “garish,” “dominating,” even “perilous.”

Never shying from raw primary  colors, Van Gogh squeezed pure chrome yellow directly from the tube onto the canvas. He considered  yellow to be the color of friendship and used it extensively. I find yellow amicable, too. Especially in the garden.  It blends with green  foliage, pacifies color bullies red and orange by harmonizing with them, and as a light-bringer it is indispensible, especially  in the Northwest garden.

Although it occupies only one-twentieth of the color spectrum, yellow reflects more light than any other, making it truly the brightest color; along with white and silver, it remains visible in the garden well into the hours after sunset.

'Teddy Bear' sunflower in the author's garden.  Photo: Daniel Mount

‘Teddy Bear’ sunflower in the author’s garden. Photo: Daniel Mount

I often garden like Van Gogh painted, filling borders with golden grasses, acidic hostas, and chlorophyll- starved conifers. I fantasize about an all-yellow garden, but have never dared to make one. There is something a bit frightening about  yellow. It can be prissy as a little girl’s ruffled Easter dress, pissy in dull shades like mustard or ecru, or high-pitched and screeching in bright tints of citrine and buttercup. Yellow can trump the preciousness of oh-so-rare blue, and if not used properly, dims its complement, violet.

I tend to agree with garden  designer  Mary Keene who says yellow among all colors is “one of the hardest to use.” Yet colorist Malcolm Hillier claims, “Yellow is an easy mixer.” The message  is mixed. Next to dark colors, yellow looks even brighter, radiating a sense of danger. Think of black and yellow yield signs or a swarm of yellow jackets buzzing around  your picnic. Yellow can sap radiance from blues and violets, even reds, sending them hurtling into the shadows. Color experts repeatedly advise us to use softer, delicious tones like lemon, cream, and vanilla. And not too much.

There goes my all-yellow garden.

Berberis 'Golden Nugget' and Rhododendron 'Star Sapphire' (augustinii x carolinianum) with various hostas in the Seattle garden of John Dove. Photo: Daniel Mount

Berberis ‘Golden Nugget’ and Rhododendron ‘Star Sapphire’ (augustinii x carolinianum) with various hostas in the Seattle garden of John Dove. Photo: Daniel Mount

Louise Beebe Wilder, a rather cautious garden colorist of the earlier part  of the last century,  adored yellow. Though  she eschewed  monochrome garden design in general, she rallied behind gardens  made of all-yellow flowers that “like the light of which they seem to be fashioned, blend and combine or flash back at each other with never a jar to the most sensitive eye.” The great color harmonizers Nori and Sandra Pope trumpet, “The sun always shines from a yellow planting.” Ask any child to draw the sun and he’ll pick up a yellow crayon and make a yellow circle on the page and give it a big smile. Simple yellow is wedded to our notions of light and happiness.

Yellow cheers and enlightens.

Yellow has a long association with high-mindedness and the spiritual aspects of human nature. It led one lost wayfarer down a brick road to Oz, new friends,  and eventually home. It haloes the saint and robes the Buddhist monk. The Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, wore yellow robes, as did the Emperor of China, the Son of Heaven—a color he forbade  to all others.  I doubt the Chinese emperor ever had to weed a dandelion-pocked lawn or deal with a pasture covered in creeping buttercup.

Eriogonum heracleoides Photo: Daniel Mount

Eriogonum heracleoides Photo: Daniel Mount

Michael Pollan calls primary yellow and its descendants “all too common” for good reason. After green, yellow is the most common  plant  color, present as carotenoids, one of the most widespread naturally occurring pigments,  which interact with chlorophyll to absorb light energy. These pigments  are essential in our diets as healthful antioxidants and used by the body in the development  of rod and cone cells in the retina that help us see color.

Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’  Photo: Daniel Mount

Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ Photo: Daniel Mount

Yellow is also sickly. Hepatitis  turns  the eyes and skin yellow, as does xanthosis. Chlorosis, the yellowing of leaves, indicates a lack of chlorophyll. In my transition from botanist to gardener, it took me a long time to embrace  golden foliage; I always saw illness. Even today, some of the more sulfuric conifers and bilious broad-leafed  evergreens turn  my stomach. Ah, but I could not live without ‘Sun Power’ hostas, ‘All Gold’ hakone grass, or ‘Rubidor’ weigela.

Christopher Lloyd said, “Yellow in the garden is the peoples’ color.” I agree. It is the one color that even the colorblind can see. Common? I don’t know, Mr. Pollan. By request, I’ve made several yellow-free gardens—it makes finding weeds a snap. But I’ve always felt that a touch of yellow would have improved any of them.

Salix repens 'Iona' in the author's rock garden. Photo: Daniel Mount

Salix repens ‘Iona’ in the author’s rock garden. Photo: Daniel Mount

The alpha and the omega of the garden,  yellow winter aconite, witch hazel, and crocus are the first flowers of the nascent garden  in late winter. While ginkgo, cottonwood, and larch  add a golden foliar glory to the senescent garden infall. Yet yellow’s triumph  is high summer when goldenrod, sunflower, and rudbeckia challenge  even the sun. These  are anything but the “mellow yellows” Donovan sang about. Call me a yellow-bellied coward, but I find these dominant, aggressive yellows hard to mix and instead relegate them to hot borders—kept well away from cool blue and pink, and put in their place by red and purple, or quieted by orange and brown—where they won’t steal the show.

Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold' in fall. Photo: Daniel Mount

Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ in fall. Photo: Daniel Mount

But for all of summer’s golden glories and autumn’s amber harvest, I find spring yellow the most stirring, like the first rays ofsun at dawn or clouds lifting after a storm. After replacing the shameful pink daffodils with golden ‘Mariejke’ in my client’s garden I caught her in the garden  with a fresh-picked bouquet and a most childlike and sunny smile. I knew another inevitable friendship was being forged with yellow.