16 Plants With Purple Leaves That Will Add Color to Your Landscape

We tend to assume all healthy plants have bright green leaves, but that isn’t always the case. Through a combination of natural genetics and selective breeding, we’ve amassed quite a few plant varieties with purple-toned foliage.

Growing plants with purple leaves means that you aren’t stuck waiting for your garden to bloom in order to enjoy a bit of color. (Though many of these plants have attractive flowers as well.) It’s also a great way to break up a monotonously green landscape while keeping a clean, formal aesthetic.

In this article, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorite plants with purple leaves that can be grown outdoors or kept as houseplants.

Why and How Some Plants Have Purple Leaves

All of the colours we see in various plant tissues are created by chemical pigments. The most famous pigment found in plants is chlorophyll — you probably learned about this compound in early science classes. 

The purple colouring is the result of anthocyanins. These pigments can range from red to purple or even blue (in select cases). 

I bet you already know that plants produce chlorophyll primarily for photosynthesis. So why do plants bother producing other pigments like anthocyanins?

It’s believed that anthocyanins in the foliage act almost like sunblock, protecting the more delicate tissues in the leaves from excessive sun exposure. Notably, purple-leaved plants tend to boast more vibrant leaves the more sun they get. This is because the plant instinctively increases anthocyanin production to protect its leaves!

You can also rest assured that plants with purple leaves still contain chlorophyll. Without this vital compound, photosynthesis would be impossible. It’s just that the purple anthocyanins disguise the distinctive green hue of chlorophyll-filled foliage.

16 Plants With Purple Foliage

Purple foliage can be a fun and unexpected way to add texture to a landscape. There are quite a few varieties available to choose from, though, so it’s sometimes hard to narrow down the best plant(s) for your own garden project.

This list includes the varieties I recommend most often — largely because they’re easy to care for and generally problem-free — and some tailored advice for gardeners thinking of growing them for the first time.

1. Coral Bells

Coral Bells

Heuchera spp.

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 4 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full sun to shade

Also known as alumroot, coral bells are low-growing perennials with gorgeous, scalloped leaves. Thin flower stalks emerge in summer but are generally far less impressive than the foliage below.

Coral bells come in shades of green, yellow, orange, red, and, yes, purple. They work well in groups — I recommend mixing and matching different colours — or paired with other partial shade perennials like ferns and hostas.

Speaking of shade, coral bells are well known for their low light tolerance. When growing darker varieties (i.e., those with purple leaves), however, you’ll probably want to opt for a bit more sun to ensure good colour.

2. Bugleweed

Bugleweed

Ajuga reptans

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 4 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Bugleweed is a prolific groundcover that doesn’t mind filling in shady gaps in the garden. It’s a good option for growing under trees where other plants (with the exception of weeds) are unlikely to thrive.

Green foliage is the norm for this perennial, but there are a number of cultivated varieties with purple-tinged leaves as well. This beautiful shrub with purple flowers is frequently visited by bees and other pollinators.

Ajuga is a genus in the mint family. As you might already know, mint plants can grow so aggressively that they become invasive, and bugleweed is not much of an exception. Double-check its status in your area before planting.

3. Ti

Ti

Cordyline terminalis

  • Type: Evergreen shrub
  • Hardiness: 9 to 11
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Common in tropical regions like Hawai’i and southern Florida, the ti plant is a colourful shrub with thin, grass-like leaves. It usually grows in a short tree-like fashion, with the leaves emerging from a small central stem.

Though warm-climate gardeners can keep this shrub outside, most of us will have to resort to growing Ti as a houseplant. It performs quite well in containers as long as its basic needs are met.

Several purple ti varieties exist — my personal favourites are those with multi-coloured leaves. This colour can last all year in the right climate since ti plants are broadleaf evergreens.

4. Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum

  • Type: Deciduous tree
  • Hardiness: 5 to 9
  • Light Needs: Partial sun

If you’re thinking about adding a specimen tree to your landscape, a Japanese maple should be at the top of your list. These ornamental trees are famous for their delicate, interestingly coloured leaves that transform from one season to another.

Some of the most popular purple cultivars include ‘Purple Ghost’ and ‘Purple Umbrella’. They reach 10 to 15 feet tall at maturity, a perfect size for small properties as well as big ones. 

Japanese maples lose their leaves in the fall, so I recommend planting a few dwarf evergreens around the base for year-round balance. Flowering perennials will also contrast nicely against the foliage during the peak season.

5. Ninebark

Ninebark

Physocarpus opulifolius

  • Type: Deciduous shrub
  • Hardiness: 2 to 8
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Ninebark is a great flowering shrub for gardeners in northern parts of the United States and even in Canada. Not all ninebarks have purple leaves, but one of the most popular varieties — Diablo — does. 

The small flowers are borne in clusters throughout spring and summer. If you look closely, you might notice that nine bark flowers resemble apple blossoms (both plants belong to the rose family).

These shrubs are generally quite healthy and can survive some of the harshest winters without issue. The most common problem in my experience is powdery mildew.

6. Sweet Potato Vine

Sweet Potato Vine

Ipomoea batatas

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 9 to 11
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Not many tender perennials are grown for their leaves rather than their flowers. However, the sweet potato vine is an incredible foliar ‘spiller’ for use in summer container arrangements and hanging baskets. 

Sweet potato vines are normally yellow-green. Purple varieties are becoming increasingly popular, though, with some of the best being ‘Sweet Caroline Purple’ and ‘Blackie’.

Yes, this is the same plant that produces edible sweet potatoes as you’d find at the grocery store. I don’t recommend eating the tubers of ornamental cultivars though.

7. False Shamrock

False Shamrock

Oxalis triangularis

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 8 to 11
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Easily mistaken for a type of clover, false shamrock is a charming groundcover that also makes a great low-maintenance houseplant. Some varieties have bright green leaves, but purple foliage is definitely more common.

False shamrock is fun to grow in part because its leaves respond to light. The trifoliate leaves fold up in the dark and reopen in the morning light. This behaviour is known as nyctinasty.

Though false shamrock resembles some hardy perennials, it has very little cold tolerance. Also note that all parts of the plant are moderately toxic to people and many animals.

8. Coleus

Coleus

Plectranthus scutellarioides

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 10 to 11
  • Light Needs: Full sun to shade

This vibrant foliar plant peaked in popularity during the Victorian Era, but it still enjoys quite a bit of prominence in today’s containers and garden beds. Due to its non-existent cold tolerance, coleus is almost exclusively grown as an annual in most parts of the world.

Coleus does flower — plain-looking spikes in shades of light blue or white — but that’s hardly the reason most people grow it. Instead, coleus is better utilized as contrasting bedding around more showy specimens.

If you choose to add coleus to your summer garden, there’s an impressive variety of colours and patterns to select from. Most greenhouses I’ve visited have at least one or two purple varieties available.

9. Smoke Bush

Smoke Bush

Cotinus coggygria

  • Type: Deciduous shrub
  • Hardiness: 4 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Sometimes called smoke trees, these shrubs boast incredibly unique flowers that give the entire plant a wispy appearance. 

Smoke bushes have attractive, ovate foliage that changes colour throughout the growing season. They tend to have relatively dense and compact growth habits, a trait that can add structure and weight to the surrounding landscape.

Royal Purple is a very popular cultivar with purple leaves and mauve ‘smoke’. According to North Carolina State University (and as I touched on at the beginning of this article), it’s possible for the leaves to revert to green if they receive too little light.

10. Purple Fountain Grass

Purple Fountain Grass

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 8 to 11
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Though frequently overshadowed by shrubs and other types of perennials, ornamental grasses can bring a unique textural quality to any garden design. The best option for a hint of purple colouring is by far purple fountain grass.

Purple fountain grass is originally native to parts of Africa and Asia. However, it has become very popular throughout North America and other parts of the world. It’s usually only hardy up to USDA Zone 8 or 9, but I know of many cold-climate gardeners who also grow purple fountain grass as an annual (it looks really nice in big containers).

Another great thing about purple fountain grass is that it’s clump-forming. This means that, if you live in the plant’s hardiness range, it won’t spread and become invasive.

11. Purple-Leaf Sand Cherry

Purple-Leaf Sand Cherry

Prunus x cistena

  • Type: Deciduous shrub or tree
  • Hardiness: 2 to 8
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Prized for its remarkable cold tolerance, the purple-leaf sand cherry is a wonderful ornamental tree for any relatively small space. While this tree or shrub puts on a gorgeous floral display in the spring, its purplish-red leaves provide interest for all but a few months out of the year.

In my experience, purple-leaf sand cherry is quite versatile. Most specimens only grow 8 to 10 feet tall. So it’s a nice option for planting beneath utility lines or along property edges due to its manageable size. 

You won’t want to harvest and eat the berries from this tree, but your local birds are sure to appreciate them. 

12. Ornamental Kale or Cabbage

Ornamental Kale or Cabbage

Brassica oleracea

  • Type: Annual or biennial
  • Hardiness: 2 to 11
  • Light Needs: Full sun

Unlike their close cousins, these colourful veggies weren’t bred for eating. Instead, ornamental kale and cabbage are commonly used in cool-season garden beds and containers.

Ornamental kale and cabbage range in colour but often feature pink or purple centres encircled by green outer leaves. Some varieties are purple inside and out.

You’ll probably see ornamental kale appear at your local greenhouse in late summer or early fall. It’s also very easy to grow from seed (the process is no different than sprouting edible kale or cabbage). I recommend starting seeds by July so they’re ready to display come autumn!

13. Chinese Fringe Flower

Chinese Fringe Flower

Loropetalum chinense

  • Type: Evergreen shrub
  • Hardiness: 7 to 9
  • Light Needs: Full to partial sun

Chinese fringe flower is a type of broadleaf evergreen shrub with a compact habit and unique tassel-like flowers. For purple foliage, I recommend the ‘Purple Diamond’ cultivar. In the spring, bright pink flowers cover the deep purple leaves. 

This shrub is very easy to grow and rarely succumbs to serious pest or disease issues. It can be planted as a single specimen or in groups to add structure and geometry to a front landscape. Consider planting a hedge of Chinese fringe flowers to border your property.

You’ll want to select a site with full morning sun but a bit of afternoon shade. This balance will keep your Chinese fringe flower from getting stressed while ensuring the best leaf colour possible.

14. Rex Begonia

Rex Begonia

Begonia rex-cultorum

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 10 to 12
  • Light Needs: Partial to full shade

Begonias are a diverse group that contains countless attractive flowering specimens. The rex begonia is a bit different, though, because it’s primarily grown for its striking foliage.

Rex begonias come in too many colours and patterns to possibly list. Many don’t even have agreed-upon names. It’s not hard to find a number with purple or multi-coloured leaves.

These foliar plants are most commonly kept indoors. They make great houseplants, thriving in typical household conditions. Alternatively, rex begonias work well as annual bedding plants (assuming you don’t live somewhere warm enough to keep them as perennials).

15. Purple Basil

Purple Basil

Ocimum basilicum

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 10 to 11
  • Light Needs: Full sun

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the green basil leaves commonly served up on Neapolitan pizza or processed into yummy pesto. But far fewer people are aware of the existence of purple basil.

Purple basil refers to a handful of cultivars of ‘normal’ sweet basil that, well, have purple leaves. These varieties are equally aromatic and tasty — purple basil is 100% edible — but are frequently used as garnishes because of their unique colouring.

I’ve seen purple basil used as an ornamental as well as a garden herb. You could technically even blur the line and harvest basil growing in decorative containers or a cottage-style bed! Expect your basil to survive only one year unless you live in a very warm climate.

16. Japanese Painted Fern

Japanese Painted Fern

Athyrium niponicum

  • Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Hardiness: 4 to 8
  • Light Needs: Partial to full shade

This is an increasingly popular species of fern that stands out with its silver-green leaves that are often tinged with purple. 

Like other ferns, you’ll want to plant this beauty somewhere with moist, well-draining soil and a good amount of shade. Japanese-painted ferns have an arching habit, so I prefer to give them a bit of breathing room to really show off.

One thing to note is that these ferns aren’t as tough as some others you might have experience with. Some sources say that Japanese-painted ferns are hardy up to USDA Zone 3, but I find they’re reliable only up to Zone 4.

FAQs Purple Leaves

What does it mean when a plant has purple leaves?

Some plants have naturally purple leaves regardless of health or growth stage. If a plant that normally has green leaves starts to turn reddish-purple, it could be a sign of nutritional deficiency. A lack of phosphorus is the most common cause of this symptom.

What is the vine with purple leaves?

Virginia Creeper is a very common North American native that turns deep purple in the fall. Its palmately compound leaves are typically green during the spring and summer months. This vine is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, so be sure to get a positive ID before handling it.

Citations

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.