Red and Gold Is the New Orange and Black

Photo, clockwise from top L: Red chaenomeles blossom; cotoneaster berries; inconvenient traffic light; Ferrari Testarossa; Common Egret; Erik Estrada; Sauvignon Blanc grapes Can you guess what these things have in common? I’ll tell you: I saw each one of them on my Northern Californian drive home today. (Well, sadly not Erik Estrada, but I did see plenty of CA's finest pulling people over for driving 67 mph.) Do you know what else these things have in common? Why, they’re red and gold, of course (Estrada included), just like the subject of today’s post … the San Francisco 49ers.

Young, Montana & Kaepernick

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"But this is a garden design blog!" I hear you exclaim in dismay. And you are right, but this is garden design as inspired by life, and for the next three days, life revolves around one thing only, namely this Sunday's 49er Super Bowl showdown against some weird and inconsequential team from Maryland. (Apologies to my in-laws, if you’re reading. Go ‘Skins!)

This week I'm sharing my tips for a 49er-inspired garden, and before you close your browser, clear your history and delete all cookies, I want to share with you a little story about a Chicago Bears fan who wrote in to Horticulture Magazine asking for tips on orange roses and blue perennials so that she could design her tribute garden to Da’ Bears. I have strong feelings on orange roses at the best of times, and planted in the form of a football helmet is certainly not the best of times. Fear not, gentle readers; this is not that.

Gold miners Photo: buzzient.com

First a quick history lesson; California’s is longer than expected. The name “Forty-Niner” is derived from the Gold Rush of 1849 and was used to describe the legions of gold-hungry men who arrived in the Sierra Nevada foothills ready to find and dig the Mother Lode. Most of the tens of thousands of forty-niners didn’t stay much longer than it took to deplete the gold deposits, but they did leave a trail of ghost towns behind them, which remained untouched for decades. For our purposes today this is of interest because specimens of antique roses now hundreds of years old can still be found growing amid the remains of these old settlements, happily rampant in inland California’s hot, dry rose-friendly climate.

Damask rose Photo: vintagerosery.com

The Damask rose would likely have been planted by Franciscans missionaries in the 1700s.

Harrison's Yellow rose Photo: Mary's Plant Farm

“Harrison’s Yellow,” originally a Scottish rose, likely travelled to the Sierra Nevadas from New York on a covered wagon.

Champneys' Pink Cluster rose Photo: Agel Rosen

‘Champneys’ Pink Cluster’ grows near the site of the Columbia Diggings, 3000 miles from its South Carolina home.

Rosa rubiginosa Photo: Zandhoogte.nl

And lovely Rosa rubiginosa, whose fragrance resides in the leaf rather than the flower, is the same briar rose growing in hedgerows across Britain.

These hardy plants immigrated to California in the mid-1850s, just like the homesick miners whose families sent them cuttings of familiar plants from home. And while the human immigrants faced scurvy, cholera, dehydration, starvation and venereal disease, the roses discovered their ideal climate and to this day continue to thrive, hundreds of years later.

And now for some less maudlin and more contemporary red and gold for your garden. Red tends to be the color of summer, and using it in the garden is not a complicated science. In the heat and glare of midsummer, red holds its own in bright sunshine, and putting it next to purple makes the two colors vibrate off one another and increases their vitality and intensity. Red draws the eye in, so it’s best to use it towards the front of a bed; place purple towards the back, as it draws the eye into the distance and lengthens space.

Photo: Bougainvilea 'San Diego Red'

'Firebird' penstemon

Photo: Tibouchina urvilleana

In a warm climate, I like Bougainvillea ‘San Diego Red’ growing up a bright white wall. Try Firebird penstemon at its feet and set them both off with Tibouchina urvilleana (Princess flower).

Cornus alba 'Sibirica' Photo: Bartels Gartencenter

Lychnis chalcedonia Photo: kerneliv.dk

Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria' Photo: Crocus.co.uk

In colder climates, try Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ which despite having ‘alba’ in its name, has blood-red twigs and in winter looks mind-blowing against the snow. Cut it back each year, as the new growth is reddest. For midsummer red, though you must give it sun, try Lychnis chalcedonia (Jerusalem cross), whose name evokes noble, if misguided, crusaders embarking on their journeys east. If you have a boggy, moist site, try Lobelia cardinalis; the name kind of says it all about the color, and coupled with its tubular flowers, it’s sure to entice nectar-seeking hummingbirds to your garden.

Photo: Aquilegia vulgaris "Woodside Gold"

Gold plants are essentially yellow plants, and I won’t get into them too much today except for one delicate little woodland perennial (more of a Kendall Hunter than a Frank Gore) who deserves mention. Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Woodside Gold’ grows a dark purple flower on a stem about 20” high, but its foliage is what really sets it off. Ferny and dissected, the leaves are variegated gold and green; imagine them en masse lighting up the forest floor or along its simulacra, a shady woodland garden.

Gilded planters at Emily Joubert Photo: Gardenista.com, December 2012

And conveniently – you see it all comes back to where we began – Woodside is right here in the Bay Area, just south of San Francisco. Gardenista recently showcased these pots available at the divine and eye-wateringly expensive Woodside boutique Emily Joubert. Get the details for the DIY low-rent but equally lovely version on Gardenista or Design Sponge.

BeefEater Gold-Plated BBQ Photo: gizmag.com, May 2007

And finally, what do I recommend for an actual 49er who has a garden? Obviously the BeefEater 24K gold-plated barbeque which, according to the company’s CEO, is “for the man who has everything and wants more.” Because honestly, how good would this look with a Super Bowl ring?

Go Niners!!!