2021 Color of the Year & Your Plants

Hopefully, the 2021 Color of the Year will help offset my family’s recently muted New Year’s Eve plans. No bar revelry. No toasting with friends and strangers at midnight. Instead, I spent a contented night at home with my husband and 4-year-old son, Jack. We feasted on frozen pizza and fancy French pastries, which helped fuel Jack with the energy he needed for the living room dance party. Mostly, Tim and I looked forward to Jack running out of steam and falling asleep, so we could watch a grown-up movie and head to bed at 12:01. Our plans seemed to be on track when Jack succumbed to sleep at 9:10, but then he woke up in his bed at 1:30 a.m. screaming “I WANTED TO STAY UP ALL NIGHT!!!”

Our New Year’s holiday reminds me of the Pantone 2021 colors of the year, Ultimate Gray (which is, well…gray) and Illuminating (a sunny shade of yellow). Breaking with the tradition of choosing merely one color, the choices could be a fitting representation of ringing in the new year: 2020 was drab, depressing, and gray, all of us eager to leave it behind for the potential of 2021 bringing some much-needed hope, light, and positivity. The executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, however, describes their choices differently:

“The union of an enduring Ultimate Gray with the vibrant yellow Illuminating expresses a message of positivity supported by fortitude. Practical and rock solid but at the same time warming and optimistic, this is a color combination that gives us resilience and hope. We need to feel encouraged and uplifted; this is essential to the human spirit.”


My gray sofa with yellow pillows suddenly has a whole new significance. So where can you find this duo in the garden? You may need to train yourself to find the beauty in the unexpected.

Find the 2021 Color of the Year in your landscape.

  • Perhaps it’s catching the moment when a gray squirrel pauses in the branches of a Golden Glory Dogwood (Cornus mas ‘Golden Glory’) when in its full spring display, that reminds us winter is almost over.
  • A budding Sunrise Forsythia (Forsythia x Sunrise) against a gray late winter sky.
  • A yellow Crocus poking its head out of a pile of slushy snow.
  • In April, cram as many yellow pansies into a gray glazed ceramic pot as it will hold.
  • A wrought iron vintage bench, spray-painted yellow that sits against the dingy aluminum siding of my garage.
  • A tenacious dandelion bursting through the cracks in the sidewalk.
  • Plant some annual Thunbergia alata (Black-eyed Susan vine) to entwine the weathered gray supports of a cedar pergola.

Plants with these Pantone attributes built in.

  • Moonshine Yarrow (Achilleax ‘Moonshine’) has finely textured gray leaves with flat-topped yellow blossoms in summer.
  • Thriller Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’) has airy electric yellow flowers in May and a sheen on the leaves that, in a certain light, looks gray.
  • Sterling Silver Linden (Tilia tomentosa ‘Sterling Silver’) has two-toned leaves, green on top, silvery gray underneath, to contrast with the creamy yellow flowers in late summer that are adored by honeybees.
  • Early Glow™ Buckeye (Aesculus glabra ‘JN Select’) has large, upright, bright yellow flowers with a reddish throat, sure to give hummingbirds a treat. The bark matures to a light greyish color with age.

Pairing plants together for the 2021 Color of the Year.

  • Use the blue-gray leaves of a Bridal Rice Willow (Salix repens ‘Bridal Rice’) as a backdrop for a grouping of Viette’s Little Suzy Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia speciosa 'Viette's Little Suzy').
  • In your annual patio containers, mix silvery Dusty Miller (Jacobaea maritima) with yellow Lantanas, Snapdragons, & Zinnias.
  • Plant a native Yellow Honeysuckle Vine (Lonicera prolifera) under a mature native American Beech (Fagus grandiflora), so the bright yellow flowers contrast with the aged, smooth gray bark of the tree.

The definition of Illuminating is “helping to clarify or explain something”. Ultimate, when used as a descriptive adjective, such as the color Gray, can mean “being or happening at the end of a process; final”. Who knows what events lie in the months ahead. One could hazard the assumption that we can only improve upon 2020. I certainly remain hopeful that 2021 will be more Illuminating and that the Gray of last year will Ultimately be behind us.