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A focus on foliage

Leaves of many hues keep gardens bright long after flowers have faded.

By Craig Summers BlackContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2008

DRAMATIC LEAVES: Two-toned smokebush foliage perks up anywhere in the garden it grows.

Craig Summers Black


Is it possible that you can now find leaves in more hues than you can flowers?

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And it is a grand thing when such forthright foliage also sports blossoms – at least for part of the growing season. If only all perennial plants did such double duty.

While the wave of colorful heucheras, tiarellas, and heucherellas now seems positively endless, several garden stalwarts stand out amid all the novelties.

I’m a sucker for the yellow/gold ones, but to each his own. The once-ballyhooed 'Palace Purple' heuchera now seems more like palace pallid. There are many much brighter and better among today’s choices.

Blue hostas may not have the visual punch the yellow ones do, but that’s the point. They are calming and restful. Think hammock time.

Want to make a grander statement in the landscape? Try larger plants. The gold false cypress (Chamaecyparis) is a stunner in any landscape, especially in winter. Now that’s a garden combo: snow and glow.

Gold robinia trees seem to cast a yellow shade through their fernlike leaves.
And oaks! Have you ever seen anything so fine as a yellow-leaved oak tree?

When it finally dawns on a gardener that “long-blooming perennials” means weeks and not months, she will have to join the 4F Club: Flowers fade, but foliage is forever.

Try as you might to stagger various bloom times, overlapping as best you can, there will be the inevitable garden lulls. To perk up your garden during those times – and all other times – you need to have a heavy smattering of perennials with colorful leaves.

And fancy foliage is really not that big a departure for even a beginning gardener.

Everyone knows that an evergreen can actually be “everblue.” Witness the ubiquitous blue spruce. Gardeners with space constraints will want to consider dwarf varieties that add that silvery blue hue without the staggering loss of real estate that the regular variety consumes.

A pairing of purple and yellow barberry bushes is now as common as green yew foundation plantings.

Graduates of Gardening 101 are all aware of ho-hum green hostas and even the green-and-white variegated kind. But this is no time to be timid. Venturing into the world of blue or yellow hostas (some plants actually mix the colors) can punch up your shady vistas mightily.

And did you know that you can get a 2-1/2-foot, monstrous-size chartreuse hosta to add a tropical touch? Now you do – it would be the longtime favorite Sum and Substance.

When it comes to plants grown strictly for their foliage, are those all-green ornamental grasses not ornamental enough for you?

Keep looking. Many more have two-toned or variegated leaves these days.

You’ll find ornamental grasses with red foliage as well as yellow. And be sure to check out ‘All-Gold’ Hakone grass.

Now, there’s some drama for your mama.

Here are recommendations for fancy foliage:


Heucheras, or coral bells, have long been stalwarts in the shade garden. But as ramped-up breeding programs develop almost a new one every week, the foliage colors and variegations now run the gamut. This also holds true for tiarellas and the cross between tiarellas and heucheras, heucherellas. For sheer wow power, the coppery-peach Heuchera ‘Marmalade’ with its cute little ruffles is unsurpassed. A bold swath of Marmalade will lighten up any shady spot. It’s 10 inches tall, needs partial shade, and is hardy to Zone 4.