A focus on foliage

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

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

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


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.

Startlingly sun-splashed, but with nodding, dainty pink flowers, the ‘Gold Heart’ Dicentra, or bleeding heart, is a beam of bright light for the shadows. Like most red flowers, it attracts hummingbirds. Its only drawback is that it tends to go dormant as the heat of summer approaches. It’s 20 inches high, likes shade to partial shade, and is hardy to Zone 5.

‘Blue and Gold’ Tradescantia (sometimes labeled ‘Sweet Kate’) is a yellow spiderwort that can take its bright yellow light out into sunny spots. The brighter its location, the brighter the color. If its blue-petaled flowering starts to peter out, cut back the plant – and then stand back. It grows 20 inches tall, prefers partial shade, and is hardy to Zone 4.

If you have a damp spot in your garden, you’ll have a warm spot in your heart for Ligularia ‘Britt-Marie Crawford.’ Its leaves – deep chocolate-maroon on top and purple beneath – are glossy to the point of being reflective, and it has sassy yellow daisy-type flowers. It grows 3-1/2 feet tall, doesn’t mind sun or partial shade, and is hardy to Zone 5.

I gave Mukdenia ‘Crimson Fans’ a whirl last year, all the while doubting that this colorful charmer would stand up to a real Iowa winter. But come spring: success! This low grower has maplelike leaves that emerge green but rapidly get bronzy and then are splashed with real red by midseason. It grows eight inches high, prefers partial shade, and is hardy to Zone 4.

Of an already appealing array of purple, pink, and red smokebushes, Cotinus ‘Golden Spirit’ makes my heart beat fastest. Its smokelike plumes puff up in midsummer as its intense, half-dollar-size leaves turn from yellow to coral, then to orange and red. It grows five feet tall, needs sun, and is hardy to Zone 5.

The ninebark of old now comes in several dazzling colors, but Physocarpus ‘Diablo’ is still the standard. The leaves of this deciduous bush are such a dark purple that they look almost black. In winter, the shaggy bark almost unfurls in layers, the appearance that gave it the ninebark name. Teensy flowers are a bonus. It reaches nine feet tall, likes full sun, and is hardy to Zone 3.

The golden locust may be just about the best tree ever. The brilliant yellow of Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ is sunshine itself. Fragrant, pealike white blossoms emerge in late spring on what turns out to be an extremely forgiving, drought-resistant tower.

Caution: The tree has a tendency to sucker. Just clip them off at ground level. It reaches 25 feet high in 10 years, will grow in sun to partial shade, and is hardy to Zone 4.

The gold hop vine is a must for every garden. The stunning Humulus ‘Aureus’ is deciduous, so cut back the dead foliage sometime during cold-weather months. But this is one fast grower, leaping up a tree or arbor next season with true zeal. Female plants can flower in chartreuse cone-like flowers that look like little artichokes. This vine will reach about 25 feet long in a mostly sunny spot and is hardy to Zone 5.

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