Plants With Colorful Leaves
May 31st, 2007
People say they want more color in their yards, and flowers are the traditional way to do that.
Now’s a good time to thumb your nose at tradition.
So many plants have such colorful leaves these days that it’s possible to grow a whole landscape as lively as the Land of Oz without a single flower.
I’m not dissing flowers by any means. But one big advantage of colorful foliage is that it sticks around all season. The flowers of most trees, shrubs and perennials come and go in a fleeting few weeks.
Thanks to the lure of wire-to-wire color, foliage has become the hot item in plant-breeding lately.
Look no farther than the glut of coralbells (Heuchera), foamflowers (Tiarella) and that marriage of the two – foamybells (Heucherella) – as proof.
Dan Heims at Oregon’s cutting-edge Terra Nova Nurseries has been churning out scores of these wide-leafed perennials in a rainbow of colors. They all flower, too, but who cares?
One of Heims’ favorites is coralbells ‘Hollywood,’ a seductive beauty of silvery white foliage with green veining and a hint of burgundy.
I’m partial to a foamybells called ‘Stoplight,’ which has maple-like leaves of golden-yellow with red veins down the middle, and a hard-to-find coralbells called ‘Gypsy Dancer’ that has rosy-pink and silver leaves with green veins.
Not your style? Then how about the nearly black coralbells ‘Obsidian’ or ‘Black Beauty’ or the neon-gold ‘Lime Rickey’ or this year’s new peachy-leafed ‘Caramel?’
And that’s just a smattering of one plant family.
The garden-center perennial benches are loaded with leaf color from actaea (don’t miss the wine-leafed ‘Brunette,’ ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ and ‘Black Negligee’) to yucca (big, bold strappy leaves of striped green and gold in ‘Bright Eyes’ and ‘Color Guard’).
You’ll find lots of golds and reds if you’re into hot colors, but there’s also plenty of silvery leafers and soft blue-tinted plants for the cool-color lovers. And there’s variegation everywhere (leaves with two or more colors).
From a seller’s point of view, colorful foliage makes plants much more enticing throughout the growing season than in the green-leafed days when people bought mainly when the perennials and shrubs were in bloom.
But that’s OK because when you buy these plants, they’re also showing off all season in your garden beds.
Time out for a quick caution here.
Don’t overdo it.
If you load up with nothing but big-time leaf color everywhere, you might cross over into color overload.
It’s like doing an ice-cream taste test. You’ll appreciate the next sample best if you have a cracker or drink of water between.
In gardening, plants with green leaves are like the crackers and water. So give your eyeballs and brain a rest with some green here and there.
And now, back to the action…
The demand for leaf color is just hitting prime in the shrub section, where it takes a bit longer to develop newcomers than flowers.
Because shrubs are bigger and can last a lifetime, these have the potential to play starring roles in key spots in your landscape. I’m thinking front corners of the house, off the patio or the centerpiece of an island bed in the front yard.
One of the older and more familiar examples is the cut-leaf Japanese maple. Many of these have red or lime-green leaves in addition to a gorgeous weeping habit and eye-popping fall color. (Try to site them out of the wind.)
One of my favorite newer examples is the ‘Diabolo’ ninebark, a native shrub with dark burgundy leaves, white flower clusters in spring, then BB-sized red fruit clusters, then coppery fall foliage. It’s always changing, gets no bugs, is extremely drought tolerant and is cold-hardy enough to survive in northern Canada.
What more do we want?
Also new in the last few years have been more colorful versions of some old favorites, such as the variegated and pink-blooming ‘My Monet’ weigela (also a super-dwarf at only 2 feet tall and wide), ‘Black Lace’ elderberry (dark burgundy serrated leaves and pink flowers), and a dwarf forsythia called ‘Kumson’ (netted white and green leaf color and golden early-spring flowers).
Even evergreens are getting into the act.
The dwarf goldthread falsecypress (look for a variety named ‘Golden Mop’) has become a popular evergreen, not only for its shaggy, bright-gold needled branches but because you can’t kill it. This is the plant that’s showing up around McDonald’s parking lots.
Also check out some of the golden Hinoki cypresses and golden junipers.
If those are too garish, tone things down with the steely-blue dwarf ‘Blue Star’ juniper, a weeping blue atlas cedar (nice at one of those house corners) or a dwarf blue spruce (‘Fat Albert’ or ‘Montgomery’ or the more tree-like ‘Bakeri’).
We should start calling them “evergolds” or “everblues.”
If you’re really good, you’ll coordinate your flower colors with the leaf colors of these more permanent foliage stars.
A good way to do it: take a small cutting of your foliage plants along to the garden center and hold them up as you browse the annual-flower benches.
By the way, you’ll even find great foliage choices there… coleus, Persian shield, perilla, cannas, dark-leafed begonias, dusty miller, golden or black sweet potato vines, etc. etc.
Some favorite colorful-foliage plants for central-Pennsylvania gardens:
Crabapple ‘Prairifire’ (burgundy/green)
Cut-leaf Japanese maple ‘Red Feather’ (red dwarf)
Cut-leaf Japanese maple ‘Tamukeyama’ (red)
Cut-leaf Japanese maple ‘Viridis’ (gold)
Japanese maple ‘Bloodgood’ (dark red)
Kousa dogwood ‘Wolf Eyes’ (green/gold variegation)
Purple beech ‘Riversii’ (dark purple/burgundy)
Purple weeping beech (dark purple/burgundy weeper)
Purple smoketree (burgundy)
Redbud ‘Forest Pansy’ (dark burgundy)
Tricolor beech (cream/green/pink variegation)
Blue spruce (powdery blue upright)
Dwarf nandina (red/green dwarf)
Golden Hinoki cypress (green/gold upright)
Goldthread falsecypress (golden shrub)
Juniper ‘Blue Star’ or ‘Blue Tam’ (steely blue)
Juniper ‘Gold Cone’ (golden dwarf upright)
Juniper ‘Gold Lace’ (golden spreader)
Juniper ‘Gray Gleam’ (silvery blue upright)
Juniper ‘Tolleson’s Weeping’ (powdery blue weeper)
Weeping blue atlas cedar (powdery blue weeper)
* Flowering shrubs
Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’ (red/green/copper)
Caryopteris ‘Snow Fairy’ (green/white variegation)
Dappled willow ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ (green/white variegation)
Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ (lime/yellow)
Elderberry ‘Black Lace’ (dark burgundy)
Forsythia ‘Kumson’ (green/white netting)
Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’ or ‘Blue Mist’ (blue/green)
Hydrangea ‘Lady in Red’ (red veining and stems)
Ninebark ‘Diabolo’ (dark burgundy)
Ninebark ‘Summer Wine’ (dark burgundy, dwarf)
Spirea ‘Mellow Yellow’ (golden)
St. Johnswort ‘Albury Purple’ (burgundy-tinged green)
St. Johnswort ‘Brigadoon’ (bright gold)
Variegated aralia (green/white variegation)
Variegated weigela (green/white variegation)
Weigela ‘Midnight Wine’ (dark burgundy, dwarf)
Weigela ‘My Monet’ (green/white variegation, dwarf)
Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’ (dark burgundy)
* Ornamental grasses
Acorus ‘Ogon’ (green/gold striping)
Big bluestem (blue/green)
Japanese forestgrass ‘All Gold’ (golden)
Indian grass ‘Sioux Blue’ (blue/green)
Switchgrass ‘Dallas Blues’ or ‘Northwind’ (blue/green)
Variegated Japanese forestgrass (green/gold striping)
Actea ‘Brunette’ or ‘Black Negligee’ (dark burgundy)
Astilbe ‘Color Flash (green/burgundy variegation)
Aster ‘Lady in Black’ (dark burgundy)
Barrenwort (red edging)
Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ or ‘Looking Glass’ (silver/green)
Catmint ‘Walker’s Low’ (silvery gray)
Coralbells (you name it)
Euphorbia (green/red variegation)
Foamflowers (red veining)
Foamybells (gold or green with red veins)
Hardy geranium ‘Midnight Reiter’ (dark burgundy)
Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’ (dark burgundy)
Hosta (green, gold, blue, green/white)
Jacob’s ladder ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (green/white variegation)
Lamium ‘White Nancy’ (green/white variegation)
Lavender (silvery gray)
Ligularia ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’ (dark burgundy)
Lungwort (green/white variegation)
Mukdenia ‘Crimson Fans’ (red/green variegation)
Russian sage (silvery gray)
Variegated iris (green/white striping)
Variegated liriope (green or gold variegation)
Variegated Solomon’s seal (green/white variegation)
Yucca (green/gold variegation)