Forget the flowers – shrubs and a mention of perennials


I’m not suggesting that flowers be banned, or that fewer be planted, only that there should be more to gardens than impatiens and petunias. There are trees and shrubs that have delightful foliage that’s colorful even when not a flower’s in sight. And don’t forget perennials, for hostas are greatly prized for their colorful and variegated leaves, and seldom considered for their blooms.

I am fond of yellow, red, and blue foliage, the brighter the better, and leaves that are nearly black, with a bit of green in its glorious shades, and when you toss a handful of variegated leaves into the mix there is a challenge to creating a cohesive garden. Count mine amongst those that lack any cohesion whatsoever, and what do I care?

The design of this garden is dictated by feel. Sometimes I “feel” that a yellow-leafed, knee high must be planted between the red-leaf Japanese maple and the blue spruce with pendulous branches that hug the ground, and what pops up in a walk through the garden center, a red leafed euphorbia (Bonfire euphorbia, above) with chartreuse bracts that stand out like a neon sign. Perhaps the euphorbia doesn’t quite work with ‘Caramel’ heuchera only a few feet away, but to my eye the red, yellow, blue combination is so splendid that I will overlook the heuchera, and instead consider that it belongs in the grouping with red hot poker and fall blooming toad lilies with the large green leaves of oakleaf hydrangea close behind.

Perhaps you consider any red, blue, yellow combination hideous, and so you should not plant anything so garish in your garden, but this mix suits my eye, and more so if I can find the space to shoehorn a black leafed elephant ear beside the spruce without causing any permanent disfigurement to the evergreen. I would consider adding the bright yellow Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) to crawl around and through this composition, but this could possibly be a bit too hysterical.

As we move through the garden today I fear that I must keep my remarks brief, and some plants might be omitted entirely, but I’ll start with shrubs and meander around to perennials in a short while. There are, of course, many plants with colored (other than green, that is) and variegated leaves that I don’t have in my garden, but this will be a start, and if you care to explore further and find others on your own I would commend your adventurous spirit.

The distinct reddish-purple leaves in the garden belong to the thorny Japanese barberries (Berberis thunbergii) , and though I do not grow the common red hummock Crimson Pygmy, the similar Royal Burgundy is more compact growing. Rose Glow (above) is taller growing with mottled rose-pink and deep purple new leaves that age to a deep reddish-purple, and Helmond Pillar has strict upright branching. Japanese barberries are restricted in some parts of the country because they seed themselves about indiscriminately, and are considered invasive, and though I have seen a seedling or two I’ve seen little evidence that the barberries should be considered a problem in Virginia. I would advise against planting the tall growing red leafed barberry ‘Artopurpurea’ since it seeds prolifically, but Crimson Pygmy and the barberries in my garden set little seed, so their potential to become invasive is quite limited.

Glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) is a handsome, but coarse textured shrub with upright arching branches and bronze-green semi-evergreen leaves and pink-white blooms beginning in late spring through fall. It is common, but popular mostly in mass plantings on highways and large commercial developments. Recent introductions are more refined, lower and more compact growing, and several selections have variegated leaves that have increased its acceptance in gardens. I grow four cultivars, two quite similar with yellow leaves with green centers (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Gold Dust’,above), ‘Confetti’ with creamy white leaves with green centers, and ‘Canyon Creek’ with solid soft yellow foliage that turns to bronze in the fall. The scattered blooms are pleasant and long lasting, but these abelias are valued more for their foliage.

I mention Japanese aucubas (Aucuba japonica) occasionally in this space, usually when discussing the damage that deer have done to the garden in the past, but when I was considering evergreen shrubs to brighten a dank, dark part of the garden under overhanging poplars and maples, one choice was easy. Not one type of variegated leaf aucuba but two, Gold Dust (above), with bright yellow spots sprinkled liberally on a medium green background, and Picturata, with solid yellow blotches that nearly cover the large leaves. Early on I was convinced by other gardeners that aucuba was only marginally hardy in Virginia, but I have seen only a little leaf damage in the most severe winters a decade or two ago. I am convinced that there is no better suited evergreen shrub to brighten a shady corner.

In sun or shade andromeda, or Japanese pieris (Pieris japonica) is a wonderful choice if allowed a position with medium moisture, not too dry or wet as pieris is sensitive to both. The red spring growth of common varieties such as Mountain Fire, and long pendulous panicles of early spring blooms make this a splendid deer resistant evergreen shrub. Variegated pieris, and a more vigorous selection, ‘Flaming Silver’ (above and background of title) add colorful variegated foliage, and red to pink new growth, though I have found this cultivar more susceptible to lacebug than others.

I pledged to keep this brief (relatively brief maybe?), so I’ll wrap up with mentions of variegated English holly, with bold white and green leaves, weigela, with red leafed ‘Wine and Roses, and green and white ‘My Monet’, a goofy name for a fine plant, and Rainbow leucothoe. I have a handful or more of variegated leaf yuccas (above), Color Guard, Brite Edge, and Gold Sword, with green and yellow variegation, and I had a white and green variegated yucca that became too shaded over the years and faded away beneath a Crimson Queen weeping Japanese maple and a grouping of Gulfstream nandinas.

There are yellow and variegated caryopteris, the nearly black leaves of Black Lace elderberry and Diabolo ninebark, hydrangea ‘Lemon Daddy’, with large yellow leaves and blue flowers, and a couple variegated hydrangeas (above) that rarely bloom with winter dieback to branch tips, but with the foliage that is worthy enough not to be bothered by the lack of blooms.

There are dozens, many dozens of colored leafed perennials in the garden, dark foliaged dahlias (above), nearly a hundred hostas, liriopes and sedums (below), periwinkle, golden hake grass, sweetflag, and euphorbias, a red leafed aster, black snakeroot, and so on. There are also a few with plain old green leaves.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sandra says:

    I am designing a garden of colorful evergreen plants. I would love to add the variegated sedum in blue and yellow displayed on this page but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. What is the name of this sedum?

    1. Dave says:

      This is Sedum lineare ‘Variegatum’. In a recent post there is a more up to date photo as it has spread. As with all sedums it requires little moisture, but should have direct sun for most of the day. In partial shade I’ve found that it barely grows.

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