Great Plant Picks: Focus on Foliage

By: Richie Steffen

Richie Steffen is curator of horticulture for the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, where he manages the rare…

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Rodgersia podophylla. Author’s photographs, except as noted; all photographs courtesy Great Plant Picks

Rodgersia podophylla. Author’s photographs, except as noted; all photographs courtesy Great Plant Picks

The value of foliage cannot be underestimated in the gardener’s quest to create a livable and inviting landscape. Great Plant Picks is dedicated to helping the gardening public find the most reliable plants for the maritime Pacific Northwest. Over the last ten years the selection committee has developed a wonderful palette of outstanding foliage plants for gardeners from Salem, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia.

From stately trees to dramatic bulbs, selections from the Great Plant Picks (GPP) that are notable for their superior foliage comprise a rich array of evergreen and deciduous plants. When considering plants for their foliage effects, it is important to think about texture as well as color and seasonal interest. For instance, the boldly textured, mayapple-like leaves of Rodgersia podophylla bestow eye-catching drama to a garden vignette, whereas the thin, wispy blades of compact Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yaku Jima’) soften the focus and lend a sense of grace through their gentle swaying in the slightest breeze.

Plants with larger leaves are essential to a garden’s design. They command attention and guide your eye to prominent points in the landscape. The textural contrast they bring introduces the “wow” factor in what might otherwise be a mundane planting. The architectural foliage of windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) makes a grand statement, often becoming the central feature around which the rest of the garden is built. On a smaller scale is hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), whose compact, upright mounds of narrow spear-shaped fronds emerge in spring, each leaf unfurling like a long green tongue. Although bold leaves such as these are often used sparingly, they can form a hardy backbone to a “tropicalissimo” landscape if used in abundance. Imagine huge and varied foliage transporting you to the Hawaiian Islands or to a Costa Rican jungle.

Fine textured leaves define the visual space and add a graceful note to a garden. They act as a foil for larger leaves and add depth to a planting. A mature specimen of the upright lace-leaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Seiryû’) provides a light and feathery focus without overpowering its surroundings. Another excellent small tree with fine texture and a sophisticated form is Japanese hornbeam (Carpinus japonica). Reaching only about fifteen feet in height, its broad, vase-like habit is enhanced by the delicate foliage, each little leaf corrugated in a herringbone pattern. Ornamental grasses are essential for adding a delicate elegance to a design. Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis 5 acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) forms clumps eighteen inches tall, but with flower stalks that rocket to six feet in June. Planted in drifts, these grasses are reminiscent of the “amber waves of grain” that mark much of the continent’s agricultural landscape.

Bamboos are often overlooked due to the aggressive nature of a number of species. However, there are several choice and well-behaved species in the genus Fargesia—superb garden plants that remain tightly clumped, resisting any urge to run through the garden. Fargesia dracocephala ‘Rufa’ forms beautiful fountains of bright green stems sheathed, at first, in pale salmon red, revealing the verdant canes in summer. Its compact habit (only eight to ten feet tall) makes it an exceptional screening bamboo (with no bamboo barrier required).

Variegated tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Aureomarginatum’)

Variegated tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Aureomarginatum’)

Shine and Shape

The flash of glossy foliage or unusually shaped leaves can be an eye-catching addition to a garden composition. The reflective qualities of glossy leaves are especially effective in shady areas, where they reflect a hint of skylight. The thick leaves of Trochodendron aralioides gleam like polished leather and compliment the tree’s unusual tiered growth habit, making it a compelling subject for the woodland. Groupings of the ground-covering Beesia deltophylla, with green, heart-shaped leaves, or the ridged feathery, forest-green fronds of Polystichum neolobatum would be difficult to walk by without comment.

The curious, umbrella-like leaves of Arisaema consanguineum appear in late spring or early summer and seldom fail to draw attention. If a plant of truly bizarre qualities is needed, consider the crested form of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Cristata’); normal branches explode with flattened cockscomb-like growths throughout this small conifer. It will certainly be a conversation piece for all who visit the garden.

Golden bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’)

Golden bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’)

More Than Merely Green

Building a garden based on foliage need not result in a monotonous sea of green, given the wide selection of white-, yellow-, burgundy-, or silver-leafed plants available. Foliage compositions can be as vibrant as a flower garden, but usually last longer than most blossoms. Some of the most brightly colored leaves sport a white or golden variegation. Particularly striking is Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Aureomarginatum’, a creamy yellow variegated selection of tulip tree, the tallest deciduous tree in North America. From the moment it leafs out in spring, it is a sparkling sensation with a distinct air of refinement. Few gardeners have the space for such a large tree, but several shrubby, redtwig dogwoods bear leaves with equally appealing variegation. Two of the best are Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’, with clear whitemargined leaves, and C. sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’, with golden-edged leaves. An outstanding variegated shrub for shade, Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegatus’ is as difficult to pronounce as it is tough and resilient. A delightful aralia relative, it is easy to grow and glows with white and mint green leaves, especially effective among the deep greens of other woodland plants.

With gray weather such a common meteorological feature of the Pacific Northwest, the use of ample quantities of golden foliage helps brighten any dreary day. The glowing qualities of perennials such as golden bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’) or golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’) cannot be overstated. Their rich tones draw attention and highlight nearby plants. The spectacular acid yellow, dinner plate-sized leaves of Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’ can serve as a beacon. Planted at a far corner, anyone would feel compelled to move toward this tree, like a moth to a porch light. To accomplish a similar feat with a smaller plant, try Sunshine Blue (Caryopteris incana ‘Jason’). Tolerant of full sun, this small shrub will reward you with clusters of blue flowers that shine against the lemon-colored leaves. Another recent introduction is Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gold Bar’, a slowergrowing, yet exceptionally ornamental grass that is heavily striped with bright golden bars. Sprouting in late spring, it will grow to about four or five feet tall by the end of summer and have a radiant, shimmering quality that is especially dramatic with a little backlighting from the late summer sun.

Burgundy and purple foliage is no less dramatic, but serves a much different purpose in the landscape. These deeper hues recede mysteriously into the garden, or serve as background against which other plants shine. The frothy blooms and richly colored leaves of purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) form a perfect backdrop for the border. Backlit by the afternoon sun in an open site, its foliage smolders in reds and purples. Large shrubs and small trees can be draped with the easily managed purple wine grape (Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’); its bold leaves emerge green in the spring and slowly develop subtle burgundy tones throughout the summer, leading to an eruption of intense deep, rich red, autumn color—one of the most spectacular vines for late season color. The evergreen Solomon’s seal relative, Disporum cantoniense ‘Night Heron’, thrives in bright shade or halfday sun. Strong upright stalks, reminiscent of new asparagus spears, sprout deep purple in color, maturing into graceful arching sprays of plum foliage in spring, then gradually age to dark green with a purple blush. Though evergreen, the stalks can be cut back in mid- to late winter when tidying the garden.

Discerning gardeners make the most of silver, an elegant color that cools the sunny garden and brightens the shade garden. The large, heart-shaped leaves of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ sparkle with a silvery sheen interrupted by dark green veins. A lovely climbing hydrangea relative, Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’ follows in similar fashion with softly silvered leaves that show their best in part to full shade; with age, it will also reward you with lacy white flowers. Try planting this vigorous vine at the base of a tall fir; it will grow up the trunk and, with time, provide a spectacular show. Cyclamen are favorites for their beautiful flowers and silver-tinted foliage. Cyclamen hederifolium and C. coum are choice, hardy bulbs; the former flowers in summer and fall, and the latter in the middle of winter. Delightfully patterned leaves cover the ground from fall through late spring, each one showing a slightly different pattern of etched and mottled silver and white on a backdrop of deep green.

This is but a small sampling of the wealth of plants offering extraordinary foliage that can form the fabric of a beautiful garden. A few other plants notable for good foliage are ×Fatshedera lizei, Cotoneaster cooperi, Spanish fir (Abies pinsapo), Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’, and Athyrium ‘Ghost’. There are, however, over six hundred selections of top-notch plants to peruse on the Great Plant Picks website (www.greatplantpicks.org).

Administered by the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden, Great Plant Picks brings together participants from among retail and wholesale nursery people, garden designers, and botanical garden staffs in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, to select the most reliable performers for the gardening public. This education and horticultural outreach program of the Miller Botanical Garden promotes the vision of Mrs Miller, who always encouraged gardeners to grow the best plants they could find.

Great Plant Picks for Foliage (* denotes new Picks for 2010)

Bold Foliage

Asplenium scolopendrium
(2b-9, 14-24)
hart’s tongue fern
Darmera peltata (2-7, 14-20)
umbrella plant
×Fatshedera lizei (4-10, 14-24)
fatshedera
*Hydrangea aspera ‘Macrophylla’ (4-9, 14-24)
Mahonia ×media ‘Charity’ (6-9, 14-24)
Osmunda regalis ‘Purpurascens’ (1-9, 14-17)
purple-tinged royal fern
*Rodgersia podophylla (2-9, 14-17)
Trachycarpus fortunei (4-24)
windmill palm
Vitis coignetiae (3-10, 14-21)
crimson glory vine

Arisaema consangineum

Arisaema consangineum

Fine and Delicate Foliage

Acer palmatum ‘Seiryû’ (2-10, 12, 14-24)
*Amsonia hubrichtii (2-24)
Hubricht’s bluestar
Calomagrostis ×acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (2b-24)
feather reed grass
Carpinus japonica
   Japanese hornbeam
Cotoneaster cooperi
   Cooper’s cotoneaster
Fagus sylvatica var. heterophylla ‘Asplenifolia’ (2b-9, 14-21)
fern-leaf beech
*Fargesia dracocephala ‘Rufa’
dragon’s head bamboo
*Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yaku Jima’ (2-24)

Crested form of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Cristata’)

Crested form of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Cristata’)

Unique and Unusual Foliage

Abies pinsapo (5-11, 14-24)
Spanish fir
Arisaema consanguineum
Crambe maritima
(2-9, 14-17)
sea kale
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Cristata’ (4-9, 14-24)
crested Japanese cedar
Salix nakamurana var. yezoalpina (2-6, 15-17)
creeping alpine willow

Bright and Shiny Foliage

*Beesia deltophylla
Fatsia japonica
(4-9, 14-24)
Japanese aralia
Polystichum neolobatum (5-7, 14-17)
long-eared holly fern
Sarcococca confusa (4-9, 14-24)
sweet box
Trochodendron aralioides (4-9, 14-24)
wheel tree

Japanese hornbeam (Carpinus japonica). Photograph by J Frank Schmidt & Son Co

Japanese hornbeam (Carpinus japonica). Photograph by J Frank Schmidt & Son Co

White Variegated Foliage

Abelia ×grandiflora ‘Mardi Gras’ (4-24)
variegated abelia
Actinidia kolomikta (1-9, 14-17)
Carex ‘Ice Dance’ (2b-9, 14-24)
variegated sedge
Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ (1-9, 14-24)
variegated redtwig dogwood
Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegatus’ (2b-10, 14-17)
variegated five-leaf aralia
Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Aureomarginatum’ (2-12, 14-24)
variegated tulip tree
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ (2-24)
variegated maiden grass
Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ (4-10, 14-24)
variegated false holly

Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegatus’

Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegatus’

Gold Variegated Foliage

Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’ (3b-9, 14-16)
golden full moon maple
Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ (3b-10, 14-24)
golden Japanese sweet flag
Caryopteris incana Sunshine Blue (‘Jason’) (2b-9, 14-24)
golden bluebeard
Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’ (3-10, 14-24)
golden catalpa
Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’ (1-2, 14-21)
golden-twig dogwood
Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’ (1-9, 14-24)
golden bleeding heart
Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ (2b-9, 14-24)
golden Japanese forest grass
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gold Bar’ (2-24)

Disporum cantoniense ‘Night Heron’

Disporum cantoniense ‘Night Heron’

Burgundy and Purple Foliage

Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Bagatelle’ (2b-24)
dwarf purpleleaf Japanese barberry
Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (2-24)
purple smokebush
Disporum cantoniense ‘Night Heron’
Chinese fairybells
Epimedium pinnatum subsp. colchicum ‘Black Sea’ (2-9, 14-17)
Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ (4-9, 14-24)
Fagus sylvatica ‘Purple Fountain’ (2b-9, 14-21)
columnar weeping copper beech
Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’ (4-9, 14-23)
purple wine grape

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gold Bar’

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gold Bar’

Silver Foliage

Athyrium ‘Ghost’ (1-9, 14-24)
ghost fern
Brunnera macrophyllum ‘Jack Frost’ (1-24)
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Split Rock’ (2b-6, 15-17)
Cyclamen coum (2-9, 14-24)
Cyclamen hederifolium (2-9, 14-24)
Helleborus 5 sternii (4-9, 14-24)
Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’ (2-9, 14-17)
‘Moonlight’ hydrangea vine

All selections in the Great Plant Picks have been chosen for their suitability in USDA hardiness zones 7 and 8, which covers most of the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. In the list above, zone numbers in parentheses refer to Sunset zones (when available) in the latest Sunset Western Garden Book and have been provided as an aid for readers beyond the Northwest. Plants may not perform equally well in all of the Sunset zones noted.

To learn more about Great Plant Picks and the nearly 700 plants picked to date, please visit the website at www.greatplantpicks.org.