Beautiful Foliage Plants for Your Perennial Garden
The real troupers of the perennial garden are in the background: Foliage is the foil for the action and lasts from the moment the spring curtain rises until the last scene of autumn’s final act. Many of us have come to realize that shrubs provide the necessary permanent structure for perennials as they come in and out of bloom—and through the seasons, they can also deliver great color.
Check out these dazzling tonal options in bleeding hearts, toad lilies, lungworts, coral-bells, old-fashioned weigela, elderberry and spirea. Their leaves rival the flowers with jewel-like colors: amethyst, topaz, garnet, emerald, ruby, jade and gold, along with striking combinations of them all.
PICTURED: Spiraea japonica ‘Gold Mound’, Iris pallida ‘Variegata’ and Penstemon ‘Husker Red’.
Among golden elderberries I have had the most success with Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’. I cut the plant back every year or two for the lushest foliage and forgo the flowers and fruit. Some gardeners I know favor S. racemose ‘Sutherland Gold’ and cite it as the best cut-leaf golden variety.
PICTURED:Sambucus racemose ‘Sutherland Gold’.
GOLDEN ELDERBERRIES (Cont'd.)
The deep burgundy variety, S. nigra ‘Guincho Purple’, has pink buds that open to pale buff-pink flowers, so I tend to not cut that one back, to the loss of the splendid foliage. I am now looking for ‘Gerda’ (also called Black Beauty™), a new one from Spring Meadow. I’ve heard this will replace ‘Guincho Purple’, since its dark foliage deepens through summer rather than turning green.
PICTURED:Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho Purple’.
Weigela is among the easiest of all shrubs to grow, and it comes in rich, deep colors. Wine and Roses™ (also listed as ‘Alexandra’), with brownish-purple leaves and rose-pink blossoms is always a hit. A shorter version: Midnight Wine™ is an incredibly useful ground cover. Briant Rubidor™ has gold foliage and cherry-red flowers. I alternate between loving this brilliant plant and finding its circus combination a bit much. Now I’m growing ‘Looymansii Aurea’. Still hard to find, this one has bright yellow leaves with a slight red edge, but soft pink flowers that are easier on the eye.
PICTURED:Weigela Briant Rubidor™.
Ninebark is versatile and hardy. I have two golden ninebarks, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’ and ‘Luteus’. The first one is much more widely available and is supposed to be smaller than the latter, but the difference of a foot or so on a 6- to 8-foot-tall shrub barely matters. These rose relatives have pretty spirea-like flowers followed by papery reddish fruits. Then the gold color fades to grass green. These selections of native North American shrubs are hardy well into USDA Zone 3. I’ve been training them into standards or lollipop-shaped trees. I cannot grow standard roses, so the ninebarks are my stand-ins. The popular Diabolo™ has very deep coffee-maroon leaves that are exquisite with the papery fruit. Lilium regale is perfect in front of the purple-chocolate leaves of Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’—the light brush strokes of maroon on the back of the petals echo the ninebark’s rich maroon.
PICTURED:Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’.
Spirea is closely related to the ninebark, and for years we’ve seen yellow, gold and lime-green versions of Spiraea japonica in varying heights. There are ground covers and taller ones, such as ‘Gold Mound’ and ‘Goldflame’. The latter has reddish, amber tips to new growth that is spectacular (I do not care for the ones without the red new growth).
PICTURED:Spiraea japonica ‘Gold Mound’.
Magic Carpet™ grows slightly shorter than ‘Gold Mound’ and is recommended as a ground cover. One drawback to some of these plants, to my eye, is the flower color. They range from pink to dark pink to a dirty lavender-pink that looks pretty awful with the gold foliage. It might be safest to buy spirea when in flower. If this list begins to sound a little daunting, beware—also on my list are butter-yellow ‘Candlelight’, Dakota Gold Charm™, ‘Firelight’ with red fall color, two-toned red and gold ‘Flaming Mound’, and ‘Lemon Princess’. If I had to choose one, I would go with Magic Carpet™. It grows to 2 feet tall, never needs pruning and has spectacular new-growth color that I complement with deep orange tulips. When it blooms, the flower color is completely acceptable—deep pink without any dulling blue tones.
PLANT PARTNER: I like the challenge of using orange in the garden: a color with all the subtlety of the Home Depot sign. The color can be moderated by planting with others. Tulips, such as ‘Prinses Irene’ and ‘Apricot Beauty’, are exquisite against the auburn new growth of Spiraea japonica Magic Carpet™.
PICTURED:Spiraea japonica Magic Carpet™.
Blue mist spirea is not a spirea at all — it is caryopteris. In full sun, Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’ is a stunner. This drought-tolerant, drainage-loving, 2-foot-tall shrub becomes the center of attraction with gold leaves and pure blue flowers.
PICTURED: Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Worcester Gold’.
Pulmonarias have more than colorful leaves. These plants have coral to blue flowers in early spring. ‘Little Star’ has narrow, deep green leaves covered by a starry milky way, and also bears sapphire flowers that are large for the genus. Some pulmonarias are prone to mildew, an affliction that attacks most species and varieties. I’ve found that if the foliage does become burned or blackened after the flowers fade, I can simply cut back the plant for a second flush of luxurious leaves. Pulmonaria ‘Spilled Milk’ has platinum leaves speckled with emerald flecks.
PICTURED:Pulmonaria ‘Spilled Milk’.
My favorite new pulmonaria is the silver ‘Majeste’. This sun-tolerant variety looks great planted next to a boulder in the gravel garden and mulched with crushed stone—pure Star Trek.
For tried-and-tested gold leaves to act as a foil for showy flowers, look for Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’, a spring-blooming plant. Brilliant gold bleeding heart presents magenta flowers against yellow—two out of three primary colors. Add an early blue columbine and the triad is complete. The bleeding heart is over by midsummer—a good time to cut back the columbine.
PICTURED:Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’
We depend upon variegated hostas to illuminate the shady garden path.
See more hosta plants.
PICTURED:Hosta ‘Great Expectations’
So many new heucheras have wine-to-metallic red leaves—give them a neutral background of solid green tiarella or heucherella.
If red leaves are not what you seek, try Heuchera ‘Amber Waves’ which makes a gorgeous mound of nearly indescribable color. There is no green; the leaves are warm gold glazed in burnt orange. Another excellent option is Heuchera ‘Persian Carpet’.