Like all gardeners, I love flowers. Bring on the beauties: pansies, camellias, azaleas, tulips, roses and the dearest of them all, daffodils.
I cannot have enough of them. Four camellias with sublime blooms moved into my garden last weekend. I stand over them and sigh.
I, however, also recognize the great pleasure in plants mainly known for their foliage. Whether the leaves are a glossy dark green, a brilliant chartreuse or mottled like an artist’s painting, they can add as much interest to the garden as their counterparts bejeweled with blossoms.
Texture is another positive trait of foliage plants. If you are fortunate to have a plant whose leaves resemble green lace, count that addition as a blessing in your landscape.
Although flowering shrubs bring "a pop of color," as the decorators call it, there is an infinite variety in the shades of green in nature’s palette.
The ubiquitous green was given the honor of being the color of the year in the fashion world. The gardener, however, has long recognized that lively and lovely greens are the backbone of any garden. A late frost or a killer summer does not destroy their character.
With careful choices, your garden can be filled with foliage that lights up every corner. Magnificent tall trees, ornamental shrubs of all shapes and sizes, even a perennial that bears miniature green leaves all contribute to a unique garden.
Choose a home for your foliage plant where it will thrive. Is it one to bask in the sun’s rays, or would like to hide from the heat of the day? Will it quickly outgrow its original home and soon require constant pruning (an activity that can easily destroy the form that made you love it in the first place)?
Another plus for foliage plants is the effect the seasons can have on the color of the leaves. Watching the leaves on a gingko biloba turn from green to gold almost seems like a watching a miracle happen. The changing colors on a Japanese maple make this tree a joy in every garden.
Go forth and broaden your horizons. For every plant you buy that has a flower, buy one with foliage only.
• Japanese Cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica), an evergreen conifer with very tiny cones, is a dramatic focal point in the garden. As it can get extremely tall (up to 100 feet), plan on a nice big spot (either in sun or shade) for it to grow.
• Gingko biloba, one of the oldest trees in existence, also grows to be a large tree. The fan-shaped leaves turn bright yellow in the fall. However, the gardener must make sure to choose a tree grafted from a male; female trees produce fruit that has a truly disgusting smell. Stepping in a few of those odorous fruits and tracking them (and the smell) into the house will soon make that beautiful tree no longer welcome in your garden.
• Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) makes an unusual addition to a landscape if you have room for it; it can reach 40 feet tall and half that wide. Its foliage has great texture and color.
• Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) would be my favorite tree known for its foliage. Japanese maples are available in diminutive dwarf sizes (such as ‘Shaina’) to medium-sized trees such as ‘Sangu-Kaku,’ which can reach 20 feet. Although the graceful shape of the Japanese maple branches is a definite asset, the wonderful fall colors in shades of orange, yellow and red endear these wonderful trees to their admirers. Summertime brings a brilliant show of solid and variegated foliage. Leaves, additionally, come in many interesting shapes. Even bare of its leaves in the winter, this tree is a delight.
• ‘Sunshine ligustrum’ (Ligustrum sinense ‘Sunshine’) is a cultivar that does not reseed — unlike the ligustrum most know and consider a plague in the garden. Leaves on this plant are aptly named "sunshine" as they have a decidedly yellow cast. The more sun, the brighter yellow the foliage becomes, making it an outstanding sight in full sun.
• Variegated lacecap hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mariessii Variegata’) has interesting green and white variegated foliage. Hydrangeas are normally known for their flowers; the flowers of this cultivar, however, are not nearly as attention-grabbing as the foliage.
• Japanese fatsia (Fatsia japonica) lends a tropical touch to the garden. It has very large, lush, dark green, glossy leaves. It can grow fairly wide over time, preferring a site with dappled sun. In December, it sports unusual and fairly insignificant flowers which then turn to fruit. During hot summer days, routinely give the fatsia a good spray with the hose to wash the leaves. Fatsias with variegated foliage are on the market too.
• Gold thread cypress (Chaemaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’) boasts fantastic texture and interesting color. The more sun, the brighter yellow the foliage. It is a terrific highlight in any garden.
• Prostrate Japanese yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’) is a stunning foliage plant, reaching only two feet high but spreading to 7 feet around. Mine is growing vigorously in part sun.
• Japanese aucuba (Aucuba japonica) is known for its speckled green and yellow foliage. Performing best in the shade, it puts on a bright, almost garish foliage display.
• ‘Color Guard’ yucca (Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’) provides a burst of yellow color on its spiky leaves. The typical yucca, it blooms for a short period of time, thus I am more apt to include it as a foliage star. This yucca is drought-tolerant and easy to grow.
• ‘Tiny Tim’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Tiny Tim’) is an outstanding foliage plant with growth that resembles green lace. It does not scream "look at me," but it certainly adds a wonderful green accent to a yard.
• Rohdea (Rohdea japonica) is one of the most delightful and underused perennial foliage plants. Its rich, swordlike, evergreen green leaves make a great border or focal point. It is tough; last summer’s drought did not even faze it.
• Heuchera is a perennial famous for its dazzling leaves. Mine make more vigorous container plants than they do in the ground. Heucheras are available in a rainbow of stunning colors, from chartreuse to pink to black. They can quickly become an obsession as new ones are on the market every year.
• Cast iron plant (Aspidistra) is a frequently used and familiar foliage perennial. This tough evergreen plant will tolerate even the shadiest spot and still thrive. Its greatest enemy is an obnoxious little creature, the vole, that will eat the roots as quickly as you can plant one.
• Hosta is the queen of perennial foliage plants, with leaves in hundreds of sizes and shades of green: solid, striped, variegated, huge or miniature. There is a hosta for every gardener. Their spectacular leaves dress up a shady spot in the landscape. Just like my heucheras, my hostas perform much better planted in containers. My family jokingly refers to my "hosta farm," where 100 hostas grow beautifully in containers of every size and shape. Hostas dislike really hot summer weather, so ample water is an absolute must.
• Ferns. Some are lacy; some are not. All are beautiful.
• Arborvitae fern (Selaginella braunii) is an almost-lacy groundcover with rich green foliage. It spreads happily in the right conditions (easy to grow with good soil) but is not aggressive.
• Caladiums top the list of foliage plants for the summer garden as their magnificent leaves provide incredible beauty and class. With a myriad variety of colors, caladiums make great container or bedding plants. Plant dozens of them (there can never be too many). Caladiums prefer regular moisture during the hot days of summer.
• Coleus is another fine foliage annual for Alabama summers. From chartreuse to purple, the leaves are fabulous highlights. New cultivars can take sun and have joined the shade-only ones on the market. There are so many colors and sizes that one or two will never be enough. One warning: they are water hogs and will wilt in our Alabama summers if they do not get ample moisture. They are worth it.
Sherry Blanton is a member of the Calhoun County Master Gardeners Association. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.