The Joy of Foliage
By Sara Malone, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Don’t get me wrong, I love flowers. However, for variety of form, texture, color and shape, I think foliage beats flowers hands down. Luckily, one doesn’t have to decide on only one or the other. But many gardeners select plants for their flowers, even if the flowering period is short or haphazard, rather than on the attributes of the entire plant. I find that by selecting the majority of my plants for their foliage, I have created a garden that looks great year-round, has seasonal interest that is just as stunning as that provided by flowers and, as a bonus, requires less maintenance than most perennials!
When most of us begin to think about foliage, we think of the most obvious and desirable aspects: year-round leaves, or providing a screen or hedge, for example. We also tend to think of foliage in autumn when we see the deciduous trees begin to change color. However, foliage can provide stunning displays in any season, and give most flowers a run for their money!
Foliage provides more than just a serene backdrop to flowering perennials. A mix of shrubs with different leaf forms and textures provides a dramatic display in itself. Consider, for example, a grouping of arbutus ‘Marina’, with its glossy, broad leaves, next to a physocarpus ‘Coppertina’(Common Ninebark), decked out in its coppery, deeply cut foliage, backed by a cupressus ‘Arizona’ (Arizona Cypress), which has such striking blue foliage that it almost doesn’t look real! Their needles provide textural contrast, as well.
In autumn we are accustomed to focusing on foliage, as most flowers are past their prime. However, the common Snowball Viburnum, when backlit by the early or late sun, appears on fire, its colors are so dramatic. Cotinus ‘Grace’ (a variety of smokebush), has rich, deep purple leaves in spring and summer which also turn a fiery red in autumn – and to think that this plant is often selected for its flowers! Its foliage is, to my mind, much more exciting and its display lasts far longer.
Winter is another time to value foliage over flowers, as few flowering plants are in season. But my garden looks as good in December as it does in June! My Variegated Himalayan Pine (pinus wallichiana ‘Zebrina’) fairly glows in the weak winter sunlight. The needles are striped green and yellow and it makes as striking a statement as a rose in full bloom in June. Behind it is a Kashmir Cypress (cupressus cashmeriana), with graceful, weeping branches full of soft green needles that develop a bluish cast in winter. All around are varieties of phormium, which provide spiky texture and contrasting colors of deep brown, gold and green. To look at them, you wouldn’t know if it is January or June – they look great all year.
The added bonus is that virtually none of the plants that I have mentioned require routine maintenance. I do prune my Smoke Bushes back annually (which improves
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