Add Color To Your Garden With Colorful Leaves

by Jan Cashman 5/4/08

Trends come and go in gardening, just as they do in clothing and home furnishings. This year, we are seeing lots of plants with colorful leaves of burgundy, purple, yellow, gold, and variegated combinations of white or cream and green. These plants give color to our gardens even when no flowers are in bloom.

New varieties of popular Huechera-common name Coral Bells-are being released with an amazing range of foliage colors from dark purplish-brown to chartreuse to interesting variegated green and white patterns. I have colorful heucheras in my shade garden; they also work well in a container garden for a shady spot. ‘Palace Purple’ Heuchera planted next to ‘Crème Brule’, with its golden-bronze leaves, or ‘Citronella’ whose leaves are chartreuse makes a striking contrast.

Bergenia is a perennial flower that has always been a favorite of our staff because of its hardiness and large thick glossy leaves. A new variety called ‘Bressingham Ruby’ has deep green foliage with maroon undersides. Its leaves stay alive under the snow in the winter; plant them next to yellow daffodils for an early spring show.

For hot, dry spots, plant hardy sedums that have colorful, succulent-type leaves. Some sedums are ground covers; low-growing ‘Angelina’ has golden, needle-like foliage; ‘Tricolor’ has green leaves with a cream and red edge. Some of the upright sedums have burgundy-colored foliage; a new one called “Autumn Charm’ has green leaves edged in creamy white.

Many ground covers have colorful leaves. Easy-to-grow Lamium, with variegated leaves, is a favorite of mine in my shade garden. It has pretty pink flowers in early spring. Another popular lamium, ‘White Nancy’, has a pure white flower. There is a bright, yellow-leafed Lamium with pink flowers which spreads quickly. Pulmonaria is an interesting ground cover for shade; its leaves have cute white spots. It was named Pulmonaria because the leaves are supposed to look like the inside of diseased lungs.

The herb, Purple Sage, has ornamental grayish-purple foliage; another decorative sage is ‘Tricolor’; as the name implies, it has cream, purple, and pink and areas all on the same leaf. Most of the creeping thymes, with their wonderfully aromatic foliage, are used for ground covers, not cooking. Some varieties of creeping thyme have variegated or golden leaves. Thymes grow best in full sun, as do most herbs.

Coleus is probably the most outstanding colored-leafed annual found in a huge variety of multicolored leaves of red, orange, burgundy, chartreuse, yellow and white. Coleus grows quickly and adds splashes of bright color to your container gardens. Sweet potato vine, planted to trail over the edge of containers or hanging baskets, comes in chartreuse or deep purplish-black leaves.

A favorite plant of Bonnie Hickey, our bedding plant buyer, is an iris whose leaves have yellow and green stripes with a fragrant, lilac-blue flower. From early in the spring until well after this iris blooms, the striped bright yellow and green leaves provide interest in your garden.

Many ornamental grasses not only add a linear texture to your gardens, but also have variegated or colored leaves. Purple Majesty Millet is actually a corn plant with dark burgundy leaves, showy mixed in a large container with yellow and orange flowers. Overdam is a tall perennial reed grass with green and white striped foliage. The low-growing, hardy Elijah Blue Fescue grass has silvery blue leaves that pop out at the front of a border or in a container planting.

Try mixing a few colorful shrubs into your flower gardens or even in larger container gardens. Spireas such as tiny Magic Carpet, or tall Tiger Eyes Sumac and Golden Elder have golden leaf colors. A new ninebark called ‘Summer Wine’ has dark crimson-purple leaves. Junipers with blue foliage, such as Blue Chip or Wichita Blue, stand out against darker, green-leafed plants.

Colors opposite each other on the color wheel-blue and orange, purple and yellow-pop when planted together. Golden yellow leaves contrast with purple or burgundy leaves and flowers. Burgundy leaves give a warm Southwestern look when interplanted with red and orange flowers. Variegated and bluish-gray leaves don’t overpower pastel pinks. Whether you are planting these colorful-leafed plants in your perennial garden, your shade garden, or in a container garden, have fun with the color combinations. Mix, match, and remember that not only flowers, but interesting leaves, too, can add color to your garden.