Superstar foliage plants for sun and shade

Foliage plants for lead and supporting roles in the garden

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Raise your hand if you think foliage is just as important as the flowers in your garden. Foliage plants don’t necessarily have to be the star of the show—some plants are destined for supporting roles—but others definitely have superstar potential. And, of course, not all leaves are green. There is a whole rainbow out there waiting for their closeup in your garden.

Some plants are genetically blessed with great flowers AND leaves. I’m thinking of heucheras and tiarellas, while others have names that might fool you into thinking they have super-awesome flowers (i.e. Rex begonias), but they’re really all about the leaves.

When you’re thinking of spaces to fill in the garden, figure out which role your leafy plant can play and set the scene. Foliage plants can act as a backdrop, highlighting the attributes of other plants; they can provide a variety of interesting textures and shapes; they add multi-season colour; and leaf hues can complement and contrast with both annuals and perennials. If your garden is a blank slate, well then you can really plan out the structure and shape of the space, and figure out your plant composition. Think about grouping plants in threes or fives for impact.

In your pots, foliage can be thrillers, spillers, and fillers, depending on which varieties you choose. And don’t be afraid to use edible leaves in an ornamental container arrangement (we like to call this #GardenBFFs).

Perennial foliage plants

Tiny Wine Ninebark

One of my favourite additions to my front gardens in the last few years is my Tiny Wine Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) from Proven Winners. Even though the leaves are a deep shade of maroon, this compact shrub is no wallflower. It really stands out. An added bonus are the lovely pale pink and white flowers that bloom in the spring (and sometimes I get a second round later in the season!). It’s very hardy (USDA zone 3-7) and likes full sun.

Japanese forest grass

On my walks into town, I pass through this lovely rock garden maintained by a local group of green thumbs, and this Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa), cultivar unknown, is a cascading standout. I’ve seen some really stunning lime green varieties, too, that would look amazing against super dark foliage or vibrant flowers. They should be planted in partial to full shade, and are hardy in USDA zones 5-9 (I’ve seen a couple that are zone 4).

Japanese forest grass provides a lovely cascade of colour in the landscape.

I admire this Japanese forest grass every time I walk by it (it’s on one of the routes I take into my town).


I’ve documented my love of heucheras (aka coral bells) on the site. For me its the diverse range of choices I have when it comes to colour. I’m talking super lime green to deep dark purple and almost black, reds, oranges, and browns. I started my collection a few years ago when I was trying to follow a “moody” colour palette for a fall container and I came across this lovely variety with cool green variegated leaves with purple undersides. When I took the pot apart, I planted it in the garden. Now I tend to pick one up each autumn, but I’ll choose it according to my colour scheme. An added bonus are the delicate blooms that shoot up like antennas. Heucheras like well-drained soil and partial shade, and they’re hardy in zones 4-9.

Here’s an example of a heuchera in a fall container arrangement.


I love how brunnera can brighten up dark areas of the garden. They are hardy from zones 3-8, and some varieties are almost white or silver. Plant these big-leaf perennials in full shade.


This seems like such an obvious choice, but I’ve seen some really interesting hostas on my travels, and every year seems to reveal a new variety. ‘Curly Fries’ was a recent favourite. And a trip to a garden in Buffalo also made me think about displaying hostas in a different way. Hostas are very common shade plants. They are super hardy (zones 3-9), though vulnerable—slugs, bunnies, and deer all tend to enjoy them.

I love the detail on these hosta leaves! This sweet little variety is called 'Snow Mouse'.

I love the detail on these hosta leaves! This sweet little variety is called ‘Snow Mouse’.

‘Lemony Lace’ Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

In the summer of 2014, I received this showy little shrub in the mail from Proven Winners and couldn’t wait to add it to my front garden. The foliage is a vibrant chartreuse and I love the feathery texture of the leaves. It provides a vibrant backdrop for my deep purple bearded irises. The shrub is hardy to zone 4 and deer resistant, which is a bonus because sometimes the deer consider my front garden a tasty buffet.

Other perennial foliage favourites…

The spurge I inherited with my front garden has four-season interest. Here it is in the spring…

And here it is in the fall.

Annual foliage plants

Rex begonias

The foliage of Rex begonias are so detailed and unique, it seems like they come from another planet. Or a little plant fairy sits in a workshop hand-painting their leaves. These plants shine all on their own. You almost don’t want to plant anything around them so they can just take all the attention and keep it. I have snapped lots of photos of different varieties over the years. I found these beauties that I wrote about in a short post a few years back. And I’ve added a couple below that I discovered at the California Spring Trials when I was a National Garden Bureau #NGBPlantNerd. Rex begonias prefer well-drained soil in a shady spot. If you find one you love, don’t send it to the compost bin in the fall. Try to bring it indoors to keep as a houseplant over the winter.

Dibs Rothko Rex begonia is a spectacular foliage plant.

This Rex begonia is called Dibs Rothko. It has polka dots around the edges. It’s definitely a scene stealer!

I discovered this amazing plant shelf filled with Rex begonias at Garden Walk Buffalo. I want to make one!


Another multi-hued superstar plant is coleus. I think it’s fair to say there are endless varieties, and they work well in both pots and plots. Depending on which one you choose, plant your coleus in part shade, but read the plant tag as some don’t mind the sun. Like Rex begonias, they can be brought indoors in the fall and kept over the winter as a houseplant.

Coleus PartyTime Pink Berry is a gorgeous foliage plant for containers and hanging baskets.

This Coleus PartyTime Pink Berry looks fantastic in an oversized hanging basket with some companion plants.

This warm, inviting driveway garden is packed full of foliage plants, including coleus in warm hues.

This warm, inviting driveway garden is packed full of foliage plants, including coleus in warm hues.

What are your favourite plants with stunning foliage?

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Foliage plants can be just as important as flowers in the garden. Discover varieties that are superstars and others that complement surrounding plants.

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3 Responses to Foliage plants for lead and supporting roles in the garden

  1. Willow W says:

    I’ve always done hostas and coleus for popping color, and some lovely sweet potatoes (edible too!) but I’m fascinated by the Rex Begonias. Thanks for the lovely inspiration!

  2. Michonne says:

    absolutely love Coleus ! Hoping to be able to find these Rex Begonias as well. Live in the Northeast in Delaware any knowledge of where I may be able to purchase ??

    • Tara Nolan says:

      Hi Michonne, I’m not familiar with the nurseries in your state, but I would check their websites or give them a call to see what’s available.

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