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 color; and leaf hues can complement and contrast with both annuals and perennials. If your garden is a blank slate, 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—think sage, curly parsley, and basil.
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).
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 color. I’m talking vibrant lime green to deep dark purple and almost black, to reds, oranges, and browns. I started my collection a few years ago when I was trying to follow a “moody” color 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 purchase one heuchera each autumn, but I’ll choose it according to my color scheme. An added bonus are the delicate blooms that shoot up like antennas. Heucheras like well-draining soil and partial shade, and they’re hardy in zones 4-9.
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’ is a favourite. 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 to slugs, bunnies, and deer.
‘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.
There are a ton of different flowering Euphorbias, commonly referred to as Spurge. There was one in my front yard garden when I moved to my current house and it’s one of my favorite plants for year-round interest. I think it’s a type of Cushion Spurge (Euphorbia polychroma). In the spring there are these gorgeous yellow bracts with hints of red and orange, and then through the growing season the foliage changes from green to vibrant shades of red.
Annual foliage plants
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, especially when I went to the California Spring Trials with the National Garden Bureau. 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.
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.
What are your favourite plants with stunning foliage?