By Jane Milliman
Chances are, you’re already familiar with hostas—every shade garden seems to have them. And if black walnut trees throw that shade, hostas are probably even more evident. That’s because hostas are immune to juglone, the chemical black walnut trees use to suppress the growth of many other plants.
As you can see in the photo above, there are so many kinds of hostas, there’s never any reason to be bored by them. Miniature, giant, variegated, blue … the list goes on. Recently I saw a specimen in my neighborhood that stopped me in my tracks. Its leaves were iridescent.
Speaking of iridescent leaves, one of my favorite plants (though it drives some others crazy) is the shimmery perilla, a basil relative. Yes, it seeds everywhere. But it ranges from the color of Japanese beetles to a rich, dark purple and makes the perfect foil for almost any other plant. It spreads by seed, so if you have too much, just pull it, or apply a preemergent herbicide next spring.
Coleus is another ubiquitous shade denizen, and breeding improvements have dramatically increased color and leaf-shape choices, as well as sun tolerance. When you walk into your local Lowe’s garden center, you’ll find an assortment of bright leaf colors punctuated with rich variegations. The foliage is so captivating that many gardeners cut off the flower stalks before they mature.
Another plant whose leaves usually outshine its flowers is euphorbia, also known as spurge, which—hold on to your hats—is the same genus as poinsettia. Poinsettias are grown not for their flowers but for their colorful (usually red) bracts, which are modified leaves. So it should come as no surprise that garden spurges also are grown for their foliage. I like the dark, bushy, purple kind, but you can find scores of hardy options in several colors.
Sometimes it’s not just the foliage that’s a draw, but the combination of foliage with flower. Such is the case with ‘Sweet Kate’ tradescantia (also called spiderwort) and others like it. The leaves are greenish-yellow, and the flowers purply-blue. Those hues oppose each other on the color wheel and create a striking balance in the garden.
Want big and bold? Check out hardy bananas (you have to winter them someplace, like a garage), giant elephant ears and canna—all fantastic container dwellers. My favorite cannas are the Tropicanna series, with rich, bright, bold hues from red to orange to purple to green. The flowers are pretty flashy too, but when they fade, you’re still left with a big foliage display.
No rundown of colorful foliage would be complete without adding heuchera (also called coralbells), tiarella and their offspring, heucherella. These babies come in just about every color but white, often producing fascinating markings. They are cold hardy, well behaved, and, in a word, cute! Mix them up for a rainbow that lasts the whole season.