Kylee Baumle lives and gardens in Northwest Ohio, Zone 5b and is the author of the popular garden blog, Our Little Acre. She is the co-author of the book, Indoor Plant Décor, to be released in April by St. Lynn’s Press.

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Colorful Foliage Lights Up the Garden
by Kylee Baumle    

Color isn’t all about flowers —foliage can add season-long color in any spot. Here’s how to brighten your plantings with fabulous foliage.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Earth laughs in flowers,” and it may be true, but for the day-to-day journey through life — and the garden — the leaves on those flowers sustain us. Nearly every plant on Earth has a flower. Some are flamboyant while others are hardly noteworthy. So it is with foliage.

In virtually every type of plant — trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses and annuals — you’ll find bright and subtle foliage suitable for every spot in the garden. An important added benefit of using colorful foliage plants is that they exhibit color all season long and don’t depend on bloom schedules. No deadheading is needed to coax these plants into “blooming” again.

Left: This lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria ‘Vic Pawlowski’s Gold’) is an unusual variety, with its yellow striping. It has the same sweet fragrance you know from the native ground cover, but this one doesn’t spread as fast. ‘Albostriata’ looks very similar.1 Above: Heucherella Sweet Tea in the foreground contrasts well with its chartreuse cousin, Heuchera Miracle.1

Canna ‘Tropicanna’ (Canna indica ‘Phasion’) not only gives visual interest with its burgundy stripes, it’s a versatile plant that grows well in water or in the ground.1

Color for Shady Spots

Shade gardens can be especially challenging when it comes to vibrant color, but there really is no shortage of options for plants that provide color all season with their foliage. The annual coleus cultivars (Solenostemon scutellarioides) come in just about every hue, both singly and in combination, and can light up the darkest corner. Caladiums (Caladium bicolor), a tropical bulb, are easily grown in the north by planting in the spring for large bold leaves in red, pink and white. These can be kept year-to-year by digging them in the fall before frost and storing them over the winter in a cool location that doesn’t freeze.

Perennial coral bells (Heuchera spp.), as well as their relatives, heucherellas or foamy bells (x Heucherella) and foam flowers or tiarellas (Tiarella spp.), are generally grown in full shade to part sun, though some cultivars do fine in full sun. These come in shades of peach, chartreuse, burgundy, yellow and silver, and many have interesting veining in their foliage as well. In this genus alone, there are so many contrasting colors to choose from — who needs flowers?

One of the most beautiful cannas for stunning
effect, especially when illuminated by the sun, is
Bengal Tiger (Canna x. generalis ‘Pretoria’), shown here at P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home Retreat in Arkansas.1

Colocasia ‘Illustris’ exhibits burgundy shading on its leaves. It can be grown in bogs, ponds or any wet location. Here, it thrives in a small garden pond edged by ornamental grass, Carex ‘Blue Zinger’.1

Joseph’s coat (Amaranthus tricolor) celebrates color in a big way. No flowers needed.3

Although its flowers are inconspicuous, the variegated bracts of snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) keep the garden interesting.2

White Is a Color, Too

White can provide some interesting variegation in a plethora of hostas, of course, and other plants, including ornamental grasses like maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ and ‘Variegatus’). Lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.) come with whitewashed leaves (as in ‘Moonshine’) and even polka dots (as in ‘Trevi Fountain’ and ‘Mrs. Moon’). The annual snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata ‘Kilimanjaro’) is easy to grow and its green-and-white bracts literally glow on a full moon night.

Speaking of euphorbias, there are perennial types which add a colorful dimension to garden space, and many have the additional benefit of changing hues according to season. ‘Ascot Rainbow’ is variegated green and white but, during cooler weather will exhibit a pink tinge to its leaf edges. ‘Chameleon’ and ‘Bonfire’ bring red and burgundy to the palette, with the latter exhibiting yellow on the edges of new growth in spring.

Silvery plants add another dimension to the color garden by giving your eyes a rest from all that color. Generally thought of as a cool shade, silver plants such as silvermound (Artemesia spp.) and lavender cotton (Santolina spp.) can be used as neutrals that go with just about any other garden plant.

Here, a multicolored coleus for the shade garden blends well with the spiky Cordyline 'Red Star'.1

Summer Color from Trees, Shrubs and Grasses

Trees don’t just glow with color during fall; some will put on a show all summer long. Japanese maples come in shades of chartreuse (‘Katsura’) or burgundy (‘Emperor I’, ‘Bloodgood’ and others). Smoketrees do the same (as in Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ and ‘Golden Spirit’). The tricolor beech tree (Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseomarginata’) is stunning with its pink, green and white leaves.

Ornamental grasses can add a strong vertical dimension to the landscape while adding color at the same time. In addition to the aforementioned maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.), there are grasses that have red foliage from midsummer on into fall, such as perennials Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’) (This plant is considered invasive in some parts of the U.S. Remember to be aware of and research the invasiveness of plants before planting.) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Ruby Ribbons’). Fireworks annual purple fountain grass (Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’) is part burgundy all season long. For shade, nothing beats Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa spp.) for a waterfall effect in various shades of bright green to variegated green and white.

Fabulous Foliage Plants

These are just a few plants that add foliage color to the garden, are easily grown and most are readily available for Zones 5 and 6:


•  Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides)
•  ‘Red Threads’ Joseph’s coat (Alternanthera ficoidea ‘Red Threads’)
•  Canna ‘Tropicanna’ (‘Phasion’) and ‘Bengal Tiger’ ‘Pretoria’
•  Caladium
•  Amaranthus tricolor ‘Joseph’s Coat’


•  Astilbe ‘Colorflash’
•  Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum)
•  Coral bells (Heuchera Fire Chief and many others) 
•  Bloody sorrel (Rumex sanguineus
•  Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’
•  Variegated lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria ‘Albostriata’
•  Purple sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’)

Ground Covers

•  Vinca minor ‘Illumination’
•  ‘Angelina’ stonecrop (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’)
•  ‘Dragon’s Blood’ stonecrop (Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood’)
•  ‘Anne Greenaway’ deadnettle (Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenaway’)

Trees and Shrubs

•  Ninebark (Physocarpus ‘Diabolo’ and ‘Coppertina’
•  Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald and Gold’) 
•  Tricolor beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseomarginata’
•  Smoke tree (Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’ and ‘Golden Spirit’)
•  Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)

This shade garden makes good use of colorful foliage with heuchera and coleus.1

Grown more for its aesthetic value than eating, ornamental kale gives color late in the season and can withstand  light frosts.3

Color Tastes Good, Too

Don’t forget the vegetable garden! Personally, I grow several edibles simply because their plants are pretty. Burgundy okra, with its greenish-bronze foliage presents a beautiful display of color. And who doesn’t love seeing ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard showing red, yellow, orange, pink and chartreuse stems all summer through first frost?

Lettuce comes in purple and bright green too, and when grown en masse, adds waves of gorgeous color to the garden. Ornamental kale is a favorite of many gardeners because it’s so showy at a time when many garden plants are fading right along with summer. Both lettuce and kale can withstand light frosts, extending color well into the fall season.

I’ve always said if I had to choose between flowers and foliage, I’d pick foliage every time. Thank goodness I don’t have to, but I find that I’m increasingly drawn to both the subtle and bold hues that foliage can provide. With so much to choose from, we can have the best of both.

1. Photo by Kylee Baumle
2. Photo by Nicole Juday
3. Photo courtesy of Wikmedia Commons

From Ohio Gardener Volume III Issue I.


Posted: 03/28/13   RSS | Print


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