Tom Hewitt is a garden writer and consultant from West Palm Beach. He can be reached at

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30 Shades of Grey
by Tom Hewitt       #Colorful   #Design   #Ornamentals











Countless succulents have greyish foliage.

There’s a reason they call grey “the color of truth.” It’s about as neutral as you can get. Grey plants seem to go with just about everything. From the blue-grey of century plants (Agave americana), to the grey-green of smokebush (Buddleja madagascariensis), to the silver-grey of wormwoods (Artemisia spp.), there’s a shade to fit every mood.

Writer Hugh Johnson, in his book The Principles of Gardening, puts it best. “Grey-leaved plants,” he writes, “are invaluable as intermediaries in any color scheme. Not only are light tones always more amendable and adaptable than strong and dark ones, but of all light tones, silver-grey has the most friends and fewest enemies.”

This is precisely why I painted my house a warm shade of grey. I wanted a neutral backdrop for my foundation plantings, so that my pink crapemyrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), firebush (Hamelia patens), and golden dewdrop (Duranta erecta ‘Gold Mound’) could put on a show and still share credit with the rest of the cast.

Artichokes are grown as cool-season ornamentals in the veggie garden at Mounts.

I find grey and silver plants indispensable. They help tone down hot colors, yet harmonize beautifully with blues, pinks, and whites. Silver foliage makes plants “pop” in the shade, and both silver and grey-leaved plants add sophistication and elegance to most any container combo or garden.

Some of my favorite grey and silver-leaved plants are borderline this far south. I love Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), but it really isn’t recommended south of zone 9. I did manage to keep one growing in a pot for 5 years, and it even bloomed occasionally. It never did like it here, so I finally gave up and crossed it off my list.

I’ve come to accept the fact that some of my favorite silver and grey-leaved plants behave as annuals or short-lived perennials. I still find them worth growing, and enjoy them while they last. These include lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), silver spurflower (Plectranthus argentatus), and lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus). In the veggie garden at Mounts Botanical Garden, even cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) and artichokes (C. scolymus) are grown as cool-season annuals, though seed must be sown in August for this to happen.

Tea bush is a rare native that produces pink flowers loved by bees. • Texas sage has pretty, grey-green leaves, and pink flowers to boot! • English lavender is a classic in any flower or herb garden.

There’s no need to bother with finicky plants if you don’t want to. Many Florida natives have greyish foliage, like silver buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus var. sericeus), necklace pod (Sophora tomentosa), sea oxeye daisy (Borrichia frutescens), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), bay geranium (Ambrosia hispida), and gulf croton (Croton punctatus). One of my favorites is teabush (Melochia tomentosa), a large shrub with silver-grey foliage that produces small, pink blooms much of the year. Sea lavender (Argusia gnaphalodes) is an endangered Florida native with grey-green foliage that looks particularly good en masse.

Artemisias are notorious for their lovely grey foliage, though I’ve only had good success with two particular ones this far south: tree wormwood (Artemisia arborescens) and Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’. I grow tree wormwood in pots, as it tends to rot out in the ground. Its foliage smells like ripe olives, and it needs frequent pinching to keep it compact. I grow ‘Powis Castle’ directly in the garden. It has a mounding form, and eventually gets leggy, but I simply cut it back on occasion and let it grow back.

Orange thistle is one of my favorite succulents for containers.

Agaves make striking accents in containers. • Necklace pod is a large native shrub with yellow flowers.

Other herbs have greyish foliage as well, including English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), fern leaf lavender (L. multifida), curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), rue (Ruta graveolens), culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), and white savory (Micromeria fruticosa). In south Florida, however, most of these plants do best in containers or raised beds to facilitate drainage. Low catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’) is an indispensable groundcover in a butterfly garden. It has sweet-smelling, grey-green foliage and produces spikes of blue flowers loved by bees and butterflies.

Other favorites of mine with grey foliage include Bismark palms (Bismarckia nobilis), Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens), and tilllandsias (including Spanish moss). For containers I like using licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) to cascade over the edges, and mix dusty miller (Senecio cineraria) with pink pentas and Dahlberg daisies (Thymophylla tenuiloba).

Succulents and cacti with grey foliage are too numerous to mention, but one of my top favorites for containers is orange thistle (Kleinia fulgens), which has blue-grey foliage and produces bright orange flowers much of the year.

Generally speaking, grey and silver plants should be kept on the dry side. Their coloration is generally the result of white hairs on their leaf surfaces, which reduce evaporation by reflecting the rays of the sun. Most love to bake in the sun, and prefer to dry out between waterings. Not a lot to ask from a group of plants that gives us so much in return.



A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 10/31/17   RSS | Print


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