Take a good look at your flower beds and borders and you will find that, most likely, about 80% of the things there have pretty fine foliage, fine in the sense that most of their leaves are relatively small. This results in a somewhat bland look to the overall picture counting foliage alone.
Most garden writers (including this one) make the point that foliage in a mixed bed or border is more important than flowers. A good way to see this is to look at a black and white picture of the area in question and notice that not much stands out from the whole. Of course, it could be a cop-out that some of us make such statements about the importance of foliage because we just can’t get a lot of flowering plants to do what we want them to do. Whatever.
So, where to go for bold foliage that will stand up and be counted? Well, let us look at a few plants that surely will do so.
Cannas have been disdained by the cognoscenti ever since they faded from popularity after their craze during Victorian times. Put your prejudices in your pocket and plant a few of them next spring and just see what a difference they make.
Rather new varieties, like ‘Bengal Tiger’ and ‘Tropicana,’ offer big paddle leaves that are pleasingly variegated. The former has longitudinal stripes in green and yellow and ‘Tropicana’ is variegated in dark green, pink, yellow and shades in between.
Then there are other older varieties that have solid color leaves in green, dark bronze and other colors. Either way, those big, bold leaves will stand out in a crowd of lesser foliage. They all offer flowers, of course, but they are secondary to the leaves.
Another big contributor to bold foliage is, of course, hostas.
The champion of them all, at the moment, is ‘Empress Wu,’ with giant leaves to 2 feet long and almost as wide. Others come close and there are many varieties in the blue and yellow lines of hostas that can be pretty big themselves. Among my favorite hostas, on the other hand, is ‘Lemon Lime,’ which has leaves no more than 2 inches wide, a horse of a different size and a subject for another time.
At any rate, there are hostas for any fit, both variegated and green or blue.
Lambs ears is a common edging plant, with furry pale gray leaves to 6 inches long. A better variety, however, is ‘Big Ears,’ or ‘Helene von Stein,’ with the same furry leaves, but far larger, up to a foot long, making it a specimen plant par excellence. Its color is like no hosta, nor is the texture. Another plant to stand out from the crowd.
There are a lot of lungworts, alias pulmonarias, that offer the same furry leaves and also will thrive in the shade, a blessing for gardeners whose shade plants are limited. ‘Diane Clare,’ aka ‘Diana Clare,’ is about the best one I have had. It produces dark blue-purple flowers very early in spring, then the almost evergreen leaves carry on the rest of the season. The common names come from the fact that some varieties have leaves spotted like lungs.
A shrubby plant is Japanese aucuba, Aucuba japonica. It is an old fashioned shrub found in some dated gardens, but is suited, again if bias can be defeated, to any garden. It is evergreen, but might get tattered in severe winters. The best one in my experience is ‘Mister Goldstrike,’ which has large green leaves heavily spotted with yellow, much like a croton. I have it surrounded by perennials of lesser leafage, but near to a ‘Bengal Tiger’ canna, the combination vulgar to the nth degree. I dote on it.
Just about the “hugest” plant in the ornamental grass category is Arundo donax, with the variegated form being the most common in gardens. It will grow to some 12 feet or more, with long leaves variegated green and white.
In the spring, when it first emerges, it gets more attention than any plant in our garden. Be warned, it is a spreader, and roots must be chopped out with an ax to slow it down.
Elephant ears, of a number of species and varieties, are questionably hardy here, with some bulbs lasting through winter and others not.
There are varieties with green, yellow, black and variegated leaves to 2 feet long or more, and they will make a statement wherever they are found. I added two plants to my red border this spring, gifts from Judy Garner, and they have made a big difference.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.