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Jessica Walliser

Some perennials are grown for foliage, rather than just for flowers

Jessica Walliser
| Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Several different varieties of heuchera
Jessica Walliser
Several different varieties of heuchera

Most gardeners tend to plan their perennial plantings around flowers, choosing plants based on flower color, bloom time, flowering height and the like. But the reality is that there are many other factors to consider when choosing which perennials to include in this year's garden.

Don't get me wrong: Flowering traits like color and form are important, but gardeners also should carefully consider what the plant looks like when it's not in bloom. After all, it is a rare perennial that flowers all season long.

Most annual plants, ones that complete their lifecycle in a single season and then succumb to frost, have long flowering seasons and produce blooms from June through October. But perennial plants, those that live for many years, often provide only bursts of color for a few weeks at a time. Yes, there are a handful of perennials that bloom nearly all season long, but the vast majority do not. Because of this, foliage traits are very important when it comes to perennial plants.

Today, I'd like to introduce you to a handful of perennials that are grown primarily for their foliage. I like to include a few foliage-focused perennials in all of my gardens; they help provide interest when the flowering perennials around them are not in bloom. Most offer an unusual foliage texture or variegation, traits that do not diminish as the season progresses. These plants offer interest and beauty all season long. Their flowers are an afterthought rather than a highlight.

Variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum odoratum, ‘Variegatum'): This shade-loving perennial grows from thick, underground roots and is very tolerant of dry conditions. Though solid-colored forms are beautiful, I much prefer the variegated variety because its cream-edged green leaves look quite striking in the shade. Reaching 1 to 3 feet in height, the arching stems of Solomon's Seal do bear small, white, bell-like flowers, but the foliage is by far its best feature.

Heuchera cultivars (Heuchera): With dozens of named cultivars, coral bells have a lot to offer in terms of foliage color and texture. This native plant has been a favorite of plant breeders for many years, and they've developed some stunning forms. This shade-loving perennial comes in a wealth of leaf forms and colors; some are speckled with color, while others have unique venation or boldly colored margins. Foliage can be purple, silver, pink, chartreuse, white, silver, bronze, yellow, burgundy, orange, and just about every shade in between.

Chameleon spurge (Euphorbia dulcis, ‘Chameleon'): A sun-loving relative of poinsettias, chameleon spurge is a must-have in my garden. The foliage is purple as it emerges in the spring, then it matures to a rich burgundy. Finely textured and airy, this plant thrives in everything from dry sun to partial shade. It's deer-resistant and, in my garden, reaches a foot and a half in height, with an equal spread.

Silver Mound artemisia (Artemisia schmidtiana ,‘Silver Mound'): My favorite gray-foliaged plant, Silver Mound artemisia makes a fluffy mound of soft silver in the garden. A compact 12 to 14 inches around, the plants look especially wonderful tucked in between pink, blue, and purple flowering perennials. It's tolerant of hot, dry sites and is deer-resistant. I shear the plants back twice each season, once in late spring (it helps keep the plant more compact) and then again in mid-summer to encourage new, soft growth. I love the texture of the foliage.

Black elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta cultivars): Most gardeners are familiar with the large, tropical leaves of elephant ears, but they may not have taken notice of black-leaved types. With cultivar names like ‘Black Magic', ‘Black Beauty', and ‘Kona Coffee,' these large plants lend a tropical feel to sunny perennial borders and beds. Plant heights range between 2 and 5 feet, depending on the variety. Though they are not hardy here in Western Pennsylvania, they grow from a perennial bulb. It's easy enough to dig up the bulb at the end of the season and toss it into a box of peat moss in the garage until spring when it can be replanted.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., Third Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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