Breeders are developing new plants that create big, beautiful contrast, and take up much less space.
TREES AND SHRUBS add structure, color and interest to any landscape. Those with dark leaves play a key role in mixed borders, where their colorful foliage contrasts beautifully with blooms of neighboring perennials and roses.
The problem is that many of us have smaller gardens these days, and many of the available trees and shrubs grow too large. One must constantly prune to keep them in proportion and prevent them from crowding out neighboring plants. Recently, however, breeders have been developing dwarf varieties of many plants, including some with dark leaves, which are much more suitable for small garden spaces.
A good example is Cotinus coggygria (smoke tree). These trees come in a variety of vivid foliage colors and produce highly ornamental, airy flowers that dry into seed clusters that resemble tinted smoke. The leaves hold their color all summer, then take on brilliant fall colors late in the season. The spectacular foliage contrasts beautifully with perennials in the mixed border, but most of them grow quite large, and even the slower-growing varieties reach 15 feet. I used to limit the size of my smoke tree by cutting all the branches down to about 6 inches from the ground every spring. With this method, the colorful branches grow back to produce an explosion of color, but the unique smoky flowers are sacrificed in the process.
Now there’s a colorful new dwarf smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria ‘Winecraft Black’, which grows to a maximum of 6 feet. Its leaves emerge rich purple, turning almost black in summer before changing to brilliant shades of reds and oranges in fall. In early summer, the plant is covered with large, soft, smoky-looking blooms that remain for weeks.
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Another great tree is Lagerstroemia (crape myrtle). These bloom in late summer, then display brilliant fall color. Come winter, their exfoliating bark is stunningly beautiful. In the past, it was hard to find a crape myrtle with ornamental leaves, and most varieties grew too tall or wide for use in a small garden.
Now there is a new group of crape myrtles, known as the ‘Magic’ series, that has colorful foliage, creating the perfect backdrop for their showy flowers. ‘Midnight Magic’ and ‘Moonlight Magic’ feature dark-purple leaves that remain colorful all summer.
‘Midnight Magic’ has magenta flowers and grows as a bushy tree, topping out at about 6 feet tall and wide. ‘Moonlight Magic’ forms a narrow column, topping out at around 12 feet. Plant these trees in the sunniest spot in your garden. They bloom reliably only in hot, sunny summers, but the foliage on these small trees is so striking, you won’t really notice the absence of flowers.
Finally, one of the showiest shrubs for winter interest is Callicarpa (beautyberry). Until recently, the only variety available was Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’. It is grown mainly for its showy clusters of violet-purple ornamental (not edible) fruit that look spectacular after the leaves fall in winter, but the shrub is a bit boring in summer. ‘Profusion’ easily can grow to about 12 feet tall and almost as wide, making it difficult to fit into a smaller-sized garden or mixed border.
Now there’s a new dwarf variety, Callicarpa x ‘Purple Pearls’, that not only produces the spectacular berries for a winter display, but also sports purple-black leaves that remain dark all season before turning even blacker in fall. ‘Purple Pearls’ is supposed to grow only to about 6 feet tall and has a distinctive upright habit — a perfect fit for a small garden or in a mixed bed.
The dark foliage on these dwarf trees and shrubs looks fantastic in combination with orange, blue, yellow or magenta flowers. Be prepared for a shock if you pair one of these dark-colored beauties with a stand of Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ (foxtail lilies). When you see the towering spires of burnt orange contrasted with the dark-purple foliage, the adrenaline rush is almost too much to bear.