FASHION-FORWARD FOLIAGE has historical roots in the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden, where “Betty,” as she was known to most regional plantspeople, chose plants for their performance throughout the year, not just the few weeks they were in bloom. So it’s only natural that Great Plant Picks (GPP), the garden’s primary educational program, would reprise the theme with another round of exceptional foliage plants for 2021.
When Richie Steffen, Miller Garden curator, began working at the garden 20 years ago, he found “an amazing example of textures and colors and combinations of leaves in the garden.” Which raises a very good point: Actually seeing a garden built on a framework of remarkable foliage, removed from the distraction of flowers — say, in winter, for instance — is an excellent introduction to the power of foliage to carry a garden from season to season. “It’s not foliage or flowers — it’s [foliage] and flowers,” Steffen says.
Far from being merely a backdrop, fashionable foliage strikes many poses in the garden. This year’s GPP plants are categorized as “bold,” “colorful” or “delicate.”
Our gardens need more boldness. Most plants, even if their blossoms are buxom, have small leaves. Fussy leaves create a frenetic busyness — our eyes crave a resting space. Bergenia ciliata ‘Dumbo’ delivers (and you get to say “dumbo”) with enormous, slightly fuzzy, oval leaves that merit a double take in the garden. While adaptable and mostly carefree, ‘Dumbo’ needs a little extra water and fertilizer. Prepare to be astonished by spectacular leaves that grow to 18 inches long. Light pink flowers on stout stems in spring are almost beside the point.
Color directs our attention. It can be used to create a focal point or distract from a less-desirable view. That’s why container plantings that can be placed throughout the landscape are a gardener’s secret design weapon. With golden foliage on twisted, congested branches and a dwarf habit ideally suited to container growing, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’ checks all the boxes. According to Steffen, this slow-growing hinoki cypress is a stellar container plant with “a long and useful life in the garden.” While the plant will tolerate some shade, do provide morning sun to preserve the best golden coloring.
Mention Japanese maples, and most of us think of colorful fall foliage. Yet, Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’ is treasured for its spring cloak of brilliant yellow leaves that emerge blushed with glowing orange. “It’s so vibrant and alive,” Steffen says. ‘Katsura’ is a small upright tree that grows to about 15 to 20 feet, perfect for smaller urban gardens.
The flip side of bold and colorful, foliage can lend delicate, even elegant, texture to the garden. Dwarf purple osier (Salix purpurea ‘Nana’) is a deciduous shrub with slender plum-colored stems clothed with fine gray-green, almost turquoise, pointed leaves with pale undersides. Catching a breeze, this willow shimmers like a grass — granted, a woody grass, but you get my drift. Dwarf purple osier has a naturally tidy habit, slowly growing to around 5 feet tall and wide, although if you want to keep it small and compact, prune the stems hard — back to the crown — in winter.
Planted in multiples, Salix purpurea ‘Nana’ makes a good deer-resistant hedge. “The branches grow thick and dense enough that it can be used as a barrier, and deer do little more than nibble, if they touch it at all,” Steffen says. The plant tolerates a variety of soils, from wet to well-drained, and performs best in full sun to light shade. Elegant and tough; I like that.
You’ll find the rest of this year’s Fashion Foliage plant picks on the inside front and back cover of this magazine. Or visit the recently updated GPP website (greatplantpicks.org) to explore more than 1,000 exceptional plants that thrive in our maritime Northwest gardens.