Fine foliaged perennials

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Tue., Sep. 11, 2012
- Contributed Photo

One problem encountered with many perennials is their relatively short period of bloom. In small perennial beds, as well as in highly-visible sections of the garden, you may want to include perennials that not only produce delicious flowers, but that also have long-lasting, attractive foliage. Quite a few plants fall into this category.

Old-fashioned favorites with attractive foliage include peonies, Siberian iris and cottage pinks. Come spring, reddish peony shoots emerge from the ground, contrasting quite nicely with early-blooming chionodoxa or grape hyacinths bulbs. The leaves become a rich green in the summer and turn maroon with the onset of fall. The graceful, sword-shaped leaves of Siberian iris appear immune to the ugly leaf spots generally observed, this time of year, on their bearded cousins. Use these where you need a spiky counterpoint to more mounded perennials. Cottage pinks, with their heavenly, spicy fragrance, have delicate, pointy, grayish foliage that is perfect for cascading onto pathways.

For hot, sunny areas, two species of sedums are notable for their well-groomed, trouble-free looks. Sedum spectabile cultivars, ‘Autumn Joy,’ ‘Brilliant’ and ‘Meteor’ also put on quite a flower show just about now, attracting hoards of butterflies. For a more delicate blue hue, seek out S. sieboldii. Typically, species of sedums will keep their unblemished, fleshy foliage intact well into late fall, with many species taking on richer colors as the weather cools.

Several silver-leaved plants also hold up well in sunny locations. Most of us are familiar with the lovely but aggressive ‘Silver King’ artemesia. Better behaved, shorter but just as attractive are the soft-textured ‘Silver Mound’ and the lacy, low-growing A. splendens. Interplant with pale lavender or peach tulips for a spring treat. Other silvery foliaged plants worth trying are Salvia argentata, which is short-lived, and pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), which is quite suitable for drying.

One place where interesting foliage plants prove especially useful is the shade garden. Most shade-tolerant perennials bloom in the spring. For the rest of the season, either annuals or foliage must provide interest in terms of color, contrast and texture.

Hostas, of course, are tops in providing foliar interest. You can find varieties with bluish leaves, chartreuse leaves, crinkled and variegated sorts. This year, the slug population has also found my hosta assortment to be quite interesting, although assaults have slowed down in recent weeks with the drier weather. Hostas are tough, hardy plants, and despite any slug damage, they fill many a garden with a wealth of textures and colors.

Another choice for shade is the Japanese painted fern. Its silver-touched fronds are tinged with burgundy. Maidenhair ferns are taller and more airy, while the cinnamon fern provides strong, majestic accents.

Among flowering plants for the shade, astibles, aruncus (goat’s beard), sweet cicely and cimicifuga (bugbanes) all have compound, ferny leaves. These all prefer a rich, moist soil. Brunnera sports myriads of blue, forget-me-not like flowers in April and May. Its hairy, heart-shaped leaves hold up well throughout the summer.

Variegated vinca is another choice for the shade, adding a touch of light to dark corners. The Lenten rose (Helleborus), epimediums, and the fern-leaved bleeding heart should also be considered both for their flowers and for the value of their foliage, which will hold up all season long.

Just as we select perennials for their varied flower forms, bloom periods and color, they can also be chosen for their foliage color, form and texture. Using various foliage types will add another dimension of interest to your gardens.

For more information on good perennial selections for their foliage or on other home and gardening questions, call, toll-free, at 877-486-6271, visit the website, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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