Many of us when we start out gardening tend to ignore leaves. In our infatuation with flowers, we don't care about their accompanying foliage. Yet most flowers are there for only a few weeks, whereas leaves are there all the time on evergreen plants, and three-quarters of the year on deciduous ones. As we evolve as gardeners, we do come to appreciate that the enduring greenery of leaves is the backbone of any garden, without which there would be just a flummery of fleeting flowers. We also begin to discover the world of colourful leaves, which bring exciting and long-lasting hues into our garden that are as good as any bloom.
For summer interest, there is a host of warm-climate perennials and shrubby perennials which fill this role and I am so grateful to them for the contribution they make to my garden all through the hot weather. I have already mentioned in previous blogs the beautiful leaves of some Canna, such as 'Tropicanna' (pictured) and 'Striata', which make a bold statement in sunny spots.
For shaded areas, the exquisite metallic, purple-marked leaves of Strobilanthes dyerianus have long been a favourite of mine. Cane, shrubby and rhizomatous Begonia have many stunningly coloured and patterned cultivars and thrive in our climate in shade. None of these plants needs a lot of maintenance: I simply prune them back in early September (never in winter, even though they may look a bit shabby then) and feed them with an all-purpose food.
The Brazilian plant Iresine herbstii has some wonderful cultivars of beetroot-red, yellow and dark purple-brown. The cultivar which I think is called 'Wallisii' (pictured) is a lovely foliage plant, growing about 60cm tall with purple-black leaves. Like all dark-leafed plants it makes an effective contrast for most other colours, whether they are hot reds, oranges and yellows or cooler pinks, blues, purples, white or greens. I also love the combination of dark sultry foliage with silver leaves.
A rather similar plant which comes from Central and South America is Alternanthera dentata, which comes from the same broad plant family (Amaranthaceae) as Iresine. It grows to around 50cm tall with stunning aubergine-coloured pointed leaves. 'Little Ruby' is an excellent compact cultivar, Alternanthera gets shabby by the end of winter in Sydney, but it will survive.
Hailing from South-east Asia, coleus have become fashionable again and they offer a rainbow of foliage colour for gardens. Whilst some sorts are very cold sensitive and perish even in our mild winters, there are many which keep going from year to year. Though they are very useful for bringing colour to shaded spots, there are many which thrive in sunny areas, extending their usefulness. Their multi-hued leaves have endless potential for creating the sorts of 'colour echoes' with nearby flowers or foliage of the same hues, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. The leaves may have contrasting coloured edges, freckles, bands or other markings; leaf shapes vary from long and pointed to rounded or finger-like, or even what is termed 'duckfoot' by coleus fanciers. Almost every imaginable colour can be found in some coleus or other! Heights can vary but they are usually around 60cm tall. The best way to acquire good doers is from other gardeners.
The genus Plectranthus has some members with lovely leaves. The broad silver velvet foliage of Plectranthus argentatus (pictured with Strobilanthes dyeriana earlier in the blog) is a wonderful plant to fill in gaps, whether in sun or shade. A groundcovering version, 'Nicoletta', is also a most adaptable and useful plant. The green-and-white variegated form of Plectranthus forsteri, which has the cultivar name of 'Marginatus', is a semi-trailing plant, growing to 25cm tall and over a metre wide, is a very useful groundcover that can bring light into gloomy areas of the garden, as it will grow in part, dappled or heavy shade. Recently, I was given a cutting of an exciting cultivar of groundcover Plectranthus ciliatus called 'Troy's Gold'. Its quilted leaves have bright lemon-yellow foliage with green central blotches and promises to be a great addition to the Plectranthus tribe that will provide a cheerful, colourful carpet in shaded spots.
Think foliage for summer colour!
Blog originally posted on 6 December 2009; updated 3 December 2023.
Fabulous summer foliage
03 Dec 23
Summer colour does not have to be all about flowers.
November pruning and snipping
26 Nov 23
We can do a lot of trimming this month!
The reappearance of Lizzie
19 Nov 23
Busy Lizzies seem to be back!
12 Nov 23
There are some interesting and unusual bulbs that flower this month.
Thank you, Brazil!
05 Nov 23
Many of the plants that thrive in Sydney come from Brazil.