W hen it comes to gardens, most of us usually first think in terms of flowers. That’s only natural, given the joy that we get from them. We slow down and smell them, we cut them for decoration, we give them to our sweethearts, and they are cheerful. But in my mind what really gives the garden its character is its structure, and perhaps most importantly foliage. This includes size, texture, form, and contrast; all elements best provided by leaves. So, for this mid-summer issue I’d like to acknowledge the role that foliage plays in making a garden memorable. 

Stachys-byzantina - Illustration by Helen Krayenhoff

Leaves can also have a role in olfactory stimulation. Smell plays a big part in the charm of garden memories; and floral fragrances have a deep history in the making of perfumes. When discussing the fragrance of ‘flowers v. leaves’, we used to typically say ‘masculine v. feminine’. Now we just accept that a whole range of smells can be associated with a whole range of feelings. Leaves that have aromatic oils bring us the smell of Conifers, Mesquite, Rosemary, Sagebrush and any number of plants from our chaparral regions. 

As to the use of foliage for color we touch upon a subject that could easily fill this newsletter. The dramatic gold of Sedum m. ‘Ogon’ and Helichrysum ‘Limelight’, the deep reddish bronze tones of Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ and Lobelia fulgens, or the striking silver of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ and Stachys byzantina.

From the dramatic to the understated you can choose vertical or horizontal, soft or sharp. What I really love is mixing forms and contrasting textures when planning the bones for my garden. I’m not advocating a garden devoid of flowers, rather a canvas where different brush strokes are being applied to the foundation of the art that is your garden.

What follows is a short list of a few of our favorite foliage plants. Look for them during your next nursery visit, and try a few of them in your garden.

Stipa giganteaGiant Feather Grass
Campanula pyramidalisChimney Bellflower
Gunnera tinctoriaDinosaur Food
Sparmannia africanaAfrican Linden
Asparagus setaceusEmerald Feather
Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’Laceleaf Maple
Coreopsis verticillataCoreopsis Daisy
Chamaelaucium uncinatumGeraldton Waxflower
Buxus spp.Boxwood
Thymus spp.Thyme
Escallonia spp.Escallonia
Cistus spp.Rockrose
Astelia n. chathamicaSilver Spear
Salvia uliginosaBog Sage
Physostegia virginianaObedience Plant
Miscanthus s.‘Strictus’ Porcupine Grass

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