Fondness for Foliage

At this time of the year, gardeners often become bemused by blossoms, which beautify our gardens, garden centers and garden magazines. The seasonal burst of colorful petals surely ranks among the finest rewards of gardening.

These flowers, however delightful visually and olfactorily (if that is a word), can tempt us to overlook another important element of the landscape: foliage.

One of history’s great gardeners, Christopher Lloyd, wrote, “Certain groups of plants have particularly dull and dreary foliage and depend 100 percent on their flowers to disguise the fact.” There are many examples: the entire very large Daisy family (the Compositae), dahlias, chrysanthemums, and many more.

“Dull and dreary” is a matter of opinion, of course, and Lloyd was never reticent in expressing his opinions, but when we contrast “ordinary” foliage with the alternatives we discover that the leaves of plants offer great variety and appeal, rivaling that of the flowers.

Foliage has been categorized often, with varying degrees of success. Leaves occur in so many subtly different ways that grouping them succeeds only if we accept compromises.

With that caution, foliage has been described principally in terms of two important variables: color and texture.

The principal foliage color group is green. The briefest survey of a plant collection reveals that green leaves come in many different hues of green.

Other major color groups include gold (yellow, bronze, brown, etc.); dark colors (red, purple, black); the silver, gray and blue cluster, and multicolored leaves.

Texture, the other important variable, might refer to the overall size of the leaf: bold or large, medium, fine, or lacy.

Texture might refer to leaf shape: spiky or sword-shaped, round, oval, palmate, and many other shapes.

Texture might also refer to leaf surface, which could be glossy, dull or fuzzy, smooth or crinkled. A complete description of any given leaf involves multiple characteristics that botanists have defined and that the home gardener can safely reduce to a favored few.

For the gardener, the many colors and textures of foliage represent opportunities for adding interest and beauty to landscapes, container gardens and floral arrangements.

Books and articles on gardening and floral arrangements often feature combinations that the writer finds particularly appealing. Given the variability of both flowers and foliage, an immense number of good combinations could be described. Ultimately, the best combinations reflect individual preferences.

The gardener’s practical approach to designing an aesthetically pleasing combination of flowers and foliage involves study available plants, and imagining them together with a creative eye. This also involves moving potted plants around, to see them beside potential companions. This strategy works best in garden centers, where all plants are movable.

More about foliage plants and ideas for their many uses:

Look for these books in your local bookstore or library, or search online.

The Foliage Garden: Creating Beauty Beyond Bloom, written by Angela Overy, with photographs by Rob Proctor (Harmony Books, 1993).

This book is full of good ideas for the garden. It’s a welcome alternative to the many books that lists descriptions of plants within the author’s category of interest.

Foliage, written by Harold Feinstein (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company, 2001).

A “coffee table” book of dramatic full-page photographs of foliage, with plain black backgrounds, plus brief essays by the author and contributors, introducing a series of topical photos.

Foliage: Astonishing Color and Texture Beyond Flowers, written by Nancy J. Ondra, with photographs by Rob Cardillo.

This book provides the familiar list of plant descriptions within a category. In this case, sub-categories organize foliage plants in three color groups (gold; red to black; and silver, gray and blue) plus “Marvelous Multicolors.” This approach is quite helpful to the gardener in planning a bed.

Foliage Plants, written by Christopher Lloyd (Random House, 1985)

Christopher Lloyd (d. 2006), creator of the highly regarded estate garden, “Great Dixter,” (today, a popular public garden), was one of gardening’s gurus and a prolific writer of authoritative books on many aspects of gardening. His sharp opinions, generously offered, make reading his books amusing as well as instructive.

I am just now reading this book, so I will refer interested persons to a brief review on the website, Good Reads.

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