Allan Armitage on Why the Name of the Game in Plants Is Color

It always has been and it always will be. There are many trends I talk about in this column — pollinators, deer-resistance, natives, solution gardening — and as important as they are; they are all trumped by color.

Our clients want shrubs offensive to deer and plants born in America. They want solutions for everything from too wet to too shady to cut flowers, but all of these reside in the shadow of color.

We all know this, and have been breeding one beautiful flower after another for years, because, well, they are colorful. Color is not a trend, it is a fact, and can be obtained by the designer and installer in two main ways. The easiest is by flush of the flowers — and that has been the cornerstone ever since a tulip was brought back from Turkey.

But let’s briefly look at how far color has come when provided by the leaves. The great thing about foliar color is that it does not come and go as do the colorful blossoms of perennials, shrubs, and trees. Plants with eye-catching foliage have faster turnarounds in the greenhouse, more persistent color in the ground, and can be found in every group of plants we sell.

There are many choices, but here are a number of arresting foliage plants in the main categories we grow.

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  • Shrubs: The more shrubs we sell, the more foliar color we need. Abelia ‘Canyon Creek’ is available, stunning, and looks good in a pot at retail. Spiraea ‘Double Play Candy Corn’ is the finest new shrub I have seen in the last 20 years. Its spring show is second to none.
  • Ferns: We are finally understanding the importance of shade-tolerant plants and everyone appreciates ferns. Japanese painted fern (Athyrium) is a no brainer, tolerates shade, and is always colorful. East India holly fern (Arachniodes) is far more difficult to find, but a beautiful brighten-up-the-shade fern. Only cold hardy to Zone 7.
  • Perennials: There are a bazillion useful and wonderful heucheras and hostas, but there is so much more. Lungwort (Pulmonaria) is shade-tolerant, cold-hardy, and comes in many variegation patterns. False forget-me-not (Brunnera) is one of the most handsome plants in the shade garden, and is also wet-soil tolerant.
  • Annuals: There are a bazillion useful and wonderful coleus, but there is so much more on the market. Begonia ‘Canary Wings’ is the premium begonia for making shade areas absolutely glow. The flowers are secondary but also handsome. Calico plant (Alternanthera) ‘Little Ruby’ and ‘Purple Prince’ are extraordinary plants that provide vibrant deep color to the shaded bed.

Color, color, color — we’ll always need outstanding flowers, but foliage can be equally important.

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