Revelling in leaves

Sunday, 23 October 2016

New leaves of Philadelphus coronarius Aureus

This time of year is ALL about flowers, I know, but take a few moments this week to admire some of the beautiful foliage that abounds in our gardens at the moment. I love the perfection of baby leaves on deciduous trees, which appear early in spring. Now we have fresh growth on many other plants, and it is as flawless as we are ever going to see it. There is of course lovely new growth on evergreen shrubs, but I particularly enjoy the new foliage on deciduous shrubs, herbaceous perennials and winter-dormant tubers, the appearance of which gives a dynamic element and much interest to the garden at this time of year.

New leaves of Euphorbia cotinifolia

Deciduous shrubs are covered in soft, pristine foliage, all gorgeous - standouts for me are those with coloured leaves. In Sydney (except for in elevated, cooler suburbs), we can't grow some of the choicest of deciduous shrubs, as they are more suited to colder climates than ours, but there are some that do pretty well. Euphorbia cotinifolia, for example, has exquisite burgundy, heart-shaped leaves and is a good substitute for dark-leaved cold-climate beauties such as Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' and the purple form of the smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria. The colour of the Euphorbia foliage holds fairly well through summer, though it is at its peak in spring.

Another deciduous shrub with delightful spring foliage is the golden form of Philadelphus coronarius, the cultivar known as 'Aureus', pictured at the start of the blog. It does flower, but not as flamboyantly as other Philadelphus: the leaves are the main attraction. It looks very effective if blue or purple flowers are planted nearby - such as tall bearded irises, Salvia cultivars or borage. The leaves become lime-green over summer.

New foliage of Ageratina altissima Chocolate

Herbaceous perennials, dormant over winter, are very attractive when their new leaves emerge in spring, and many have unusual shapes and textures. Though these types of plants don't grow as well in Sydney as they do in cooler areas, there are some stalwarts that are adaptable to our warmer climate and provide much joy at this time of year. Solomon's seal (Polygonatum x multiflorum) sends up chubby snouts of foliage which elongate into arching stems of paired leaves, resembling a large fern. Ageratina altissima 'Chocolate' (syn. Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate') has superb dark purple-tinged, serrated-edged foliage that provides a great contrast in a border. Its fluffy white flowers, which appear in summer, are something of an anticlimax compared to the leaves. Other herbaceous perennials with interesting foliage that do well in Sydney include Aquilegia and Thalictrum - they vaguely look like maidenhair ferns! Hosta, which are totally herbaceous, also do quite well in Sydney and are excellent as potted plants in shaded areas of the garden. They have large, heart-shaped leaves, in a phenomenal range of patterns and sizes, with many variegated forms. The base colour of the foliage can be bright green, muted green, lime, gold, yellow or blue-green.

New dark-purple leaves of a Canna cultivar

Semi-tropical plants that grow from tubers such as Canna and Dahlia, which, just like herbaceous perennials, die down in winter and re-emerge in spring, really DO thrive in our climate. The dark-leaved cultivars are really striking when they appear: with the strong paddle shape of the Canna foliage and the intricate lacy patterns of the Dahlia leaves. Later on we are distracted by their flowers, but the foliage really does provide an excellent contrast to the hues of the blooms. Cannas with other colourful leaves, such as the green-and-yellow striped 'Striata'; the striped orange, red, green and bronze in the popular 'Tropicanna' (syn. 'Phasion'); and blotched creamy-white in the cultivar 'Stuttgart', are also at their most attractive when they first arise from the soil at this time of year. Some of the fancy-coloured 'elephant ears' aroids, such as Colocasia 'Black Magic' and Xanthosoma 'Lime Zinger', also die back to their tubers over winter, reappearing in spring with stunning new leaves.

Miscanthus sinensis Variegatus

Ornamental grasses are also at their very best when their slim leaves regrow in spring after dying back in winter. The white-striped Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus' is fresh, crisp and smart, and provides an excellent backdrop for the white flowers of spring, such as the may bush and Marguerite daisies.

New foliage on cane Begonia Nokomis

I cut back many of my warm-climate shrubs very hard at the end of winter: watching them fill out with immaculate new leaves is one of the pleasures of the season: the velvety leaves of Buddleja; the silver-marked leaves of cane Begonia varieties such as 'Nokomis' and those with white spots and splashes on their foliage; and the dramatic quilted foliage of Acanthaceae specimens such as Brillantaisia, Megaskepasma, Justicia carnea and Rhinacanthus.

Sadly, as the seasons progress, all these beautiful leaves will have to face the ravages of heat, wind, heavy rain and drought. Pests and diseases may well attack them, shredding and disfiguring them. Many will lose their lustre; and their brilliant colours will fade. However, right now, let's enjoy their beauty!