"Fabulous summer foliage"

Summer colour does not have to be all about flowers - there are wonderful foliage plants which flourish in our Sydney climate.
Sunday, 06 December 2009     

Solenostemon cultivar

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 truly 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 plantings all summer long. The exquisite metallic purple-marked leaves of Strobilanthes dyerianus have long been a favourite of mine, as has the broad silver velvet foliage of Plectranthus argentatus. Cane, shrubby and rhizomatous Begonia have many stunningly coloured and patterned cultivars and thrive in our climate. 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.

In my recent blog about Wendy Whiteley's garden, I mentioned the Brazilian plant Iresine herbstii, which 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. Iresine 'Pretty Lady' is a useful groundcover version with smaller, more pointed leaves of the same hue. I find that unlike the other Iresine I grow, 'Pretty Lady' rarely makes it through winter in my garden, so I take cuttings and keep these protected during the colder months.

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. Like Iresine it gets shabby by the end of winter in Sydney, but it will survive.

Hailing from South-east Asia, coleus - now known botanically as Solenostemon scutellarioides - 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 multicoloured 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.

At groundcover level, I enjoy the lush, colourful leaves of the Mexican Tradescantia species. They are sophisticated cousins of the weed which plagues most Sydney gardens, Tradescantia fluminensis - better known as wandering Jew - but they are generally not invasive like that horrible one. The lovely deep purple Tradescantia pallida 'Purpurea' (pictured) and the silky-hair silvery Tradescantia sillamontana never really grow beyond their appointed spots, and if they do, they can be easily removed. Tradescantia zebrina is striped with silver and green and has purple undersides, and is more keen to take over your garden than the others, so I confine it to dry shady spots where little else will grow. All these Tradescantia groundcovers are useful for shaded sites but will also tolerate sun.

Think foliage for summer colour!

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