Five fantastic foliage plants for connoisseurs

The planting between the back of our house (left) and the lawn (right) is dominated by green foliage. Additional colours are limited to white flowers and anthracite pots and timber.

Most people avoid plants that are plain green. They’re missing a trick: Designing a predominantly green, foliage based planting scheme has many advantages and can produce an exceptionally calm and classy aesthetic that will last throughout the year. In fact I would argue that such designs provide a versatile and appropriate solution for many modern small gardens. Simple contrasting foliage textures and form can work effortlessly with practically any architectural style. 

To be successful the plants need to contrast in texture, form and height. Subtle variations in ‘plain green’ leaves prove more sophisticated and less contrived, than variegated or coloured foliage. Get the foliage planting right and flowers become far less important. As you can see above, just a small number of good white flowers really pop in such a situation. Green flowers also work well.

It can be tempting to plant lots of shrubs, but perennials are important to keep the composition lively and avoid the heavy, dull ambience of the municipal shrubbery. In the planting above clipped box cylinders and domes, and lonicera hedge provide evergreen structure, but it is the grassy, ferny, leafy things in between that bring it to life.

Here are some of the plants that I used…

Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra)


This is one of the most elegant and well-behaved garden grasses for light shade. This photo shows two clumps which were planted last year from 12cm pots. As the season progresses they will grow into elegant mop head fountains – a distinct waterfall of arching foliage.

Below left: the young growth showing the dark stems each of which carries several blades held geometrically left then right, almost like miniature bamboo. Below centre: In late summer tiny grass flowers are produced – delicate seed heads that don’t distract from the foliage but make a pointillist haze that catch the morning dew.

Above right: An additional benefit of Japanese Forest Grass is the gorgeous autumn tints they take on.

Disporum sp. (‘nova Ex China’?*)

This is an evergreen relative of Solomon’s seal. If forms a dense, slowly spreading colony of arching stems that grow to about 30cm. Glossy pointed leaves are arranged in pairs either side of the stems like a row of raised wings.

The little green-white bell flowers that hang down at this time of year (April/May) making clear its relationship to Solomon’s seal. The foliage persists in winter, but dies back as the new growth emerges in spring. The shoots have exotic, orchid-like markings that enhances their exotic charm. Mine are only a year old, but are proving easy to care for so far.

*I purchased these plants from Endrom nurseries who sell many unusual and interesting plants for shade. However, the name on the label does not match anything I can find on the internet, so I am not sure of its veracity.

European Ginger (Asarum europaeum)

I have had European ginger (Asarum europaeum) in my woodland garden for over ten years where is has formed a slowly spreading dependable clump. It occassionally produces seedlings which I have replanted in other areas, but it also tolerates having chunks of its colony chopped away with a spade and planted in other parts of the garden, as here. This evergreen holds the leathery leaves of the previous year all winter. Then in spring from its gradually creeping rhizome, it sends up fresh new foliage of a glorious apple green that gradually becomes darker and shinier.

For me this is the ultimate ground cover plant and a reliable infill between taller plants. The leaves produce a dependable close knit continuum in light or dark shade, and it even copes with full sun. At only 4 to 5 inches (12cm) high it does not threaten adjacent plants flowing around and under them with ease. Meanwhile it does not sulk too much if they overhang it. Every year it increases a couple of inches all round, but is easy to manage and you can always pass on chunks you dig out knowing you are giving away an unusual plant that will be enjoyed for years to come.

Dwarf umbrella plant (Darmera peltata nana)

The normal sized Darmera pelatata stands a metre high and forms huge colonies along the edges of large ponds and lakes. This, however, is the miniature form (D. p. nana) which only grown to 30cm (1 foot). Like its larger cousin it needs moist soil, so I have planted mine at the foot of the downpipes that comes from the workshop roof. Because I have planted it in a shady spot it can tolerate a little less moisture than if it were in full sun were its leaves would rapidly wilt without boggy conditions.

I love how it emerges in the spring, unfolding like an inverted umbrella. It’s flower spikes stand well above the new foliage in May, peculiar rather than beautiful. Like the Japanese forest grass, it takes on strong golden and ruddy tones in the autumn.

I have grown in successfully in a large pot before, where its unusual shaped leaves stand out particularly well

Hosta ‘Praying Hands’

This unusual Plantain Lily holds its foliage in an upright position, creating a distinct effect. The foliage is ribbed and waves with just a hint of variegation along the edges, highlighting its runkled leaves pointing heavenwards.

I look forwards to my two young plants creating sturdy clumps at which point I think this Hosta will come into its own. Oh, and it flowers in the summer: The typical mauve flowers; I cut them off.

Epimedium var.

There are many species of Epimedium, and many are great foliage plants. I have two, labelled E. x versicolour ‘Sulphureum’ and E. x rubrum*, which are particularly choice: The new foliage of both has a distinctive red patterning which looks very natural as it is due to pigmentation made by the plant rather than the harsh variegation seen in many artificially selected plants caused by viral infection. Compared to E. x versicolour ‘Sulphureum’, E. x rubrum emerges a few weeks later, is smaller and should have red rather than yellow flowers.

The shield shaped leaves are held atop wiry stems in neat clumps which do not spread too rapidly. They manage to harmonise easily with other plants. Although preferring light shade, they are otherwise easy, being strong, resilient and virtually evergreen. That said, they are best cut back in late winter to provide space for the fresh emerging flowers and new foliage.

*I have to say I’m not convinced the labels on my ‘rubrum’ plants (above) are correct as they look so similar in leaf to my Sulphureum (not shown), but as they are young plants they did not produce flowers this spring I won’t know for sure until next year.


Yes, I know, that was six foliage plants, not five as in the title, but six didn’t alliterate.


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