My first thought was, is this for real? If I hadn’t seen it growing in the conservatory at the Denver Botanic Gardens, I’d have thought someone had been playing with Photoshop. I wondered what kind of plant could have leaves that are green, red, black, purple, orange, pink, yellow, and creamy white—all at the same time, and in crazy combinations!
My next thought was, can I have one?
One of the joys of living in Colorado is the gorgeous gold of the aspen in fall. Other regions may boast more colorful foliage—the reds and purples of the hardwood forests to the east, for example—but nowhere else do we get the combination of cobalt blue skies, spectacular mountain scenery, and shimmering golden leaves. Such a treat is not to be missed, so we recently joined some friends and went leaf “peeping.”
Ask any 4-year-old what color leaves are, and they’ll confidently proclaim, “Green!” And green leaves are just fine, for the most part. We expect gardens to be basically green, from the verdant lawn to the tops of the trees (at least during the growing season). When it comes to plants, that glowing, chlorophyll-derived green implies life and health.
But one can have too much of a good thing. That’s why our landscaping includes plants with leaves that are a soft silver (that sounds much better than “gray”). No, I don’t want an entire yard full of them, but as accent plants, silvery leaves can make quite the impression.
We had our first hard freeze over a month ago. Most of the deciduous plants and perennials in my yard are now dormant—some with dry brown leaves still attached, others with bare stems. But remarkably, not everything looks dead. In fact, a surprising number of plants still sport green foliage.
I’ve often chosen or rejected a plant for my garden based on when it leafs out in the spring. Too early and the tender new leaves are withered by a late snow. Too late, and half the season is gone before the yard looks complete. But I never considered the other end of the season—how long will the plant stay green before going to sleep for the winter?
You probably remember learning about fall color when you were in elementary school. You know that leaves turn colors before they fall, and it had something to do with chlorophyll. But when is the last time you really thought about fall foliage from a botanist’s point of view?
As gardeners, we want to know which plants turn which colors so we can use them effectively in the landscape. Here in Colorado, most of us know that aspens turn yellow golden, Gambel’s (scrub) oaks become a flaming reddish orange, and burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) shine in stunning shades of fluorescent pink, purple, and red. But why exactly do they do that? And how?
While most people grow bearded irises for their rainbow of spectacular blooms, Variegated Sweet Iris (Iris pallida) is prized for its striking variegated leaves. Yes, it blooms in late spring with lovely violet-blue flowers, and your nose will appreciate their delightfully heady fragrance.
But long after the flowers fade, the stiff, sword-like leaves, with their vertical stripes of green, white and cream, will remain an exclamation point in the landscape. Plants grow two to three feet tall, and clumps spread over time.
What do we plant for fall color? Most of us would quickly list off maples and crabapples, or perhaps a burning bush (aka winged euonymus). But what about grasses? Some ornamental grasses have impressive fall foliage, and it lasts all winter.
Ornamental grasses are everywhere. What was once a fairly obscure group of landscape plants have emerged into the spotlight, and their popularity shows no sign of fading. That’s not surprising, considering how much they have going for them—flowing leaves, towering seed heads, a fountain shape unlike that of shrubs or perennials that adds contrast and texture to the garden.