Most perennials are grown for their attractive flowers. They bloom for a few days or weeks, but are green, unassuming plants during the remainder of the growing season. There are, however, some perennials that have colorful foliage. These perennials add color to the garden from spring to fall. The following is a partial list of perennials that possess attractive foliage.
Hostas are the premier foliage perennial. There are hundreds of hosta varieties. The varieties differ in leaf color, leaf shape, plant size, and flower color. The foliage may be green, blue, gold, or variegated. The leaves may be long and narrow, nearly round, or heart-shaped. Hosta varieties vary in height from 2 to 3 inches to 3 to 4 feet. Flowers may be white, blue, or purple. Some varieties, such as 'Honeybells,' possess fragrant flowers.
Most hostas grow best in partial to heavy shade. However, blue-leaved varieties develop their deepest blue color in heavy shade. Most of the gold-leaved varieties develop their best leaf color in partial to full sun. In shady areas, the foliage of gold-leaved hostas is yellow-green rather than gold.
Lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.) are clump-forming perennials that possess distinctive white or silver spots on their foliage. 'Mrs. Moon,' 'Sissinghurst White,' and 'Roy Davidson' are popular varieties that possess white or silver spotted foliage. Newer varieties, such as 'British Sterling,' 'Excalibur,' and 'Spilled Milk' have silver leaves with green margins. Lungworts do best in partial to heavy shade.
Sedums are fleshy-leaved perennials that are grown chiefly for their late summer bloom. However, several varieties have colorful foliage. 'Vera Jameson' has glaucous mahogany red to purple foliage and pink flowers in late summer. 'Mohrchen' is an upright, 1 1/2-foot-tall plant with bronze to burgundy foliage. It also has pink flowers in late summer. Sedums are easy to grow, tolerate dry conditions, and have few pests. They perform best in full sun and well-drained soils.
Another perennial with burgundy foliage is Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red.' 'Husker Red' grows 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall. It blooms in early summer. The flowers are white with a pink tinge. The foliage is burgundy or maroon-red. It does best in well-drained soils and full sun. As you might guess, 'Husker Red' was introduced by the University of Nebraska. It was selected as the 1996 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association.
Coral bells (Heuchera spp.) have been grown for many years for their showy flowers. In recent years, their popularity has soared due to the introduction of several new varieties with attractive foliage. One of the most popular varieties is Heuchera micrantha 'Palace Purple.' In fact, it was selected as the 1991 Perennial Plant of the Year. 'Palace Purple' has maple-shaped leaves that are greenish-purple to dark purple. Plants are 15 to 18 inches tall with a similar spread. White flowers are produced in summer. Other notable varieties include 'Palace Passion' with purple foliage and pink flowers, 'Ruby Veil' with slate-gray leaves mottled with shades of ruby and purple, 'Pewter Veil' has pewter-colored leaves with purple veins, and 'Chocolate Ruffles' which has ruffled leaves with chocolate brown upper leaf surfaces and burgundy undersides. Coral bells perform best in well-drained soils and partial shade to full sun.
The Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum') is a clump-forming fern which grows 12 to 18 inches tall. The coarsely divided fronds are colored gray, green, and maroon. The Japanese painted fern prefers partial to full shade and moist, well-drained soils.
A number of perennials have green and white, cream, or yellow variegated foliage. One such perennial is the variegated obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana 'Variegata'). This variety has green and white variegated foliage and pink flowers. Plants grow about 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall. The species and its varieties are aggressive, spreading plants that require frequent division to confine their growth.
Variegated Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum') is similar to our native species. This Japanese native has green leaves with white or cream colored edges. A single, long, arching stem emerges in the spring from a thick rhizome. The stem may be up to 3 feet long. In spring, plants produce greenish-white flowers which hang down in clusters from the leaf axils. Later, small berries the size of peas develop. The berries eventually turn blue-black. Solomon's seal prefers partial to heavy shade.
Variegated sweet iris (Iris pallida 'Variegata') has green and golden-yellow striped foliage and pale blue flowers. Iris pseudacorus 'Variegata' has yellow and green striped foliage in spring. The leaves become completely green by midsummer.
Other perennials with colorful foliage include blue fescue (Festuca cinerea), snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), and wormwood (Artemisia spp.).
The addition of flowering annuals is one way to provide continuous color to perennial borders and beds. Another way is to plant perennials that possess colorful foliage.
This article originally appeared in the April 25, 1997 issue, pp. 50-51.