Extension Educator, Horticulture
Even in the garden we are preoccupied with sex. The flowers, the sexual parts of the plant, get all the attention. The real workhorses, the leaves that manufacture food for the plant, are often barely noticed. With many plants the leaves are visible much longer than the flowers especially in a perennial flower garden. So it's time for the leaves to demand some attention.
Cool blue leaves look especially nice mixed with pink or white flowers. Blue-leaved perennials include dianthus, rue, blue spruce sedum, fringed bleeding heart and of course, hostas. Blue hostas have names like 'Blue Cadet' with its heart-shaped leaves, 'Bold Ruffles,' 'Krossa Regal' and 'Blue Wedgwood'. The fringed bleeding heart with its lacy blue leaves is a real knockout in shade gardens and is showing off its pink or white flowers right now. The glossy green leaves of European ginger and bergenia also help to brighten a shade garden.
The shade garden has gotten a real boost with all the new coral bell and foamflower varieties. 'Pewter Veil,' 'Palace Purple' and 'Snow Storm' add color to a shady spot even without flowers.
Gray or silver leaves enliven the garden. The many cultivars of artemesias such as 'Silver King,' 'Silver Mound' and 'Silver Brocade' look interesting the moment they are placed in the garden. Lambs ears demands a gentle touch to see if the leaves really match the name. 'Big Ears' also known as 'Helen von Stein' is a lambs ears cultivar that rarely flowers. The silvery delicate texture of Russian Sage makes a lovely filler in a flower garden. Or add the bold large leaves of Silver Sage, Salvia argentea, for a dramatic touch.
Along with those silver plants add the deep red leaves of 'Husker Red' penstamon, or 'Vera Jameson' sedum. Or add a splash of purple with purple sage or its lovely cousin, the tricolor sage, with leaves of pink, green and white.
For interesting texture Echinops and sea holly make nice specimen plants. Be prepared to explain to a few garden visitors that they are not thistles.
The native plant, rattlesnake master, has long linear leaves looking much like a small version of the yucca.
With my first introduction to yellowed-leaved varieties of plants, my first inclination was to grab the fertilizer. I have now learned to enjoy the vibrancy of yellow leaves. 'Sum and Substance,' and 'Gold Standard' are just a few of the many gold-leaved hostas. Golden moneywort also brightens a shady moist spot.
For annuals with beautiful leaves you can't beat coleus. Thanks to Texas A &M Extension and other breeders we have new coleus varieties that tolerate sun and heat much better than the older varieties. I was quite impressed with some of these sun tolerant varieties in the Master Gardener Idea Garden last year. The coleus looked nice all season, had a self branching habit, and seemed reluctant to flower. Once coleus flowers, the plants tend to look leggy and unkempt. 'Purple Duckfoot' is one of my favorite coleus. It forms a nice bushy plant with dark maroon leaves. Even after my dog decided to prune the top out of my duckfoot coleus, the plant quicky returned to its bushy shape. Coleus offer variety in leaf shapes and colors and are so easy to grow.