Smokebush

00624Cliche is barely avoidable regarding smokebush, Cotinus coggygria. It provides rich foliar color from spring until autumn, with uniquely billowy bloom through summer. Then, it provides exquisite fall color until winter. Then, it provides sculptural form of bare stems until spring. Smokebush ‘has it all’. . . almost. All the spectacle distracts from a lack of floral fragrance. Will anyone ever notice?

Foliage is rich purplish bronze, bright greenish yellow or olive green through spring and summer. Formerly common old fashioned cultivars with olive green foliage are now rare. Nowadays, most are rich purplish bronze. Fall color is fiery yellow, orange and red. The round leaves are about one to three inches long. Purplish to pale pinkish plumes of smoke-like bloom are a striking contrast.

The largest of smokebush grow at a moderate rate to more than fifteen feet high and wide. Most cultivars are more compact. They get wobbly in the ground if they grow too vigorously. Aggressive pruning during winter improves stability and enhances foliar color for the next season. However, minimal pruning of stable plants promotes bloom. Smoke tree wants full sun, but is not demanding.

Bronze Is The New Green

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Color like this needs no bloom.

Bronze foliage will never actually replace green foliage. Even if there were enough variety of plants with bronze foliage to do so, too much bronze would look dreary. Bronze is just another option for foliar color in landscapes with significant vegetation. It is distinct from simpler green, and contrasts nicely with gold, blue, gray and variegated foliage. Some bronze foliage is variegated too.

There is all sorts of bronze foliage. Some is brownish bronze. Some is reddish. The most popular bronze foliage is rather purplish. It can be evergreen or deciduous. Annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines, trees and houseplants can provide bronze foliage. Most plants that provide bronze foliage are variants of plants that also provide bloom or fruit. Some are common. Others are rather rare.

Bronze foliage is not an advantage to plants that produce it. The most efficient foliage is green. Gray or bluish foliage has the advantage of reflecting some of the harsh sunlight that could scald it in severe climates. Otherwise, foliage that is a color other than green reflects more of the useful sunlight than it should. Incidentally, dark foliage also absorbs more of the sunlight that can scald it.

This is why many bronze plants are noticeably less vigorous than their greener counterparts. Although it would not be an advantage in the wild, diminished vigor makes some bronze plants more adaptable to compact home gardens. For example, the brownish bronze ‘Summer Chocolate’ silk tree will not get half as high and wide as the common silk tree. It can fit nicely into a cozy atrium.

Cultivars of purple leaf plum, Japanese maple and Eastern redbud are more familiar complaisant bronze trees. ‘Ruby Lace’ honeylocust is still quite rare. Bronze shrubbery includes smokebush, Chinese fringe flower, elderberry, barberry and ninebark. New Zealand flax, canna, houseleek, ajuga, mondo grass and coral bells are popular bronze perennials. Cordyline is a larger perennial.

Bronze foliage adds a bit more color than typical green foliage. In the right situations, it is appealing bold.

Colorful Foliage Fades Through Summer

P90713Autumn foliar color is not the concern yet. It develops later as deciduous plants defoliate for winter. Purplish, reddish, yellowish, bluish or gray foliar color that can be seen now is provided by plants that are colorful while actively growing. Almost all of this sort of foliage is most colorful when it is young and fresh, early in spring. Then, through summer, some of the best foliar color fades.

This process is perfectly natural. It does not imply that anything was done improperly, or that plants were not given what they need. In fact, most plants with colorful foliage would rather be green. They are mutants that were reproduced specifically for their distinctive color. Some try to revert back to green by producing greener shoots that grow faster because they have more chlorophyll.

Photinia is an odd one. By now, The rich green foliage shows no clue that it was rich reddish bronze when it developed early in spring. The foliage did not really fade. It merely matured. Then there are the newer cultivars of purple leaf plum, which maintain their color from spring to autumn. It is amazing that such darkly colored foliage that seems be devoid of chlorophyll can photosynthesise!

Some plants maintain their color better than others. Gray or bluish foliage is always gray or bluish; but admittedly, blue spruce and blue junipers are not quite as striking now as they were earlier. If red fountain grass and bronze aonium fade, it will be too slight to notice. Stems of bronze, gold or striped cannas that fade after bloom get pruned out in favor of more colorful unbloomed stems.

‘Forest Pansy’ redbud, ‘Summer Chocolate’ silk tree and ‘Sunburst’ honeylocust are notorious for fading. By now, the formerly richly bronzed redbud and silk tree merely seem to be stained with coffee. Golden honeylocust might have been bright yellow in spring, but now just looks sickly. Gold tipped and silver tipped deodar cedars can likewise be a bit pale. Bronze elderberries hold color well, but golden elderberry might now be chartreuse.P90713+

Photinia

60316As a shorn evergreen hedge or simple shorn shrubbery, photinia, Photinia X fraseri, produces handsomely glossy bronzy red foliage without bloom. It is best if shorn as weather warms at the end of winter, and then allowed to grow out for a while. It can be shorn again through summer as bronzy foliage fades to green, but should not be shorn so often that it is always deprived of red foliage.

Without regular shearing, photinia becomes a small tree or large shrub. Trees can either be staked on single trunks, or allowed to develop multiple trunks. New growth in spring is not as vigorous as it would be in response to shearing, so is not as colorful. Domed trusses of tiny white flowers bloom about as soon as new foliage appears. The floral fragrance can be objectionable to some.

Only the biggest and oldest trees reach high voltage cables. Most stay less than fifteen feet tall and broad. Hedges can be kept less than six feet tall, and ideally, should be kept less than half as deep (from front to back). Photinia can grow rather well while young, but then grows slower as it matures. Partial shade or a lack of water through summer compromise foliar color and density.

Fringe Flower

51007Since modern cultivars became trendy several years ago, the old fashioned ‘common’ fringe flower, Loropetalum chinense, has become even more uncommon than it already was. It does not grow fast enough to function as large scale shrubbery, but slowly gets too big to work as small shrubbery. Without pruning, old plants take many years to get to fifteen feet tall.

The gracefully arching stems are outfitted with light green evergreen foliage. The simple leaves are about an inch or two long. The small white blooms have very narrow petals that hang downward like limp bits of ramen. Each bloom is actually a tuft of a few individual flowers. Bloom is most abundant in spring, and then continues sporadically through most of the year.

Modern cultivars of fringe flower are more compact, so rarely get more than five feet tall. Flowers can be white, pink, red or rosy pink. The most popular cultivars have purplish bronze foliage. Fringe flower does well as an understory plant, in the partial shade of trees. It should not be shorn, so should instead be pruned selectively to maintain its natural form.

Glossy Abelia

50916With indiscriminate pruning, glossy abelia, Abelia X grandiflora, will never develop its natural form, with elegantly long and thin stems that arch gracefully outward. Sadly, almost all get shorn into tight shrubbery or hedges that rarely bloom. If only old stems get selectively pruned out as they get replaced by fresh new stems, mature shrubs can get eight feet tall and twelve feet wide.

Against their bronzy green foliage, the tiny pale pink flowers that bloom all summer have a rustic appeal. In abundance, they can be slightly fragrant. The tiny leaves are not much more than an inch long. Vigorous young canes that shoot nearly straight out from the roots slowly bend from the weight of their bloom and foliage as they mature.

Partial shade is not a problem for glossy abelia, but will inhibit bloom somewhat. Young plants want to be watered regularly. Old plants are not nearly so demanding, and can survive with notably less water. If alternating canes is too much work to restore old and neglected plants, all stems can be cut back to the ground at the end of winter. New growth develops quickly.

Beech

70628Compared to crape myrtle, sycamore (London plane) and many other more popular trees, the beech, Fagus sylvatica, is much less problematic, and really deserves more respect. Although it can eventually get almost as big as sycamore, it has remarkably complaisant roots. It is neatly deciduous, defoliating only in autumn, without noticeable floral mess. Disease and pests are rare.

Beech is probably unpopular with landscapers because new trees are a bit more demanding than other tree specie are. (Landscapers prefer easier trees.) Until they disperse their roots, they are more likely to desiccate if they do not get watered regularly enough, and more likely to rot if watered too much. They grow somewhat slowly, so need to be pruned more carefully for a high canopy.

Those of us who tend our own gardens do not mind the extra effort for such a distinctive tree. The handsome foliage can be rich green, coppery bronze, darkly purplish or variegated with white or pink that fades to white. A cultivar with sunny yellow new foliage fades to green by summer. Most beeches have spreading branch structure, but some are strictly vertical or sculpturally pendulous.

Foliage Shows Its True Colors

70510thumbFlowers were originally colorful only to attract pollinators. Breeding has improved the color and quality of many garden varieties of flowers, to make them more appealing to the people who grow them. Some have been bred so extensively that they are sterile, which defeats the original function of flowers. Now their function is merely to look good in the garden. Improvements are relative.

Foliage is green because it is photosynthetic. Chlorophyll, which is necessary for photosynthesis, happens to be green. Yellow, red, blue, purple, bronze, gray and variegated foliage might not be as efficient at photosynthesis as green foliage, but can be appealing in home gardens. Many plants with colored foliage are inferior to their greener counterparts, but are somehow more popular.

Gray and blue foliage absorbs less sunlight, which can be an advantage in harsh environments. Blue hesper palm and the various blue agaves are from arid deserts. Colorado blue spruce is from high elevations of the Rocky Mountains. Arizona cypress, silver mountain gum, artemesia, lambs’ ears, lavenders, dusty millers and blue junipers all provide distinctively gray or blue foliage.

Golden arborvitaes and junipers can be strikingly gold as new foliage develops in spring, even if the color does not last long. Most plants with gold foliage fade to yellowish green through summer. Golden honeylocusts do not fade as much, so are still mostly yellow by the time they defoliate in winter. Purplish or reddish foliage of purple leaf plum and red Japanese maple holds color better.

Euonymous, English holly, osmanthus, silverberry, hosta and various pittosporums can be variegated with white or yellow. Ivy, and hydrangea can be variegated with white. New Zealand flax and mirror plant can be variegated with gold or bronze, . . . or red or pink. Any unvariegated mutant growth (known as ‘sports’) that appears on variegated plants should be pruned away. Because it has more chlorophyl, it grows more vigorously, so can overwhelm and replace the more desirable variegated foliage.70510thumb+

Agonis

70208Fans of the Brady Bunch might recognized agonis, Agonis flexuosa, from the front yard of the Brady Residence. That particular tree was rather dark olive green, and might have grown two or three feet annually to reach the upstairs eaves. Most of the popular modern cultivars are darker bronze or burgundy, and probably stay a bit shorter, but attain the same elegant and slender form.

The narrow evergreen leaves hang softly from limber stems, like the foliage of weeping willow. Anyone who has pruned agonis has likely noticed that the foliage is aromatic if disturbed. The tiny pinkish white flowers that bloom in spring or summer are not much to look at, but can be fragrant if there are enough of them. The fibrous and furrowed bark is quite distinguished for a small tree.

Agonis is not too demanding as long as it gets enough sunlight. It will lean away from shade. It prefers to be watered somewhat regularly through summer, although established plants can be quite happy if watered only a few times. Too much water rots their roots. If pruned to promote branching while young, and pruned for confinement as it matures, agonis can be a striking unshorn hedge.