Coprosmas are so innately undemanding and complaisant to all sorts of conditions, that some types self sow and thrive untended in riparian or coastal environments. If they were more aggressive, they would likely naturalize (proliferate as if native) where the soil does not get too dry through summer. With such glossy foliage that looks like plastic, they might be appealing weeds.
Coprosma X kirkii is a resilient ground cover that mostly stays less than two feet deep and five feet wide, although overgrown plants can get three feet deep. Varieties with colorful or variegated foliage probably stay too small to be reliable ground cover over large areas, but make nice edging, or can cascade nicely from raised planters or urns.
Pittosporum tenuifolium (or nigricans) has been employed as a resilient shorn or unshorn hedge for decades. The more contemporary cultivar ‘Marjorie Channon’ though, is grown more for variegated foliage. The light green leaves have creamy white borders and undulate margins. Mature unshorn shrubs get only eight feet high and broad, and are not quite as dense as the straight species. They may not be so useful as large hedging, but can provide striking contrast and depth to deep green foliage.
Stylish modern cultivars have been restoring the popularity of formerly common weigela, Weigela florida. Traditional sorts can reach first floor eaves, with delightfully open branch structure and rosy pink spring bloom. The foliage of most is variegated with white. Newer cultivars are more compact, with more variety of form, as well as of foliar and floral color.
Bloom can be pink, red, rosy red, white, white with yellow centers, or the the familiar rosy pink. Foliage can be green, bronze, deep purply bronze, or variegated with white or pale yellow. As it develops in spring, variegated foliage might be blushed with pink. Shrubbier modern cultivars may get no taller than five feet. Some are lower and densely mounding.
Although deciduous, weigela are popular as short informal hedges. Formal or excessive shearing compromises both bloom and form. After primary spring bloom, several modern cultivars bloom sporadically later in summer. Weigela enjoys a bit of winter chill, so may not appreciate the mildest coastal climates. Partial shade is tolerable, but inhibits bloom.
Foliar color is not limited to autumn. Some deciduous plants display colorful foliage from spring to autumn. Then, some of these change color for autumn. Some evergreen plants display colorful foliage through the year. Variegation of foliage can be more colorful than associated bloom. So can unvariegated bronze, purple, red, yellow, blue or gray foliage.
All sorts of plants exhibit variegation or other variations of color of their foliage. They can be annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines, trees, or houseplants. Although many are popular primarily because of their foliage, some provide appealing bloom as well. Blue and gray foliage is a natural advantage in harsh climates. Other colors are selections of mutations.
Because variegation deprives portions of foliar surface area of the chlorophyll needed to perform photosynthesis, it inhibits growth. This can be an advantage for plants that grow too vigorously otherwise. However, many variegated plants occasionally develop growth that is not variegated. If not removed, it can overwhelm and displace desired variegation.
New Zealand flax, dracaena palm (Cordyline australis), gold dust plant, euonymus, coral bells and hosta are some of the many plants that are more familiar with colored foliage or variegation than without. If simple unvariegated coleus, croton or caladium are available, they must be notably rare. Blue spruce is always blue. Purple leaf plum is always purple.
Although both gold and gray junipers are popular, the most common are green. Bronzed and variegated cannas are likewise not quite as popular as those with simple lush green foliage. Pittosporum tobira is so much more vigorous without variegation than with it, that the two distinct types of this same species perform different functions within landscapes.
Golden honeylocust supposedly produces lighter shade than darker green honeylocust. ‘Ruby Lace’, a bronze cultivar of honeylocust, supposedly produces faintly darker shade. Some golden or variegated foliage is more susceptible to scorch; although sun exposure enhances foliar color and variegation. Fresh new spring growth gets the best foliar color, but is likely to fade through summer.
Flowers get all the credit for color. They certainly are the most colorful features in the garden, as well as the most fragrant. However, foliage can do so much more than simply provide green. It can be hued with yellow, red, blue, purple, bronze, gray, or variegated with white or yellow. Plants with colorful foliage can range in size and function from small annuals and perennials to shrubbery, vines and even trees.
Hydrangea, hosta, ivy, English holly and various pittosporum are some of the more popular plants for white variegation, and are often variegated with yellow. Euonymus can conversely be variegated with white, but is usually variegated with yellow. New Zealand flax can be variegated with pink, bronze, brown or gold. Box elder is a good sized deciduous tree that can be variegated with white, or alternatively frosted uniformly with gold as new foliage emerges in spring. There is even a variety that has slightly purplish or smoky colored new foliage.
Silver mountain gum, silver Mediterranean fan palm, lamb’s ears, artemesia and the various dusty millers have remarkably silvery foliage. Silver mountain gum can grow into a mid-sized tree with a stout trunk. Lamb’s ears is a low perennial. Olive trees, some junipers and the various lavenders have gray foliage. Colorado blue spruce and some agaves have striking blue color.
Various purple leaf plums and Japanese maples are famous for their purplish foliage. Smoke tree and some beech have even darker purplish foliage. Some New Zealand flax and cannas can be just as purple or comparably bronze.
Actually, New Zealand flax and cannas, as well as junipers known for blue or gray foliage, can alternatively be bright yellow. Golden arborvitae, golden honeylocust and golden Monterey cypress really stand out nicely against darker green.
Colorful foliage tends to be most colorful as it develops freshly in spring, and tends to fade somewhat through summer. Gold junipers can actually fade to basic green by autumn. Shade inhibits most types of coloration, but can show off variegation better. There really is so much variety with colorful foliage that it is impossible to generalize.
There are too many other plants known as ‘mock orange’ for Pittosporum tobira to still go by that name, which is why it is more commonly known by its Latin name, or simply as ‘tobira’. The pleasantly fragrant flowers do not smell too much like those of orange anyway. The glossy and dark green leaves are like those of some hollies, without the distinctive prickly points. ‘Variegata’ has lighter green foliage variegated with white, but does not bloom as much. Dwarf cultivars, both variegated and unvariegatd, bloom even less. ‘Variegata’ has a tendency to occasionally produce stems of green (unvariegated) foliage that grow more vigorously and can overwhelm the original variegated growth if not pruned out. Common green Pittosporum tobira can grow as a small tree in the partial shade of larger trees, but is more often maintained as dense shrubbery less than ten feet tall. It makes a nice dense hedge in full sun, but unfortunately does not bloom if shorn regularly. All cultivars are resilient to drought once established.
Seed for this species is all or nothing. The straight species of Mediterranean spurge, Euphorbia characias, seeds abundantly. It can actually be a bit too prolific. However, fancier and extensively bred cultivars either produce no viable seed, or produce only a few seed that are not true to type. Such seed grows into plants that resemble their ancestral species more than their direct parents.
Foliage of common Mediterranean spurge is slightly grayish green. Cultivars exhibit more distinctly grayish, bluish, yellowish or variegated foliage. Appealingly weird and generally greenish floral trusses bloom on top of upwardly arching stems about now. Mature plants are less than four feet tall and broad, with neatly rounded form. They slowly lean toward sunlight as they grow and bloom.
After old stems get cut to the ground in autumn, new stems develop through winter, to repeat the process. Established plants are surprisingly resilient to harsh exposure, warmth, wind and lapses of irrigation. They just dislike shade and constant dampness. However, even the healthiest live for only five to eight years. Those that toss seed can provide their own replacements before they go.
Because its common name is so unappealing, dead nettle is more commonly known by its Latin name, Lamium. or more specifically, Lamium maculata. It is a low and subdued plant with pastel pink, lavender or white blooms, and small deep green leaves. However, modern garden varieties have silvery variegated foliage that brightens shady spots. Some are yellowish green.
The herbaceous stems spread only one or two feet at first, but then root into the soil where they land, and continue to spread some more. The mounding growth can get about half a foot deep, or a bit deeper where it can pile up on other plants or rocks. After late spring or early summer bloom, deteriorating flower stems should be shorn back to enhance density of foliar growth below.
Stems that begin to spread a bit too far into areas where they are not wanted can be left long enough to develop roots through spring, and then pulled up and planted where they are wanted. Even before they spread that much, no one would miss a few rooted stems discretely taken from established plants to make copies. Plants in sunnier spots want richer soil and more water.
Up at high elevations and out in deserts, where sunlight is most intense, plants can actually get more exposure than they need. The bluish or grayish glaucous foliage of the Colorado blue spruce from the Rocky Mountains, and the century plant from the Sonoran Desert, is actually designed to reflect a bit of sunlight so that the foliage does not scald.
Plants from foggy coastal areas, and understory plants that naturally live below the canopies of larger trees, do the opposite. They are deep green to absorb as much sunlight as possible. This is why Monterey pine and Monterey cypress are the same shade of dark green; and why most ferns are such dark green. Only tree ferns that stand above lower plants are naturally light green.
This can make it difficult to brighten a dark spot in the garden, since most lightly colored foliage wants an abundance of sunlight. White or lightly colored flowers would theoretically work nicely, but generally are neither permanent nor abundant where shaded. Golden foliage, like that of golden elderberries, golden arborvitaes and golden junipers, is greener in the shade.
Variegated foliage is different. Even if the green parts of the foliage are greener where well exposed than where shaded, the variegated parts are always variegated. Some plants are variegated with white. A few are variegated with yellow. Those that tolerate shade can brighten shaded spots nicely, or at least add a bit of contrast to dark green.
Even if the big pastel flowers of variegated angel’s trumpets and variegated hydrangeas do not stand out as well as they would against deeper green foliage, the foliage provides its own contrast. A concern with hydrangeas, as well as variegated dogwoods, is that they are deciduous, so lack foliage through winter.
Variegated Pittosporum tobira and variegated euonymus have smaller evergreen leaves. Variegated ivies are nice ground covers. On a smaller scale, so is dead nettle. Euonymus, pittosporums and ivies will sometimes need to have more vigorous unvariegated stems pruned out before they overwhelm and replace variegated growth.
Of all the tender perennials, polka dot plant, Hypoestes phyllostachya, is one of the lesser likely to survive winter outside, even if sheltered from the cold. Yet, it is actually becoming more popular as a warm season folliage plant for pots of small mixed perennials. It is a delightful small houseplant, either alone or as an understory plant to larger houseplants like ficus. As an understory plant, It is easier to work with if grown separately in small pots that can get nestled into moss on top of the soil of the larger plants. If it has a problem, it can easily be replaced or removed.
The foliage typically has so many pink spots that less than half of the foliar surface area is green. Some have white or darker reddish pink spots. The bloom is not as interesting as the foliage, and is not often seen. Roots like rich and evenly moist potting soil. The biggest plants are not much more than a foot high. Most stay less than half as tall. New plants are easy to propagate from cuttings. When things get warmer in spring, plants that have more stems than foliage can be cut back to regenerate.