As the season brings on a riot of colours in the garden, Neil Ross looks at the plants and shrubs that put on the best show.
Bold, beautiful bronze foliage
Like all the best doctors, my friend Michelle is opinionated, clever and eccentric. She doesn’t let me near the Japanese quince (Chaenomeles) which grows up her house wall to the second storey windows – I had once pruned it back and removed the new reddish spring shoots to encourage it to stay compact and full of flower spurs.
You see, normal people grow this shrub for the dazzling wreaths of red or pink spring blossom or the golden aromatic fruit which follows; but no, Michelle grows hers primarily for the blushed leaves which appear on any new growth. When it’s flowering, she hurries indifferently past the waterfall of lava but in high summer she pulls me in to admire a coppery leaf as if she had won the lottery to make her point.
A year on and she has sort of forgiven me for my handiwork. She even admits the bush is tidier – but I notice a nervous tick whenever I reach for my secateur pouch.
At this time of year, we are spoilt for choice with exciting new growth because much of it breaks out devoid of the green chlorophyll which is such a party pooper later on, masking as it does so many more garish pigments such as scarlets in pieris leaves, the purples in Japanese maples and most Hollywood of all, the amazing silky gold spaniel’s ears of Neolitsea sericea. This last shrub is a bit of a rarity and only suited to milder climes but at this time of year there is plenty to enjoy from the most pedestrian of shrubs.
Take the humble paeony, for example. Creep up on them just as they are unfurling and, in some varieties, you get a hit of blackcurrant before the green breaks through. Pounce on a rosebush while you are at it and with a few varieties you will find them newly clothed in claret or a good coppery hue like the peach
At this time of year, we are spoilt for choice with exciting new growth, and there is plenty to enjoy, even from the most pedestrian of shrubs.
flowering David Austin rose ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’, one of my all-time favourites for looks and scent.
Such foliage begs to be accompanied by complementary flowers or foliage. A good start are the nearly evergreen heucheras which are just putting on some tidy fresh growth.
Heucheras come in a whole tin of Quality Street flavours these days but some are more long lived than others. ‘Plum Pudding’ is still the hazelnut/caramel favourite in my tin if you like a cheerful, bright purple as opposed to a black or a copper. Many of the more crinkly-leafed varieties, I find, are long lived too such as ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ which is definitely in the brown camp rather than purple.
In warm climes, a different alternative is the Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’, a herbaceous plant grown purely for its leaves and cut back regularly to keep it in fresh growth. The new mounds of foliage are at their best now – each leaf immaculately tailored and embroidered with a faint chevron.
Under the plummy new foliage of a physocarpus – a smoke bush (Cotinus) or a purple berberis – you can introduce some plummy or bronze flowers. Hellebores are still showing a bit of colour and I’m a sucker for the murky strangeness of Helleborus x sternii. As well as bold foliage, its cupped blooms are a whole trifle bowl of goodness – cream with hints of ginger and rhubarb on the back, and even a dash of pistachio green as you get to the centre of the dish.
Even more delicious is the delicacy and triad symmetry of trilliums opening up under the trees. This is strictly a cool climate bulb needing plenty of leaf mould and water through summer, but if you get to grow it, you can enjoy those inky purple or chocolate petals erupting up from a ruff of leaves marbled like a shed snake’s skin.
Other plants with these beguiling colours are easier to grow. Epimediums make excellent groundcover in dry shade and many have reddish or rusty marbling which is quite as handsome as the dainty flowers which come earlier. Trim off all the old leaves of these in late winter to best show off the flowers and make a clean break for the dramatic new foliage.
The reverse is true for the spurges (euphorbias). These need to have all their spent flowers removed straight after the spring show so there is room to usher in new foliage to shine and shimmer through winter. Euphorbia
amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ is my favourite purple-leafed form. It’s prone to summer mildew, but I persevere – there is something about that blend of claret with the fizzing chartreuse flowers. This is great in a container – just plant it loosely so that chocolate, orange or caramel tulips can bustle through and really give you something to make your mouth water.