In season

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.

NZ Gardener - - Contents -

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.

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