I recently chatted with a woman at my local coffee house, and of course, the topic eventually turned to gardening, and what to plant in this worthless soil. She complained of her flowers suffering in the mid-summer heat, and asked about other plants, especially foliage plants, for introducing color into her garden. It’s true, some flowers can get long and leggy during summer heat, and even the new guinea impatiens, which can take sun, may wilt and die in intense heat, with drought or near-drought conditions. This lady was fortunate. She had some of the much-coveted shade provided by huge live oaks.
I have highlighted 6 foliage plants in this post. These are the top 5 foliage plants for shade and shade-to-part sun gardens in most of the southeastern United States, plus my favorite tropical foliage plant, shown above. It’s shown as #4 below, and is the only one that will not survive in the entire southeast.
During the hottest weather, many plants grown for their flowers will struggle in the heat. It is at this time that foliage plants can shine. With their many shades of green, from yellowish-green to darkest blue-green, cream, white, even red, pink, purple, burgundy, and black, they add great interest to the garden, especially shady areas where some flowers will not grow. I filled the shady, wooded area in the yard of our former homes in Alabama and North Carolina with foliage plants, especially hosta, fern, and wild violets. I did not limit it to hosta and fern, though. I also added elephant ears and ground covers such as the chartruese Creeping Jenny.
I admit to being partial to hosta and fern, but there are so many other foliage plants, and some of the new hybrids are so colorful that it is possible to create an amazing flower-free yet color-filled garden. Coleus and Caladiums are also favorites of mine, and I depend on all of these for my new yard that still has very little shade, although I am trying hard to create it.
1. — Coleus
Whether you pronounce it “cole-yus”,or “col-e-us” seems to depend on where you originate. Either way, you have to agree it is one of the most colorful foliage plants we have. This plant probably comes in more color combinations, than most of the others listed here: burgundies, reds, purples, various shades of green, white, and even yellow. Coleus is easy to grow, and will add beauty to your garden. Until the last few years, coleus grew only in the shade. Today, however, there are many new varieties that do well in full sun. Oh, the wonders of hybridization!
This plant comes in so many color combinations, it is mind-boggling: burgundies, reds, purples, various shades of green, white, and even yellow. Coleus is easy to grow, and will add beauty to your garden.
This beauty was huge last year, and remained beautiful until January when it began to get truly cold. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of this one. Normally, it would have come back in the spring (only in very warm climates) but the hard freeze we had in February killed it. This variety is the one I had the most requests for cuttings from friends and neighbors.
This photo is of some coleus cuttings I took to root last year. It’s called “Wine Dipt”. My blog post of August, 29, 2014, shows how to root coleus.
When new leaves emerge on this one, they are a light green with only a tiny bit of “wine” showing. As the leaves mature, the colors spread and intensify. The colors in this one seem to become more brilliant when receiving a bit of sun. It can take full sun, but is happy in the shade, too.
This photo is of some younger leaves on Wine Dipt.
To Flower or Not to Flower?
Many gardeners pinch off the flower buds of coleus, because as soon as it flowers, it begins to bolt or “go to seed”. I want my foliage plants to last the season, so I constantly pinch off those flower buds. Coleus is really an annual, and the purpose of annuals is to flower, wilt, and produce seed for the following year. The way to get more flowers is to deadhead the plants by pinching off the spent blooms. Frustrated, the plants will continue to flower in an effort to produce seed.
The flowers of coleus are so very tiny on tall, sturdy stalks. I believe they take away from the beauty of the plant, so I always pinch off the flower buds as soon as they appear. A year or so ago, the hybridizers made me happy again by producing a type of coleus that does not flower. Meet “Wasabi”:
This one is called Wasabi. It loves the sun and shade. It has serrated edges, and is slightly corrugated. Again it’s colors are more luminescent in full sun. Although it won’t flower, it can be encouraged to bush out by pinching off the center stalk now and then. Multiple plants can be obtained by cutting or breaking off healthy stems, and rooting them.
A Truly Weird Combination of Chromosomes Must Be Inside This One
I don’t know the name of this one either. Lately, I have been calling it “Compost Coleus” because it came up at the back of my very small compost bin, and has taken over half of the area. Yep, I should have moved it while it was still small.
Actually, it has a very interesting pattern of chartreuse and burgundy which, on most of the leaves, appears as if someone has spattered paint on it. It has a few leaves that are solid chartreuse, even fewer that are solid burgundy, and occasionally, it will have a leave that is exactly half burgundy and half chartreuse, or half solid and half speckled — split right along the middle vein or “mid-line” as shown in the two photos below. Weird, huh?
2. — Caladiums
Caladiums are in the same family with elephant ears (#5 below). They have always been available in green & white and green & red. Later varieties came to include red/green/pink and red/white. More and more variations on these colors seem to appear every couple of years. Here are some of mine:
I have plenty of this variety to share. It’s called “Florida Sunrise”. As you can see, it is white with green and red veins. The red looks to me like watercolor “bloom”, i.e., paint that has spread or “bloomed” into adjacent wet paint or wet paper.
These guys do fine in full sun during the spring, BUT when the summer heat arrives, they won’t last long. I have some in the sun, and am gradually moving them to less sunny spots in our yard.
This is one of the newest ones I have seen — white with a green border, and splashes of red. I have only one of these, but this is a plant that multiplies year after year. Soon there will be plenty to share with friends and neighbors.
It now gets morning sun, and is shaded from the harsh afternoon sun. After it multiplies, I think I will see what happens when I move one of them to a sunnier spot.
Here’s a photo of the huge, mostly red caladium. I took this photo to show how large the leaves have gotten this year. Little C.C. is a 10-pound Maltese, and the plant is at least twice her height.
3. — Hosta
Hosta was always my number one favorite foliage plant, but for whatever reason, they don’t seem to do well in this part of central Florida. I brought some with me when we moved, and they come up each spring, look beautiful until mid-summer, then shrivel up and disappear until the next spring. Go figure.
There so many different varieties and colors, there has to be one for you. Although hostas are not available in the reds, pinks purples, and blacks of other foliage plants, they are available in all shades of green, plus white, cream, and yellow. When we lived in North Carolina, I had a white one that had green edges. It was beautiful. I still wish I had taken it when we moved. Hostas are also available in sizes ranging from just a few inches across to 5 – 6 feet wide.
They do send up tall slender stalks with tiny white or lavender flowers. Some, for example, “Royal Standard” have a lovely fragrance. If you don’t want the flowers, just clip off the stalks when they first emerge. Just remember, if you do that, you won’t have any seed from the spent blossoms. I usually clip them off, because I grow hosta for the lovely foliage. Below I show a few of those in my garden.
This is one of my favorites. Unlike some of the smooth-leaf types, this one has corrugated leaves that add even greater interest to the multi-color plant. This is a variety that grows quite large.
This one is called “Guacamole”. This photo was taken in early spring — not long after it had come up and unfurled. When Guacamole reaches maturity in 3 to 5 years, it will be 4 or 5 feet across. There is a bit of a border on this one that shows a slightly darker green based on the amount of shade vs. sun received.
“June” is a mid-ize hosta. Its leaves are an almost luminous chartruese with darker green edges whose color occasionally wanders toward the center. These lighter colored hostas are nice because they are still visible on a moonlit night. They can take some morning sun, but prefer dappled light, or complete shade.
Frances Williams is a common, but very popular corrugated hosta. It is similar to Great Expectations, but without the creamy white. This one can grow quite large. Most hosta enthusiasts have at least one of these.
4. — Variegated Ginger, )Alpinia Zerumbet Variegata) is One of the Tropicals
These giant beauties will grow to 5 – 6 feet tall, and multiply over the years. They prefer shade, or at least filtered light. Mine do get the morning and early-afternoon sun, and seem to be fine.
In the warmest climates they survive year-round. Mine suffered with the hard freeze we had in February of 2015, and still show some damage, but their new growth is beautiful. This photo is one I took before the freeze. I ran out of sheets to cover them. Next winter, I will be sure to have enough to cover all my tender plants.
This is not the edible type of ginger, but it really adds interest to the landscape. It does produce flowers, and mine bloomed this year for the first time. Here’s a shot of the first buds. As this stem with the flower buds emerges, it hangs over, with the buds dangling like grapes. Then they begin to open, revealing tiny but gorgeous orchid-like flowers. This photo has been enlarged. The actual flower is about the size of a quarter.
There is also a red, cream, gold and dark green variety of variegated ginger. It requires full shade, so I keep mine in a pot inside our lanai. This is it:
Here is a photo of one that was planted in full sun a couple of blocks from my home:
This plant was very pretty when first planted, but it roasted last summer with the sun bearing down on it, while its roots and lower leaves were baked by the hot rocks. You’ve probably heard the expression, “It’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Well, those rocks get about that hot. The darker colored ones are even worse. I cannot stress enough — plants in the south have very shallow roots, and cannot take the heat generated by rocks used in place of real mulch. This plant truly was “toast”. It’s owners replaced it during the hot summer with a hosta — another plant that requires mostly shade. There is a hosta that can take a lot of sun. It’s called “Sum and Substance” and grows to about 5 feet wide. It was not the one they used. The one they planted is still there, but is also struggling.
5. — Elephant Ears
These giant beauties will grow to 5 – 6 feet tall, and multiply over the years. In coastal regions and warm climates, they will survive year-round. In colder climates, they die back in late autumn or early winter, but return in the spring. If planted in the coldest climates, they may be killed by hard freezes, and should be taken indoors for the winter season, then replanted when warm weather returns. I especially enjoy them because they provide a little bit of tropical atmosphere to non-tropical regions.
This purplish-black variety is called “Illustris”. I don’t have this variety in my yard, so I snapped this photo at the Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse near our former home in Alabama. This variety adds interest to any garden. I decided I must have some of these but cannot find them here. In the background some of the younger leaves that still show large green veins can be seen. Elephant ears of these colors would be beautiful with an under-planting of pink or lavender flowers, as you can see from the pink flowers sitting behind them.
Jumbo Elephant Ears
Here is a photo I took for an art project of my green jumbo elephant ears, (botanical name: Colocasia Esculenta). They grew to almost seven feet tall last summer. Unfortunately, the hard freeze we had in February, 2015, caused them to have to start over from the ground up this spring. Here they are now with a Dwarf Sugar Palm behind them.
6. — Fern
There are many types of ferns in a variety of shades of green. Some have a silvery coating on their fronds, and are quite beautiful.
This is Boston Fern, a.k.a., Nephrolepis exalta. It grows wild throughout central Florida, and other warm climates. It can often be seen growing on the trunks of palms where its seeds have settled into the boots of the palm. The boot is portion of the leaf stalk left behind after removal of a dead palm leaf. They are what make up the the crisscross pattern on the trunk of a palm.
Warning: Boston fern is very, very invasive. Before I knew this, I took a couple of sprigs from a palm growing on the side of the road. I brought them home, rooted them, then planted them in my yard. They have taken over a section of my flower bed underneath my poinsettias and one of my split-leaf philodendrons. You have to love fern not to be upset by this, and I do.
Southern Wood Fern has a more upright growth pattern than many ferns.
Southern Wood Fern
I don’t know the correct name for this wild fern. In my home state of Alabama, it is called Southern Wood Fern. It grows wild in woodland areas throughout the southeastern United States. It is frequently called “Christmas Fern” because of the tiny leaves that are shaped like Christmas stockings. In the photo below, the “toe” that gives it the stocking shape can be seen. This is the first plant we learned to find and name when I was in Brownie Scouts.
Here the tiny “toes” can be seen on each leaf of the frond at the point where it is attached to the main stem. The ones on the bottom row are easier to see.
I took this fern from the woods behind my parents’ home near Birmingham, AL. I also took some of it to my home in North Carolina, but left it there when we relocated to the Rocky Mountain area. In NC, it died back completely in winter, but came back each spring. In Alabama, it does not die back completely in winter. If there are hard freezes, though, it will begin to look a bit ragged, but will put out new growth at the first signs of spring. This fern looks really nice planted among hostas and other shade-loving plants.