Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Varied about variegated leaves

Helleborus argutifolius 'Pacific Frost'
It is a pity I didn't take photos of this variegated Corsican Helleborus, Helleborus argutifolius 'Pacific Frost' a bit earlier in the season, when its ghostly pale shoots emerged from the soil. After a while, the leaves turned into a spotted jumble of lime and cream, and the flowers opened equally spotted, only a couple of shades lighter in color. Now, the strong, glossy leaves form an excellent contrast to the softer spring time perennials around it, and their waxy tone picks up the whites of the flowering Corydalis and Omphaloides effectively.
Russell Page discusses plant combinations with variegated leaves in his book The Education of a Gardener (this book from 1962 is my perennial favorite, one of the most wonderful books about garden making ever published...). In a garden he planted for the Duke of Windsor, he used the variegated Acer negundo and underplanted it with Eleagnus pungens aureo-variegata, Elymus arenarius, Eulalia zebrina (now Miscanthus), variegated hostas and the variegated form of Iris pallida dalmatica; all plants with spotty and stripy, variegated leaves.
He writes that the planting made him think "even in grey weather that a patch of sunshine had been caught and held in that shadowy corner", which is a wonderful description, even if the combination sounds a bit too visually restless to me. I prefer using variegated plants against a backdrop of plain, preferably dark green or even purple leaves; for example, the pale, spotted 'Pacific Frost' Helleborus above would probably look wonderful against a bed of black mondo grass, too.

Until quite lately, I've had a bit ambivalent relationship with variegated plants. I've always liked the stripy ones, like Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' and many hostas. They always look elegant, like they would have been touched by a thin brush adding strokes of light on their leaves. But variegated leaves that are spotted have always made me look a second time to check if they really are meant to be like that, or just affected by some kind of a nasty bug or a virus. Coming from the harsh, Nordic climate, I naturally prefer strong, healthy plants; variegated plants, having less chlorophyll producing tissue, tend always to be weaker than their plain green relatives. But I guess I now have an excellent opportunity to rethink my likes and dislikes: while living in the temperate, horticultural Eden of the Pacific Northwest, I can for the first time fully revel in the possibilities of using variegated plants without any concerns about their hardiness.


Jeff Branch said...

Hi, I recently ran across your blog and had to comment that I your Pacific Frost looks great.

Your post is interesting because I take variegated plants for granted. I love hosta my first ones, Undulata, have the classic variegated hosta look and can look great especially when planted in mass. I am currently rooting a variegated hydrangea and hope to add more in time.

Good post.


nilla|utanpunkt said...

Jag är också smått tudelad, men lutar numera mest åt det positiva. Jag har här i England flera variegerade, och jag gillar just hur de kan kombineras så fint med enfärgade blad.

Hur går det med skrivandet!?

Sophia Callmer said...

Låter härligt att kunna strunta i härdighet. Här får jag vara strikt även om jag bor i zon 1 är det på gränsen till zon 2, försöker att skapa mikroklimat på olika platser i trädgården för känsliga själar.allt gott/Sophia

lotusleaf said...

I think that variegated foliage look good against solid green .I also read about the tree peonies in your interesting earlier post .

Northern Shade said...

My favourite variegated plants are the ones where the second colour follows the veins in the leaves, like on Heuchera and Brunnera. They make beautiful radiating patterns.