Thursday, May 3, 2012

In praise of foliage

A path through the Northwest Perennial Alliance border
This post is for Heather, who joined me for a walk through the Bellevue Botanical Garden. It was a grey but beautiful Northwest day - the kind of day that mixes grey clouds with bursts of sunshine; raindrops that spangle your windshield, but are gone after the first pass of the wipers.

This magnificent park was once the property of a couple who enjoyed growing rhododendrons and other plants. In 1984 their property was deeded to the City of Bellevue to be a public park. A group of gardening enthusiasts promoted the creation of a botanical garden. I learned of the garden in the early '90s when the Northwest Perennial Alliance - my hometown garden society - designed and maintained the vast perennial border that crowns an east-facing slope at the edge of the huge lawn.

Click any photo to "embiggen"
Even in winter, or when spring just arrives, you can still get simple pleasures in the garden from a well-chosen mix of foliage. Here the finely-cut leaves of a Japanese maple are ruddy with spring growth - these will flame scarlet come autumn. Note how the bold, upright leaves of the water-loving Japanese iris catch the dappled sun like stained glass?

Beneath the cloudy sky, even at the end of April, Washington State is still easing into spring - the trees are not yet fully leafed out. Beyond the broad lawn lies the NPA perennial border. See how even at this distance, the variety of shapes and colors of shrubs and trees draw the eye?

Some plants possess a quiet beauty - Alchemilla mollis caught Heather's eye, and well it should. A low-growing perennial ground cover, its scalloped and cupped leaves catch beads of water that shimmer like crystal. The flowers aren't showy - just a delicate froth of pale green.held above the pretty leaves. Good for shade and dappled sun, its common name is Lady's Mantle.

Heather was looking for ideas for a planting bed in her front yard, and Berberis thunbergia is a good suggestion. A shrub with small evergreen leaves, there are enough selections of this barberry to satisfy any situation. There are larger varieties and small, sprawlers and tight columns. The foliage color of modern selections range from golden yellow to a deep thunderous violet. Here a magnificent planting shows off the glowering purple of a dwarf berberis lit by its own tiny yellow blossoms, echoed by showy bi-color tulips. Beside it, the grey fuzzy leaves of Phlomis fruitcosa, the Jerusalem sage, soften the smoldering embers, along with the buff, feathery fuzz of grass Stipa tenuissima. Here, too, the Lady's Mantle works well as a ground cover, on the right. Best of all - these plants are drought tolerant, so you can use them in your dry garden.

Even without flowers, there is garden interest from foliage that provides a variety of shapes and textures. This planting for moister, shady beds combines the rounded glossy evergreen leaves of Asarum caudata, the wild American ginger, and Adiantum venustom, the delicate Himalayan Maidenhair fern.

This is another drought-tolerant planting with a subdued color scheme. Euphorbias are bold and showy foliage plants but here a variegated variety, Euphorbia "Glacier Blue" is a much cooler customer, its blue-green leaves brushed with cream and its bracts a chalky yellow that blends with the pastel peach-and-white narcissus. Completing the picture are the silvery-veined leaves of Heuchera "Raspberry Ice."   

Heather was also enchanted with another feature at the garden, a long L-shaped wooden arbor. It was planted with an impressive specimen of Akebia quinata, also called the chocolate vine. Its subtle, dusty plum-colored flowers are said to smell like chocolate - or vanilla.

Everywhere we looked, we found species of the charming groundcover Epimedium, and the Bellevue garden has quite a collection. A shade-lover, epimedium can tolerate dry shade, which makes it a particularly valuable garden plant. The leathery foliage grows thickly together for a good ground cover, while the delicate blossoms dance above the heart-shaped leaves.The leaves are semi-evergreen and both in spring with new growth and in the autumn, some of them color up bronze, purple, or red.  Flowers may be purple, red, pink, peach, white or yellow, depending on the species.  Epimediums spread quickly, too, so your investment in them grows more beautiful each season.

If there's a botanical garden in your area, or even a well-designed public park, it really pays to visit there regularly throughout the year. You can see what things look like at various times of the year - and sometimes you'll be struck by subtle beauties that occur by happenstance.

Fritillaria meleagris
Color is fleeting as plants burgeon with spring growth. Perhaps the ruddy new growth of peonies knuckling up out of the soil echo the plummy hue of the little bulb Fritillaria meleagris and sing in garden harmony, even if only for a moment.

Perhaps it's the acid lime of the pheasant's eye narcissus a perfect match for the red-spangled greenery-yallery bracts of Euphorbia wulfenii. Or the dusky purple calyxes of an apricot Geum alongside a rust-bronze sedge.

 If you visit gardens, take notes, so you'll be able to recreate the effect in your own.

Plant your garden with interesting foliage, and you'll enjoy it even when the flowers are scarce.


Gary's third pottery blog said...

what is that one, RASPBERRY ice, the vine with flowers? WOW

Glennis said...

The vine is Akebia quinata - probably too tender for Ithaca, sorry.

"Raspberry Ice" is the name of a variety of coral bells, or heuchera.

Mrs. G. said...

Thank you, Aunt Snow, for documenting all this. It was such a lovely walk. I am going with a friend to the nursery tomorrow with post-it in hand!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Aunt Snow, you have an incredible way with words. I'm still stuck on this sentence: "Note how the bold, upright leaves of the water-loving Japanese iris catch the dappled sun like stained glass?"


My mother told me about that botanical garden but she never once took me there. :*(

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

thanks for this post! I will "sing in garden harmony" having seen it. SO lovely!

cactus petunia said...

Gorgeous! Spring and summer in the Northwest is why I live here. I'm going to look for that Akebia vine!