B. Rosie Lerner
Purdue Extension


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Foliage That Can Steal The Show

Want to add a little drama to your garden? Need to perk up a shady bed? Big, bold foliage can make a long-season statement!

Foliage often provides the bones of the garden, but it can also take center stage with dramatic size, color variegation, texture and shape. Many of the following plants have beautiful flowers, in addition to big, bold foliage.

Acanthus spinosus (spiny bears-breeches) features spiny foliage accented by purple or white blooms. Performs best in part shade and well-drained soil.

Rheum palmatum is an ornamental form of rhubarb that does best in part shade, moist, well-drained soil. There are some purplish-colored forms.

Bergenia cordifolia (heartleaf bergenia, a.k.a. pig squeak) has shiny, evergreen, elongated heart-shaped leaves that reach up to 12 inches long. Although it has pink flowers in spring, the foliage is the main attraction. Can adapt to full sun or part shade, but prefers moist, well-drained soil.

Many Hosta cultivars have big, bold foliage, including Blue Angel, Blue Mammoth, Blue Umbrellas, Elatior (glossy green), Frances Williams (blue green with yellow-green edge), Jade Cascade, Liberty (green with a wide yellow to white edge), Sum and Substance (golden green), Sum Of All (wide yellow-green margin), Sum Total (crinkly leaves) and Vim and Vigor (shiny).

Rodgersia boasts huge leaves contrasted by delicate flowers. There are several species each with unique foliage. R. pinnata (featherleaf Rodgersia) has pinnately compound leaves up to 18 inches wide made up of 5-7 leaflets, each up to 8 inches long. R. aesculifolia (fingerleaf Rodgersia) has palmately compound leaves, resembling a horsechestnut. R. tabularis (shieldleaf Rodgersia) has shield-like leaves up to 3 feet wide on 2-3 foot stalks. Best planted in rich, reliably moist soil with partial shade.

Some tender plants, which must be dug and stored for winter, can also provide an exotic, tropical ambiance.

Caladium come in a wide range of colorful selections, with leaves varying from 6 to 18 inches long on 1-2 foot-tall leaf stalks. Most cultivars have some green accented by white, red and/or pink. Does best in partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. Dig the tubers before frost and store them dry over winter.

Canna leaves reach up to 2 feet long and 6 inches wide, with some selections variegated with purple or yellow. Flowers of pink, yellow or scarlet add a tropical show in mid to late summer, but the foliage, especially those selections with purple or yellow variegation, are quite showy even when not in bloom. Dig rhizomes after a frost, and store in peat moss over winter.

Elephant Ears refer to a group of several species of tropical foliage plants, including Xanthosoma, Alocasia and Colcasia. All have large, arrowhead-shaped leaf, some variegated with purple, white or yellowish-green that lend an exotic look to the garden. Those with white veins are particularly striking. Dig bulbs before frost and store over winter.

Ornamental bananas are large, tree-like tropical plants that come in a variety of leaf, flower and fruit colors. The large leaves are easily damaged by high winds, so provide a sheltered location. These plants can take full sun outdoors and should be cut back before storing indoors for winter. Sinking the plant pot and all into the ground or keeping as a potted plant on the patio will help facilitate moving the plant. Many gardeners choose to discard them and buy new plants each summer. But some of the most striking selections are rather pricey.


Writer: B. Rosie Lerner
Editor: Olivia Maddox