Are flowers really more important than foliage? Some might argue that given that most shrubs only bloom for a few weeks while the foliage is there for most of the year (all, if you include broadleaf evergreens) then maybe that leaf colour matters a bit more than we’re giving it credit for. So to convince you that foliage can stand up to even the most dazzling display of flowers, I’ve chosen to feature ten of my top-selling foliar shrubs to remind you about what you’ve been missing.
Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Amber Jubilee’ (Ninebark)
I might as well start with my strongest hand, as few shrubs capture the attention better than this deciduous plant. The constantly changing maple-like foliage of amber, orange, red and gold literally speaks for itself and in addition to this, you can also expect white late spring flowers followed by red seed capsules in autumn. This cultivar makes a stunning informal hedge and is also very cold hardy. Grows 5-6’ tall by 4’ wide. Part to full sun. USDA Zone 2.
Lonicera nitida ‘Thunderbolt’ (Box Honeysuckle)
A relative newcomer with cascading branches of chartreuse foliage that forms a dense cluster. It can be trained into a tall groundcover or informal hedge. This cultivar has larger leaves than ‘Baggesen’s Gold’ and is reliably evergreen in winter, although ‘Thunderbolt’ prefers a part sun exposure with only 3-4 hours of direct sun. Grows 3-5’ tall and wide. USDA Zone 6.
Nandina domestica ‘Bonfire’ (Dwarf Heavenly Bamboo)
This was probably my top-selling foliage shrub of 2019 and 2020, and you can just ignore the common name, Heavenly Bamboo, as this clumping evergreen shrub does not spread. It was discovered as a sport of ‘Gulf Stream’ which has fiery burgundy-red new growth in spring and fall and even thrives in large containers. Plant in part to full sun for the best foliar colour and forget the trimming, because it doesn’t need it! Grows 3’ tall and wide. USDA Zone 6.
Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ (Japanese Spikenard)
A great deciduous foliage shrub for shade to part shade, it can even be planted in full sun with consistent watering. I’ve been growing one in a pot on my north-facing patio for three years now and it hasn’t failed me yet. The bright gold compound foliage dominates the shade garden and as a bonus, the young shoots are edible with a pleasant lemony flavour. Grows 3’ tall and wide. USDA Zone 3.
Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ (Speckled Japanese Aralia)
Here’s a broadleaf evergreen that you can grow as either a handsome houseplant or a hardy outdoor shade shrub. The white speckling is quite prominent on the new growth of established plants and fades a bit as the leaves mature. Plant this exotic-looking evergreen as a solitary specimen, either in-ground or in a sheltered container. Grows 4-5’ tall by 3-4’ wide. USDA Zone 7.
Rhododendron ‘Wine & Roses’ (Hybrid Rhododendron)
This evergreen shrub combines beautiful flowers (glowing pink trusses) with foliage that rivals any ornamental. The reverse of the deep green leaves is an unheard-of electric purple which makes the deep brown indumentum of ‘Sir Charles Lemon’ seem rather boring in comparison. The new foliage is also bronzed and this cultivar is small enough to fit in most urban gardens. Grows 4-5’ high and wide. Avoid hot afternoon sun. USDA Zone 6.
Berberis thunbergii ‘Golden Nugget’ (Dwarf Golden Japanese Barberry)
With new growth that emerges yellowish-orange and matures to a pure gold, this cultivar of Japanese Barberry provides spring to fall contrast, until it drops its leaves. Add to that the fact that ‘Golden Nugget’ is resistant to foliage scorch and its compact size makes it suitable for small landscape spaces. Pair with Catmint (Nepeta) or Veronica ‘Royal Candles’ for an eye-catching summer display. Grows 18” tall by 24-30” wide. Part to full sun exposure. USDA Zone 4.