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Fantastic Foliage

June 11, 2020

By Jon Peter, Curator & Plant Records Manager, Royal Botanical Gardens

As we approach the summer solstice, we come to the time of year when there seems to be a little bit of a “green lull” in the gardens. Our attention may turn from the glorious flower show we experience in spring, to the fantastic foliage of some of our favourite garden plants.

Rock Garden water feature river in June
Although you can pick out some flower colour in this image, the most prominent colour you find in Rock Garden at this time of year is the various greens of a diversity of foliage.

Obviously, we still have many flowers at RBG during this period, but some plants are more focused on root elongation, shoot extension and leaf growth at this time of year. This makes sense as the plants know that they can maximize the available resources of extended daylength, remnant spring moisture in the soil and favourable temperatures.

Acer pensylvanicum
Acer pensylvanicum – RBG accession 20190200*A – Many trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials are more focused on root and shoot growth as well as growing and hardening off their leaves. The Moosewood (or Striped Maple) leaves are nearly fully grown and at the same time the tree is flowering.

When you think about foliage in the garden, you may think of colours, patterns, and textures. You may think of big, bold, and beautiful leaves of some species or you may think of the airy, finely dissected leaves of others. The foliage of herbaceous perennials offers the full range to satisfy all our senses.

Aruncus aethusifolius
Aruncus aethusifolius – RBG accession 20180132*A – The highly dissected, lush foliage of this perennial provides some great texture and colour in the gardens of Hendrie Park.
Heuchera 'Paris'
Heuchera ‘Paris’ – RBG accession 20160171*A – There are many foliage patterns, textures and colours offered in the world of Coral Bells (Heuchera). This cultivar produces beautiful silver foliage with prominent green venations and is topped by gorgeous spikes of small pink flowers.
Stachys byzantina 'Silver Carpet'
Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ – RBG accession 20140699*A – Maybe you appreciate foliage which caters to a different sense. The warm and fuzzy foliage of this carpeting perennial is visually bold but ever so soft to the touch.
Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty'
(Left) Heuchera ‘Quilter’s Joy’ – RBG accession 20170097*A and (Right) Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’ – RBG accession 20160107*A – Here we see another Coral Bell doing what it does best, paired with a Hybrid Mayapple, both of which have been bred and selected for their foliage characteristics. What a great combination!
Asarum canadense Clematis 'Pink Flamingo'
(Top) Clematis alpina ‘Pink Flamingo’ – RBG accession 20150300*G and (Bottom) Asarum canadense – RBG accession 20170080*C – Another great plant combination is shown here in Rock Garden, with the Clematis’ stems, foliage and flowers trailing over rocks, and the velvety heart shaped foliage of our native Wild-ginger spreading through the crevices.
Syneilesis aconitifolia
Syneilesis aconitifolia – RBG accession 20150547*B – The foliage of the Shredded Umbrella Plant provides a full spectrum of characteristics; it just depends on the season as to which you will get.
Polystichum acrostichoides
Polystichum acrostichoides – RBG accession 20190271*A and Hosta ‘First Frost’ – RBG accession 20150464*A – Of course we cannot talk about foliage without the mention of a fern. Here the Christmas Fern unfurls its fronds above the American Hosta Society’s ‘2010 Hosta of the Year’. Ferns are vascular plants that reproduce via spores and have neither flowers nor fruits and seeds, so all we really get to enjoy is their lush foliage and possibly the spore patterns (if you are a real plant nerd).

Woody plants offer their own multitude of foliage types, from large palmately-compound leaves of Aesculus species to the multiforme leaves of Sassafras, the coarse needles of conifers to the spiny leaves of Zanthoxylum. The foliage of many trees and shrubs will evolve through the seasons, some covered in soft hairs as they emerge, some with intricate variegations, some changing a variety of colours through the seasons, and some leaves even holding on through winter.

Viburnum cassinoides (2)
Viburnum cassinoides – RBG accession 20150369*C – The attractive foliage of this native Viburnum emerges in spring with bronze tones, matures to a dark green in summer and finally turn shades of orange-red to red-purple in fall. All that as a backdrop to gorgeous clusters of creamy white flowers and fruit which ranges from pink to purple to black.
Pinus parviflora 'Fukuzumi'
Pinus parviflora ‘Fukuzumi’ – RBG accession 20140070*A – Needles of conifers provide great foliage interest throughout the year. This cultivar of Japanese White Pine produces multi-coloured needles due to the prominent white stomatal bands.
Acer shirasawanum 'Autumn Moon'
Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’ – RBG accession 20140544*A – The foliage qualities of Japanese Maples and Fullmoon Maples is outstanding at most times of year. This ‘Autumn Moon’ cultivar was looking exceptionally colourful and textural in the late spring Rock Garden.

The true superstars of foliage are plants from the genus Hosta. This is a very popular group of plants (just ask a ‘hostaphile’) which are generally grown for their foliage. This member of the Asparagus family (Asparagaceae), is commonly known as Plantain-lily but is usually referred to by the genus name, Hosta. The genus was named by Austrian botanist and mycologist Leopold Trattinnick in 1812, in honor of Nicholas Thomas Host, the Croatian botanist and first director of the botanical garden of Belvedere in Vienna, Austria.

Hosta 'Beach Boy' (2)
Hosta ‘Beach Boy’ – RBG accession 20190404*A – This newly acquired Hosta growing in our Rock Garden was a sport found on Hosta ‘Dream Weaver’ in 2011.
Hosta 'Lakeside Paisley Print' (2)
Hosta ‘Lakeside Paisley Print’ – RBG accession 20180145*A – Hosta come in many textures like crinkled, ruffled, wrinkled, smooth, ridged, twisted, puckered, cupped, folded, wavy, flat, corrugated, and can even be described as having a pie-crust texture.

Hosta are rhizomatous or stoloniferous herbaceous perennials with upwards of 45 unique species native to eastern Asia. Since the mid-19th century, the species and cultivars have been hybridized and mutations selected to produce more than 12,000 named and registered cultivated varieties (cultivars) and likely many thousands more which are not registered.

Hosta 'Jurassic Park'
Hosta ‘Jurassic Park’ – RBG accession 20190361*A – Hostas will become mature in 5 – 8 years which is when their true sizes are revealed. Cultivars can be classified and registered in five size categories: giant, large, medium, small, and miniature. This ‘Jurassic Park’ in our Rock Garden was just planted last year and therefore it will take some more time before its mature gigantic size is revealed.
Hosta 'Ivory Queen'
Hosta ‘Ivory Queen’ – RBG accession 20190405*A – Hosta leaves come is a variety of leaf shapes as well. They can be described as lance shaped, elliptic, ovate, and round. All these shapes contribute to the boldness or delicateness of their texture in our gardens.

At RBG, we grow more than 3050 individual plants, with 203 accessions representing 142 taxa (unique types) in the genus Hosta, occurring across all gardens. You will find concentrations of Hosta in the Hosta Walk at Laking Garden and throughout the Rock Garden, but you can find wonderful and fancy foliage throughout all garden spaces.

Hosta 'Brother Stefan' (2)
Hosta ‘Brother Stefan’ – RBG accession 20170192*A – The colours and variegations of these plants can be brilliant and often change throughout the seasons, making it difficult to decipher their identifications. Therefore, it is so important to keep your plants well labeled, as we do at RBG.
Hosta 'Designer Genes'
Hosta ‘Designer Genes’ – RBG accession 20150461*B – Usually the leaf blades and petioles of Hosta are the same colour. Over the last two decades there has been a breakthrough in Hosta hybridization. Some cultivars are now featuring purple and red petioles like this ‘Designer Genes’ cultivar. This will lead to further hybridization efforts which could see the reds and purples extending up into the leaf blades. Can you imagine?

These gorgeous ornamental plants are happy in deep shade to full sun (yes! many hostas will grow well in full sun). Hosta not only provide fantastic foliage but have amazing spikes of white, lavender, and purple flowers too. They grow well paired with other foliage and flowering plants and play well with spring bulbs planted amongst the masses.

Hosta 'Orange Marmalade'
Hosta ‘Orange Marmalade’ – RBG accession 20150622*A – Although some plantain-lily cultivars will thrive in full sun locations, this accession was not doing so well in its original sun exposed location. We transplanted these plants in spring 2019 and they are now flourishing as they brighten up a dark corner of the garden.

Now that all garden areas at RBG are open to visitors, enjoy exploring all the fantastic foliage textures, patterns and colours and try to find your favourite. We are often asked by garden visitors “where are the flowers?” but please remember that it is not just flowers which provide beautiful plant and garden memories. The photosynthetic powerhouses called leaves can also provide those epics moments, those perfect contrasts, and those beautiful images in the garden.

Hosta 'El Nino' (2)
Hosta ‘El Niño’ – RBG accession 20170131*A – One of my personal favourites is ‘El Niño’, which pairs well with many other plants, just outside the Rock Garden Visitor Center. This cultivar is defined by foliage with crisp white margins and blue-green interiors.
Hosta 'Elegans'
Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ – RBG accession 20150470*A with Cornus alternifolia ‘Wstackman’ sold as: GOLDEN SHADOWS® – RBG accession 20140473*D – Hosta, the ‘king’ of foliage plants can make for some glorious plant combinations. I love how the variegation patterns of these two echoes and enhances each other.

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