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Gardening | IN THE GARDEN

Igniting Fall With Red-Hot Foliage

October 25, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

For the moment, forget about flowers and think about foliage.

As flowers go to seed, the value of colored or distinctive foliage becomes very apparent, enduring and adding interest to the garden in fall and winter.

I'm not talking about fall foliage that you might see in New England or Colorado but about plants that have colorful foliage all the time.

This being the fall planting season--the best of all times to put in just about anything--it's worth looking at the garden with a critical eye to see if there is perhaps too much green now that the flowers are largely gone. Perhaps it's time to plant some interesting foliage. The green of many annuals and perennials (and even shrubs) is very similar--what might be called a medium green--so much so that when these plants are not in flower, they look quite alike.

You can't tell stock from a snapdragon, or an alstroemeria from a penstemon. Even the shapes of the leaves are often similar.

Gardeners have discovered this and have been searching for things with colorful leaves. Growers, in turn, have been on a quest for foliage so they can amaze us with new plants.

In the last decade, they've introduced such useful plants as the chartreuse-leafed helichrysum named 'Limelight,' the almost white-leafed Texas sage (Leucophyllum) and, most recently, the red- or burgundy-leafed coral bells and loropetalums.

Plants like these add subtle color to beds, even when there are no flowers; others have leaves so bright and bold that non-gardeners notice them. Artist Robert Irwin has been having all sorts of fun poking through nurseries to find colorful and often bizarre foliage for his garden at the Getty Center.

In the more typical garden, these same plants can be used as accents or exclamation marks in the punctuating of a garden bed. They're also standouts in containers.

I was looking at my own border the other morning and, though it still looks surprisingly good for this time of year, it had lost much of its snap and sparkle because so many flowers have faded.

A few blooms lingered on the alstroemerias, yarrows and verbena. A huge mounding rose named 'Lavender Dream' was covered with a fall crop of pink flowers, but even this marvelous splash of color was not enough to relieve the tedium of green.

Providing some pause were dashes of gray foliage--from lamb's ears and gray-leafed lychnis--and one bold stoke of foliage color from an Andean salvia, Salvia discolor.

This salvia from Peru has stems that are bright white (and extremely sticky for some reason). The leaves are also white on the bottom, gray-green on top, but despite these pools of gray, this irrigated border in the backyard needed more foliage color.

Good, I thought, now I can look for something new to plant.

I should point out that other beds in the garden do not have this problem. Because they are planted with California natives and other Mediterranean-climate plants, there is lots of natural variation in foliage color. Many of these sun-hardened plants have leaves colored gray or gray-green or olive to fend off the sun's rays like a level-30 sun block.

I decided that red foliage was what this border in back needed. Leaves that are called red are usually not really red but are burgundy or maroon or purplish, as "blue" flowers are seldom truly blue. Red foliage is a relatively new phenomenon in gardening.

Red-leafed loropetalums have been getting lots of play recently, so I picked up one named 'Sizzling Pink.' The "pink" refers to the hot pink, witch hazel-like flowers, which have narrow, twisted petals. Its leaves are the deepest purplish-maroon color of any I've seen.

One article in a horticultural magazine called these new loropetalums "the Leonardo DiCaprio of the gardening world."

Your basic loropetalum is a slow, small, white-flowered tree with green leaves (there's a spectacular one planted at the public Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar), but its red-leafed kin are being sold as shrubs that supposedly grow to about four or five feet around.

This makes them small enough to plant behind or beside roses or even in the back of a flower border. Small shrubs, with their relative permanence, can really bolster the comings and goings of a flower garden.

I planted it in front of a big 'Lisbon' lemon, between that 'Lavender Dream' rose and the Andean salvia. It may outgrow this spot, but even if it grows too large, loropetalums are said to be easy to prune into shape, even into a hedge.

It is also said that they can take sun or some shade and prefer rich, irrigated soils. They haven't really been around long enough to know how they will perform, but the colored foliage immediately added drama and depth to this garden bed. I'll give just about anything a try.

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