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Hardy Deciduous Shrubs for Colorful Foliage: Part 3 - Variegated Foliage

By Todd Boland (Todd_BolandAugust 17, 2008
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In part 3 of this 3-part series, I will discuss those hardy deciduous shrubs whose main attractive feature are their variegated leaves. This will include those shrubs with white, cream or yellow edged leaves as well as those with marbled foliage. Unlike yellow and purple foliage shrubs, these shrubs often work well in shady sites, helping to brighten up dark corners of the garden.

Gardening picture

In parts 1 and 2 of this three part series about hardy deciduous shrubs for northern gardeners, I discussed the most popular yellow-foliaged and purple-foliaged shrubs in the landscape industry. In the last installment, I will describe those shrubs with variegated foliage. In regards to natural mutations, Mother Nature has seen fit to create misfit plants with variegated foliage more so than those with yellow or purple foliage. Of course, natures misfits are often a gardeners dream! Plant breeders are quick to jump on any plants exhibiting variegated foliage hence there are probably more shrubs in this category than the other two previously discussed. Having said this, many variegated selections have been with us for some time compared to many of today's yellow and purple-foliaged plants. None the less, plant breeders are still making new variegated selections, primarily based on plants much more dwarf than those previously on the market for that given plant. A final note before I get into specific plants; variegated shrubs are often more shade tolerant than yellow or purple-foliaged types, making them very useful for brightening up shady areas of the garden.

Again, I will start alpImagehabetically with barberry, Berberis thunbergii. By far the most popular and common barberry cultivars have purple leaves, with yellow coming a close second. In regards to variegated foliage, the barberry don't have such obvious variegated selections as say, red-twig dogwood or weigela. The variegated versions of barberry have irregular white to cream markings scattered all over the leaves. ‘Variegata' was the original cultivar. ‘Kelleris' has pink and white leaves that become green and white as they mature. Quite similar is the cultivar ‘Stardust'. The other popular variegated forms barberry have pink and white leaves that mature red with light pink markings. These include ‘Rose Glow', ‘Harlequin', ‘Pink Queen' and ‘Rosy Rocket'. From a distance, these latter cultivars appear more pinkish-red than variegated. They are all rated for zone 4.

Next we have the variegated versions of the red-twig or red-osier dogwood, Cornus alba and C. stolonifera. Among the oldest cultivars is ‘Elegantissima', the common silverleaf dogwood with grey-green leaves and irregular white margins. As is typical of these dogwoods, the winter stems are red, providing an extra bonus when growing these shrubs. Similar in appreance to ‘Elegantissima' is ‘Siberica Variegata'. ‘Spaethii' has bright green, yellow-edged leaves while ‘Gouchaultii' is similar but has some pink highlights among the yellow edges. ‘Silver and Gold' is a white-edged, variegated sport of the yellow-twigged ‘Flaviramea'. ‘White Gold' is quite similar but less vigorous. If size is a consideration, then you can try ‘Bailhalo' (aka ‘Ivory Halo'), a 1.5-2 m version of ‘Elegantissima'. Even more dwarf is the new ‘Cream Crackers' which only reaches 80 cm. ‘Hedgerow's Gold' is a compact (1.5-2 m) selection with yellow-variegated leaves and red twigs. Most of these are rated for zone 3. In zone 4 and milder, there is a variegated version of the pagoda dogwood, C. alternifolia, called ‘Argentea'. The variegation is quite striking on this large (to 5 m) shrub. Even more spectacular is the yellow-variegated version called 'WStackman' (aka Golden Shadows). Unfortunately, these cultivars are difficult to propagate thus plants tend to be pricy.

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 Pictured above are selections of Cornus alba including 'Silver and Gold', 'Spaethii', 'Ivory Halo' and 'Elegantissima'; the last picture shows the spring growth on C. alternifolia 'WStackman'

Hardy in zone 5 and even zone 4 if there is sufficient snow cover or mulching, is Cotoneaster horizontalis ‘Variegatus', a white-edged version of the rockspray cotoneaster. Suitable as a groundcover or for foundation plantings, this shrub will reach only 1 m but spread 2 m or more. The often abundant production of small red berries in fall through early winter is an added bonus provided by this charming plant.

There is a dwarf variegated willow that sits on the fence in regards to hardiness. The dappled willow, Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki' and 'Flamingo', are listed for zone 5a and have been known to survive in zone 4 even though they may suffer from die-back in colder regions. Not to worry as these willows will regenerate from the base. This shrub will reach 1.5-2 m and has white and pink marbled foliage.  They are often top-grafted to form a weeping standard.

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Details of Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki'

Black elderberry, Sambucus nigra, was featured in parts 1 and 2 of this series as they have many yellow and purple-leaved selections. There are also some variegated cultivars of this large shrub. An old cultivar is ‘Pulverulenta' whose leaves are spotted, streaked and blotched white on green. ‘Marginata' (aka ‘Albo-variegata') has white-edged leaves while ‘Madonna' has yellow-edged foliage. These are rated for zone 4.

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 Black elderberry selections portrayed above include 'Pulverulenta', 'Marginata', 'Aureomarginata' and 'Madonna'

Common lilacs, Syringa vulgaris, are not generally known for their decorative foliage, but one selection is certainly worthy of mention. The cultivar ‘Aucubaefolia' aka ‘Dappled Dawn' has leaves that are attractively marbled in yellow. The new foliage is almost golden. The flowers are light lavender-blue and provide a strong contrast to the yellowish foliage. Full sun will develop the best colour. This selection is hardy to zone 3.

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Details of 'Dappled Dawn' lilac

The last major shrub which is commonly grown for its variegated foliage is Weigela florida. Weigela, like red-osier dogwood and black elderberry, is one of these versatile shrubs available in yellow, purple and variegated forms. The original variegated weigela was ‘Variegata', an heirloom cultivar with striking yellow to cream margins and contrasting light pink blossoms. This one will reach about 2 m. Unfortunately, although rated for zone 4, it is not as hardy as other weigela selections. For zone 4, a better variegated selection is ‘Sunny Princess', a yellow-edged version of the hardier ‘Pink Princess' or another alternative would be ‘Gold Rush'. For a super contrast, you can grow ‘Brigela' (aka French Lace) which has wide, chartreuse margins and dark red flowers on a 1.5 m plant. Even brighter is ‘Eyecatcher' with bright yellow margins and dark red flowers on a 1 m shrub. The latest breakthrough is the cultivar ‘My Monet', a super dwarf, (under 50 cm) selection whose leaves are cream, pink and green. Contrasting with this foliage are medium-pink flowers.

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 Featured above are selections of Weigela florida including 'French Lace', 'Gold Rush', 'My Monet' and 'Variegata'

This ends the three part series on hardy deciduous shrubs grown primarily for their foliage. Hopefully you will now have a better idea of what foliage shrub selections are available in the trade for us northern gardeners. Happy gardening!

I would like to thank the following people for the use of thier photos: chicochi3 (Cornus alba 'Ivory Halo'), daryl (Berberis 'Rose Glow'), Equilibrium (Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki closeup, Weigela 'Gold Rush', Sambucus nigra 'Pulverulenta' and Cotoneaster horizontalis 'Variegata'), growin (Cornus 'Spaethii', Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki' standard and Sambucus nigra 'Aureomarginata'), hczone6 (Cornus 'Silver and Gold'), KevinMC79 (Sambucus nigra 'Madonna'),  jnana (Salix integra 'Hakuro-nishiki'), kniphofia (Weigela 'My Monet', Weigela 'French Lace'), lunavox (Sambucus nigra 'Marginata') and victorgardner (Cornus alternifolia 'WStackman') 


  About Todd Boland  
Todd BolandI reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Hakuro Nishiki and Weigela greenmountaingrandma 5 35 May 18, 2011 7:01 AM
Variegated Cotoneaster lortay 0 16 Aug 20, 2008 1:22 PM
Nice article Plantedz 0 4 Aug 19, 2008 10:44 PM
Nice phicks 0 5 Aug 18, 2008 12:48 AM
Thank you for the shrub series McGlory 4 19 Aug 18, 2008 12:21 AM
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