Shrubs with colorful foliage all season

by Bertrand Dumont

As a gardener, the frame on which you set up your creation is most often green. With the exception of earth, dark brown, flowers and buildings, your backdrop is made of a variation of green tones. Although the shades vary with the seasons, yellow-green in the spring, green-blue in the summer and green-red in the fall, you could end up finding the situation monotonous.

There are of course those flowers that allow you by their shapes, colors and flowering duration, to change your composition from week to week (thanks to good planning and ephemeral flowers [annuals]). However, at certain times you may find that color is less present or that weather conditions make the flowerings less extensive than you had planned. To avoid these situations, you can use leafy or evergreen shrubs with colorful foliage … throughout the season. Different from plants whose foliage changes color in the fall, they offer a constant and guaranteed show.

Three colors, shades and blends

Shrubs with colorful foliage can be grouped into three colors: red, yellow and blue (often described as gray). These are actually primary colors. The mixture of yellow and blue gives greens. The mixture of red and blue makes it possible to obtain purples. From these three colors were born many tones.

Leafy shrubs are rarely really red, rather they have a range of purple foliage.

Yellow leafy shrubs are mostly a yellowish-green and in some cases, really yellow.

Blues, which range from sky blue to dark gray, tend to be present in coniferous shrubs.

There are also plants said to have ‘variegated foliage’. These are plants whose leaves are of two colors, sometimes three, most often yellow and green. In some cases, the yellow borders a green leaf, sometimes the yellow is in the middle of a green leaf. If you observe closely the leaves of the same plant, you will realize that the ‘variegations’ are most often irregular. This is completely normal.

Sparse use

Unless you have a particular project, you must use shrubs and conifers with colored foliage with restraint. Because of their singular characteristics, once installed in your garden, these plants (especially yellow and red ones) will become real stars since they will stand out against the green background. You certainly don’t want to have a garden where there are only divas. You won’t know where to turn your head (everyone knows divas turn heads!). Each corner of the garden may have its star, but they must not compete. Otherwise, they risk competing (visually I mean!).

They are stars! Prepare a box for them to play their full role as a star! No more no less.

A few shrubs with red foliage

You will find some in barberries. There are five varieties whose height varies from 40 cm to 1.20 m. The colors fluctuate around burgundy red. Be careful, these plants have thorns.

Big shrubs, Japanese maples mostly offer dark purple tones. On the other hand, some have scarlet red foliage at the beginning of the season. Many bear thin, very serrated leaves. Generally, 2 to 3 meters high, there are also weeping forms (they are then superstars).

The European smoke tree is aptly named because not only is its foliage colorful, but its flowering as well.

There are three red-leaved ninebarks. One has red foliage with coppery red shoots in the summer, while the other two are dark burgundy. They are between 1.25 and 2.5 m high.

It is mainly small weigelas that have purple to burgundy foliage. They are 0.80 to 1.20 m high. Their flowering, pink or red, are additional assets.

These plants love full sun and their color is usually less pronounced if you place them in the shade.

A few shrubs with yellow foliage

A barberry has yellow foliage, but two others have leaves that strongly tend to be orange. One is a dwarf, and the others are low.

One of the many dogwoods has golden to chartreuse foliage. It is 1.5 meters high.

The yellow-leaved European smoke-tree has leaves that range from lime green to golden yellow. It is up to 4 meters high.

The mock orange is certainly the most famous yellow-leaved shrub. A classic with initially bright yellow foliage, then greenish-yellow during the summer. 1.25 m high, it supports the size very well.

Two ninebarks (between 90 and 1.25 m high) have bright yellow foliage. A third (± 2 m) has coppery shoots in addition to light yellow foliage.

A red elder has very serrated leaves which give it a very original appearance.

In dwarf spireas, several cultivars (more than 12) have yellow foliage. Some also have orange, orange-red or purple-red shoots. These plants are 20 to 90 cm tall. These spireas bear pink or red flowers in the summer. The best known, but above all the most cultivated and the most sold in the world, is the ‘Gold Mound’ spirea which was hybridized by a Quebecer from Laval.

It is sometimes risky to place shrubs with colored foliage in the very bright sun. As the leaves are “fragile”, the risk of burns is greater. A light shade, that is, no sun during the hottest hours of the day, is preferable. 

A few shrubs with variegated foliage

There is of course the famous and classic elegant dogwood with green leaves variegated with white. There is also the variety whose leaves are variegated with yellow and pink, and that with green and ivory white foliage.

There is a wide variety of variegated Fortune Euonymus. The evergreen leaves are variegated with different ways of green and yellow, or green and white. The advantage of these plants is that they grow well, and retain their color, if you plant them in partial shade or in the shade.

Willows with variegated foliage offer quite a show. They are superstars. Their pink shoots give rise to green leaves spotted with white in one case and pinkish-white in another.

The variegated weigelas, often of small size, have yellow or white colored leaves. The summer flowering is red or pink.

You can use most plants with variegated foliage in light shade. However, it may happen that the color is less intense.

A few shrubs with blue or gray foliage

The Russian-olive is one of the only deciduous shrubs to bear silver foliage. All other plants with blue or gray leaves are conifers.

This is the case of the Colorado spruce and its blue selections: the famous blue spruces. There is a wide choice, some reach just 40 cm high while others rise up to 5 or 6 m. Some are conical and others are ball-shaped.

Some pines, sold under the name ‘Glauca’, have bluish foliage (more or less). On the other hand, a large number of junipers have very bluish needles. Many are conical (2.5 to 6 m), while others are creeping. They are then 15 to 30 cm high, but can cover surfaces 2 m wide.

Plant blue or gray foliage plants in very sunny situations, as they usually do not like shade.

In order to choose the colorful foliage shrubs that are best suited to your landscaping, ask for advice from Passion Jardins coaches in your area.