Colourful leaves are not only a feature of deciduous trees in autumn. There are plants that sport dramatically coloured and patterned leaves all year round. Canny garden designers use these coloured foliage plants for year round colour especially in shady areas where flowering plants don’t grow so well or to provide colour when flowering plants have finished.

To create impact, mass plant a single colour or combine multi-coloured or variegated foliage with green-leaved plants. Vary heights by planting tall growers such as dracaenas, gingers, tree ferns, tree begonias or the gold and green gold dust plant (Aucuba japonica), with low clumping plants such clivias or bromeliads. Also vary leaf shape and texture to add interest to foliage only plantings.


Foliage first

Indeed for some gardeners, leaves may be preferred over flowers. When I was growing up, my mother was very proud of her collection of coleus, small shrubby plants with leaves that mingled red, yellow and green in endless patterns. From time to time these plant would try to bloom but were discouraged by mum who would ruthlessly snip out the small buds. If some buds were missed we children were allowed to pick the heads of white flowers.

Coleus fell out of fashion for many years but they are back bolder than ever with many compact and colourful forms to brighten up dull corners. And, if you only want colourful leaves, pinch out the small buds as they appear just as my mum did.


Bold and beautiful

Many of the most dramatic colourful foliage plants for shade come from tropical or subtropical regions where they grow naturally in rainforests and other moist, shaded areas. Some have been selected for use as indoor plants but in warm, frost-free gardens do well outdoors too.

One of the easiest foliage plants to get started with is the variegated spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum ‘Variegata’), which forms clumps of green and white striped leaves. As it grows it sends out plantlets on long stalks much like spiders dangling from a thread. Spider plants look particularly good in hanging baskets or tall pots.

Other indoor foliage plants that work well in sheltered gardens include prayer plants, rex begonias, and calathea. In warm outdoor areas large and colourful crotons bring a real splash of colour.

Cooler options include hostas, which thrive in shaded spots but die down over winter, and hellebores, which are grown for both their leaves and flowers that bloom in winter and spring.

Both are easy to grow in moist, sheltered positions but struggle where it’s hot or dry. Where conditions aren’t ideal, grow these plants in a pot in a shaded spot. Hostas are highly popular with slugs and snails so check plants regularly for pests and use an iron-based snail bait to keep snails and slugs at bay.


Black leaves

One of the most striking of all is elephants ear (Calocasia esculenta), particularly forms with large black leaves such as ‘Black Magic’, which has glossy purple black leaves. The leaves can be up to 1m long on plants that stand 1-1.8m high. They look striking mass planted or combined with shades of green. Elephants ear can be grown in the ground or in large containers but need moist soil and a warm, shaded position with shelter from winds. The plants grow from tubers and, if growing in an ideal position, will form a large clump 1-1.8m wide.



To keep all foliage plants looking good remove old or damaged leaves and apply a mulch of well-rotted cow manure around clumps. Keep well watered. Pests include caterpillars and grasshoppers, which chew leaves and two-spotted mite which is a minute insect that feeds under the foliage especially where conditions are too dry or too dark.