EVERY GARDENER has their obsessions—or maybe a nicer way to say that might be to call it their “signature plants,” the ones that help define their garden. I confess to a serious issue with gold-leaved things. And last time I checked my friend Ken Druse had more than a few plants with variegated leaves of all kinds of daring patterns and hues that catch your eye in his New Jersey garden.
Today’s topic is how those colorful leaves actually do very important jobs in our landscapes beyond just looking pretty.
Regular listeners all know Ken Druse as an old friend of mine, and the author of 20 garden books, including “The Scentual Garden” and “The New Shade Garden,” and an earlier book called “The Collector’s Garden” that figures into our subject today. Ken is also my co-creator of the Virtual Garden Club online series of classes that’s marking its two-year anniversary this fall.
join us in the virtual garden club starting 9/14/2023
KEN DRUSE and I are hosting another semester of our popular Virtual Garden Club starting September 26, with four live sessions every other week through October 26, 2023. Learn more about the club, and what we’ll be covering this upcoming semester, from ecological fall cleanup, to unusual bulbs (including natives, and ones for forcing indoors), to getting ready for winter sowing of perennials and much, much more.
Read along as you listen to the Sept. 4, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Above, Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ in fall, turned from bright chartreuse gold to butterscotch; below, Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ variegated twig dogwood.
using gold and variegated plants, with ken druse
Margaret Roach: Hi Ken, are you ready to talk about a few of our obsessions?
Ken Druse: A few. Well, I knew we were going to talk about them. So I went around the garden just making a simple list…of 30 plants.
Ken: Thirty gold and variegated plants.
Ken: O.K., I thought I wasn’t going to shop anymore. It’s over. But if I see anything weird, different, funny shapes, zigzag leaves, gold, or a variegation I’ve never seen before, or a puppy or a kitten…
Margaret: Well, and you don’t plant the puppies, you adopt them and love them.
Ken: That is correct. Well, yes. I love them all.
Margaret: Yeah. We recently did a webinar together, I don’t know, a month or so ago, I think it was called “Meet Your Next Favorite Plant…and How to Use It.” And one of the topics—we kind of went through a bunch of different sort of thematically grouped kinds of plants—and one of the topics was, I think we called it “Light the Way with Gold Foliage.” And we covered the gold-leaved plants and the jobs they serve for us.
And since then, you and I have kind of been talking about this subject back and forth when we chat all the time and, “Oh, what about this one, what about that one?” But in your book, “The Collector’s Garden,” [affiliate link] you really went around the country and you met lots of people who have… well, again, I keep using the word obsession, which sounds negative [laughter], and I don’t mean it to be negative, right?
Ken: Yeah. Well, I’m trying to think of a different word [laughter].
Margaret: So that was that empty spot, was that we couldn’t think of another word. No passion, true, right? But collecting, in a way, it’s partly that, right?
Ken: Well, it’s dangerous. And I remember 30 years ago, when people were telling you how to design your garden, they always said collector’s gardens are impossible, they fail. And what they mean is a hodgepodge of lots of disparate things with no sense of order or just blatant accumulation of odd things. But the collectors that I found doing that book, somebody had 20 kinds of lavender or something like that, so they specialized. Maybe “specialists” would’ve been a little better. But I guess I specialize in any plant that I see [laughter].
Margaret: Oh, that’s an interesting filter [laughter]. So the thing that’s in common about, and we both have… I have even more gold plants I think, than you do, but we both love gold-leaved things, and we’ll talk about those. You probably have even more variegated things than I do, and I have a few key ones.
But what do these two kinds of bright-colored leaves, whether it’s on a shrub or a tree or a perennial groundcover, whatever it is, have in common—and that’s, like I said, what we talked about, and we called it “Light the Way” when we did it in our webinar, is they catch the eye, right? They are “attention, attention” exclamation points. Not columnar like your physical exclamation points in your beautiful garden, but these are another form of exclamation, I think, aren’t they?
Ken: Yeah. And I was thinking about how sometimes I’ll plant something to misdirect the view, to grab attention away from something like traffic or the neighbor eyesore, something like that. And I have a lot of things that terminate a view at the end of a path. So it actually carries you down the path, so that attracts your attention. And there’s lots of things that I treat as if they were just plants [laughter].
Margaret: Absolutely. Yeah.
Ken: When we started the garden here, we made a nursery bed, and we made little nurseries around the garden so we could plant things that we hadn’t planned a space for, and just have them grow a bit. And one of those, we called the cloud bed. Actually, we had two. One had variegated plants and gold plants, so the variegation was yellow or gold on green, and the other one was white on green, which we called the cloud bed, this little nursery. And we just kept plopping stuff in that was variegated. And it became so beautiful that it became an area of the garden that we still have today.
So it was variegated plants, but it was also things with white flowers. It kind of all goes together. I wish I planned more, it’s chicken and egg in many cases. Sometimes I’ll get something variegated and like the cloud bed, the garden gets planted around it. It becomes the first thing, the impetus for a planting area.
Margaret: Right. A long time ago, oh gosh, 20 years ago, I imagine, friends from Seattle, and I’ve spoken about them before, Glenn Withey and Charles Price, who are garden designers, they came to visit. And we were talking about my making more long views, and setting up more structure in the garden, and helping move the eye around. And they gave me sort of this… and I’m not going to do justice to their wisdom, but they talked about, “O.K., so we know you want to enjoy this axial view from here,” from the patio or from a key spot inside your house even more important, because a lot of times of the year we’re not always out in the garden looking at the garden. A lot of times we’re in the house, a lot of times of day and times of year, looking out.
So these key axial views, and like you said, at the end of it, you might pick a big variegated thing, or for that matter, it could be at this time of year, it could be a very large white-flowering hydrangea, like a Hydrangea paniculata. I have some really big old ones, and they scream across the yard quite a distance away at this time of year. But the variegated foliage or the gold foliage at the end of that axis.
But what they said to me was, O.K., that’s good, but along the way, on the ground level and the intermediate level left and right of that path, that roadway to that view, let’s give it some help to pull the eye further, further, further.
And so not literally flanking the whole visual pathway out to the screaming plant, but here and there along the way, there were other hints of that coloration. And that really helped a lot. And that’s something that I think about a lot also when I place my seasonal pots. I have a lot of big pots. I have two big pots that have, and then when I say big, two and a half feet across, or more, like whiskey barrel-ish size, but not made of wood, that have variegated, red twig dogwoods in them. And when I’m thinking of where to place those, I could use that to help guide you to a bigger variegated view somewhere in the distance, I could place them along the way kind of thing. So yeah.
Ken: Yeah. I have Heuchera villosa ‘Citronelle,’ which is a Heuchera with lime-colored foliage that doesn’t die-
Margaret: That’s a great one [above, in foreground].
Ken: Because some Heuchera just sort of croak. But this one, and I’ve used it just like you’re saying. And as you’re saying that there’s an area that I made the path get narrower and narrower as it goes away. So it really looks long and deep when it hits that variegated plant that isn’t gigantic, and makes you think it’s bigger and further. And there’s a lot of what people call rooms here, and I don’t know if we plan that exactly, but we have areas that we over the years have sort of encased or closed. And when you walk through the garden, there’s all these series of surprises. And we’ve used variegated plants a lot for that. Sometimes to get your attention before you get to the next place, to make the next thing more exciting and surprising.
Margaret: Right. John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli, two great gardeners up in Rhode Island in Little Compton, you’re reminding me, they have a gardener of rooms, and actually kind of walls of greenery that enclose the rooms—more formal. And there’s one I think you come into and you don’t realize it’s going to be this screaming gold room, because you’ve come out of another area and there’s these walls of green, these hedges. And then suddenly you come to the entryway and it’s like, it’s just gleaming in this place because they’ve put all these gold and golden-green things in there. And it’s like you’ve come out of a darker spot into a lighter spot accentuated by all this goldness. So it can be super-high drama.
What are some of the ones that you rely on? I just mentioned that I really love the twig dogwoods, and I have both the variegated ones, like ‘Ivory Halo’ is a great one, a red twig dogwood. And that stays more compact and more rounded, sort of mounded in shape. It’s not quite as large as some of the others. And I have ‘Silver and Gold,’ Cornus sericea “Silver and Gold’ twig dogwood, with gold twigs, and green and white leaves. And that’s a little bigger. And I also have one that has red twigs and gold leaves, which is ‘Sunshine,’ Cornus sericea ‘Sunshine.’ So I’ve used those. Plus, then you get the bonus of winter red twigs to lead your eye to a place. But at any rate, I don’t know, what were some of the plants that you find are serving these purposes in your garden?
Ken: [Laughter.] Of the 30?
Margaret: Not the 30, some of the big payoff moments, I mean. The one’s that are… Like I know when we did the webinar recently, you were talking about that beautiful ‘Celestial Shadow’ Korean hybrid dogwood [detail in flower at Ken’s, above].
Ken: That is one. There are trees like Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia,’ which has gold leaves, and it keeps the gold through the season. That’s a tree. And the funny thing about… it’s not funny really, but when you look out, that grabs your eye, and it’s sort of like springtime, because that color is the color of when the leaves first come out there are a lot of chartreuse colored leaves on trees. But this one doesn’t lose that color. So it’s very refreshing.
Margaret: Right. I have that ‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac [below].
Ken: Oh my gosh, which I’ve killed three times.
Margaret: Cutleaf staghorn sumac ‘Tiger Eyes,’ which is gold, very, I don’t even know how to describe the foliage, but very-
Ken: Ferny, feathery.
Margaret: Yeah, it’s just beautiful, cutleaf as it says in its name. And that stays gold as well. So that’s a more intermediate height. It’s like a shrub and kind of eccentric in shape and suckers here and there, but you can control that.
Ken: We didn’t say that a lot of things that start out gold and even stay gold till the beginning of August, go green. So that’s something to try to be aware of.
Margaret: Right. And so the red twig dogwood ‘Sunshine,’ Cornus sericea ‘Sunshine’ [above] stays gold until it drops its leaves in the fall. You know what I mean? It’s gold, gold, gold. And this cutleaf staghorn sumac ‘Tiger Eyes’ stays gold. And I think what you just mentioned stays gold, yes. And that’s what-
Ken: Robinia, right?
Margaret: Yeah. And I think your Korean hybrid dogwood does, too. It’s variegated gold and green.
Ken: It changes, but it does keep a gold cast to it. In the spring, it’s a little brighter and more defined, but it’s still gold. And that’s funny because in the evening, just before sunset, the light around the whole garden is kind of yellow, or maybe it’s red, but everything looks yellow and this plant looks… you can’t take your eyes off it.
Margaret: Right. So that’s another point about these plants with these bright-colored leaves is where we place them in the light behind them, or at different times of day can really accentuate it.
Among shrub-sized, but not shrubby plants, because it’s a giant herbaceous perennial. I love that gold Japanese, the spikenard, the Aralia cordata ‘Sun King,’ which gets to be this massive… it dies to the ground, but it gets to be this massive perennial. Certainly five feet high and across or something, or four feet high and five feet across. It’s this big, big, big thing, ‘Sun King.’ And that could serve as a seasonal traffic director [laughter]. You’d want to walk toward that plant, right? You’d be attracted from a distance toward a plant of that substance and color. [Above, a young plant at Margaret’s.]
Ken: Sometimes the gold or variegated things are wimpy versions of the parent plant, the species. And sometimes they’re not. But as you’re saying that, I’m thinking of some of my favorites. You may know Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Axminster Gold.’ [Below at Ken’s.]
Margaret: Now translate that into English for us. I don’t know that.
Ken: Comfrey. It’s a comfrey and it’s really big, and I saw it at Wave Hill, oh, many years ago, and you couldn’t get it anywhere. Now you can, now you see it. Probably from tissue culture, because it’s a funny thing about propagating, which is true with several plants, like even snake plants, you can’t make root cuttings because it loses the variegation. And that plant loses its variegation, but now it’s on the market, which is great. And I’ve had the variegated horseradish for decades.
Margaret: And that’s a white and green variegation.
Ken: White and green and it’s different every year, I think by the temperature in the spring, actually.
Margaret: So the pattern is different, the mosaic on it, sort of the-
Ken: Well, it’s splashes of white.
Margaret: I see.
Ken: And sometimes a leaf is almost completely white, and it’s white, white. It’s really bleach white, beautiful.
Margaret: Plus you can get some horseradish [laughter].
Ken: No, you can’t because then you’re going to lose the plant.
Margaret: Well, I know, I’m teasing.
Ken: You’re probably right, you could get some.
Margaret: A little piece.
Ken: Right. And I have several redbuds, weeping redbuds, that’s Cercis canadensis. I have one, and I think there’s more than one on the market, but we’ve talked about it before, ‘Silver Cloud,’ and that’s what it’s like. It’s like a cloud. Because it’s not super blaring-in-your-eye variegation. It’s subtle. And those leaves are always moving. And that’s just a gentle thing. I actually cut some things between the porch and that tree to make that the end of the view. And it’s just like a cloud has landed in the garden.
You’re talking about Glenn and Charles, and we sometimes have guests when we have our Virtual Garden Club webinars, and I think design guests, that might be some people to bring in for the webinar.
Margaret: Yes. They sure know a lot. What about, as I talked about earlier, they encouraged me not just to put that big stoplight at the end of the view shed on axis in the distance, but to help dress it up along the way here and there to tease your eye in that direction. And so what about some sort of groundcover-y or smaller perennials or what other things? You mentioned the Heuchera, for instance. Let’s talk about a few other ones and whether it’s variegated or whether they’re gold, like some other things. I use a lot of Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold, ‘the Japanese forest grass.
Ken: Yeah, it’s beautiful.
Margaret: And kind of announcing the top of the path as you walk up to the house here, it’s like there’s clumps on either side as you get toward the top [top of page, in fall]. So it sort of says, “come here.”
Ken: I have a couple of, I guess they’re raspberries or blackberries, they don’t really have fruit, but Rubus cockburnianus ‘Golden Veil,’ that’s one that, it doesn’t change color. That is yellow-gold in the spring, yellow-gold in the fall. And there’s a short kind of ground cover when Rubus idaeus ‘Aureus,’ which is really groundcover-y, the stems are about 12 inches high. And it’s a groundcover. [A gold Rubus cockburnianus, above.]
Margaret: Yeah. And the one thing about the Rubus is that we should say, just as a disclaimer, is that if you’re in an area where they fruit and set seed, they’re more invasive, not just spreading sideways. So you have to look those up; there’s certain areas that they’re not good to grow. Yeah, here they don’t reproduce. Yeah. No, I have them, too, but they don’t reproduce here.
Ken: Oh, yeah?
Margaret: Yeah. Don’t you have Acorus maybe? Some Acorus?
Ken: Yes. Acorus and There’s lots of Carex, too. There’s lots of Carex. They’re grassy-looking plants that aren’t really grasses. But Acorus is a plant that likes a wet situation. And there’s a lot of variegated ones that are gold and green and little strappy leaves. And one that I love that if you can find, it’s Acorus ‘Licorice,’ and if you snap a leaf or tear it, a blade, it smells just like licorice. And it’s about, I don’t know, six or seven inches tall. So that’s another great groundcover.
Margaret: So we call it sweet flag, Acorus, is that what we call some of those [like Acorus gramineus, above]?
Ken: Yeah, I guess so, right. You know me, I just don’t know the common name.
Margaret: Yeah, no, I know, I try to think of them.
Ken: Such a snob.
Margaret: No, but I try to think of them.
Ken: We didn’t say hostas.
Margaret: Well, and true. So there we go. That’s another-
Ken: Lots of hosta.
Margaret: Right, lots of hostas can do this job, too. But the idea of helping move people through the garden, helping to create spaces, helping a pathway really catch your attention some more.
And sometimes just making a great big statement. Like, I have this one giant apple tree. I have a number of them, but one that’s really big. It’s like 150 years old, and it is just so massive, it’s I don’t know, 20 feet tall and 35 or so feet across. And sort of beneath it, I put this really big, we talked about it before, the Aralia, the gold Aralia, whatever that’s called. And this big herbaceous perennial because it’s just this enormous mound, and it’s big enough and bold enough to stent to fit with that big, beautiful mound of a tree. And do you know what I mean? Sometimes you don’t want something little, sometimes you want something big.
Ken: How much shade is under the apple tree?
Margaret: A lot. Yeah.
Ken: So that’s a plant growing in some shade.
Margaret: Oh, I almost always grow that plant in part shade. Yeah, and it does fine, but here in the north, it can take… I have it in half sun. I don’t know about full sun. I don’t know what it would do in full sun. I’m not sure.
Ken: There’s that Hydrangea quercifolia, I think it’s called ‘Little Honey.’ I don’t know if you’ve seen that?
Margaret: Oh, yes.
Ken: Beautiful. But for me, it wimps along and it has some black spots on the leaf. I don’t know what to do about that. Because my other oak leaf hydrangeas are fantastic and the size of Volkswagens. And this thing I’ve had for years. Marsha Donahue in Berkeley, California, I gave her one and it’s just beautiful in that perfect climate. But mine is not happy. And I’ve tried it in two places. Not dead, but not happy.
Margaret: Not zaftig.
Ken: Have you ever grown that?
Margaret: No. I don’t have ‘Little Honey,’ I just have two plain green-leaved ones. Interesting. We didn’t mention Spiraea ‘Ogon,’ which is-
Ken: Oh, there’s so many. Yeah.
Margaret: That’s a gold-leaf Spiraea [above, used to flank a path; photo by Ken]. And for me, even here in zone 5, that has early white flowers, but once it leaves out, it stays gold. It kind of turns to a butterscotch color, the foliage in late October and November. And I have pictures that I’ve taken where the winterberry hollies are hanging on bare twigs. So we’re talking about November and beyond, and that thing hasn’t dropped its leaves yet. So that’s a really good one for a long-lasting bit of gold in the garden.
Ken: There’s a lot of popular Spiraea japonica. Well, they all have sort of pink flowers, and some of them don’t look so great, so you have to make sure you get a nice one. You know what I’m talking about, ‘Gold Mound’ and stuff? And some of them just, it’s too much, too bright, but-
Margaret: Yeah, some of them are too screaming. Yeah.
Ken: I think mine’s called ‘Gold Rug’ or something like that. And I don’t know why it’s a terrible name, but I think that’s what it is. It stays short and the pink isn’t screaming, and the flowers of course don’t last forever, but the foliage is nice. I prefer the the yellowish end for those plants because the green kind of goes, I don’t know, not as nice as the gold.
Margaret: Tell me any others that you want to shout out. Anything else that we haven’t… I have a couple of Aralia that are kind of like large shrub/small trees. They’re grafted Aralia elata, ‘Silver Umbrella’ [above] and ‘Aureovariegata’ that I love. And occasionally the rootstock will sucker, but it’s easy to dig out so they don’t go anywhere and they don’t self-sow
Ken: You remember Eleutherococcus that used to be called Aralia, I think?
Margaret: Yeah. Back in the day.
Ken: There’s a variegated version of that, that it has thorns and it’s variegated white and green, and it’s an okay plant to put on the edge of something that you don’t have to walk through because it’s all thorny [laughter]. But talk about lighting an area, it really does. It lights an area.
Margaret: I used to have a variegated flower, a variegated lilac flower, ‘Sensation.’ Remember that? With the white and purple flowers [laughter]?
Ken: Did you get that to bloom?
Margaret: Yeah, it did for years. And then finally, I don’t know what happened to it, but-
Ken: I don’t either.
Margaret: Speaking of variegation, but yeah, there’s lots of possibilities. But what we’re basically saying, just in sort of wrapping it up, is we can’t help but collect things [laughter], but we want them to serve a purpose, too. And so I think even though sometimes, like you said, Ken, we don’t know when we first bought them—and maybe they end up in the cloud bed—we don’t know when we first bought them what their purpose was. They show us, they show us the light. They really do, these golden and variegated plants. Yeah.
Ken: That’s true. And I think that listeners should forgive themselves.
Margaret: For the occasional obsession, I’ll say it again [laughter].
Ken: Right, obsession.
Margaret: Well, thank you, thank you, thank you for making time today. Now go out and pull some weeds. I’ve got to do the same.
Ken: Oh my gosh.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Sept. 4, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).