With the 2016 Summer Olympics comes the quest for gold. We may not all be athletes (at least of Olympian stature) but that does not mean we cannot enjoy the excitement and warmth of gold right in our own yards. Gold-leaved plants are in a category all by themselves. They are able to make our gardens shine especially in partially shaded areas where that touch of gold just illuminates a dark corner or monotonous stretch of green.
When considering that point of light to add to your gardens, keep in mind that gold coloration can be anywhere in the range from chartreuse to a deep gold. If you are searching for a certain hue, check out the plant at local nurseries before purchasing it and adding it to one of your gardens. While a hedge of the same golden leaved plant can be quite effective in some landscapes, keep in mind that gold foliaged plants are most useful as a focal point in the garden. Overuse may lessen their impact and even be a bit distracting.
While I see it time and time again, I really do not like any of the gold shades combined with pink but I think they look striking combined with purple or blue or even with fiery shades of orange and red. I also do not like golds with pure whites but with more vanilla colored blossoms like aruncus or filipendulas or white Japanese burnet (sanguisorba) or even those vanilla ‘white’ marigolds.
As a general rule of thumb, many plants with bright yellow or gold foliage have a tendency to fade to a more green color when exposed to hot, mid-day to late day sun. When planting these gold-foliaged selections in an all-day sunny site, look for varieties that claim they do not scorch.
Some of UConn’s Ornamental Horticulture Professors weighed in on their favorite gold-leaved plants. Dr. Jessica Lubell votes for Sumac ‘Tiger Eyes’ (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’ Tiger Eyes). This 6 foot tall shrub has pinnate compound leaves that start out as chartreuse in the spring then mature to a clear yellow. ‘Tiger Eyes’ has notable fall foliage coloration as well adding in scarlet and orange tones. The plants has purplish fuzzy stems that contrast nicely with the lacy yellow foliage. Plant in full sun for best color and be aware that although slowly, it does spread by suckers.
A favorite of Dr. Julia Kuzovkina is the golden pussy willow (Salix caprea), ‘Ogon’. The word ‘ogon’ means yellow or gold in Japanese so you can guess that this plant is from Asia. This plant grows as a small tree or large shrub. Soft catkins are followed by bright yellowish gold leaves that do become greener in color as the season progresses. It tolerates average to moist soils and should be cut back regularly to stimulate new shoots which have the best yellow color.
Another plant, also called ‘Ogon’, rates high with Dr. Mark Brand. His choice for a gold accent in your garden is a spirea (Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’). This compact shrub grows about 3 to 5 feet high and wide. If it becomes a bit sprawly, cut it down to about 6 inches in early spring and it will grow back more compact. In the spring it is covered with small white blossoms attractive to butterflies. The foliage remains attractive into the fall and it tolerates full sun.
Two other species of shrubs that are better planted in a part shaded area to retain their attractive golden foliage are ‘Golden Glow’ dogwood (Cornus hesseyii) and ‘Little Honey’ oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). Both are relatively small shrubs being 4 foot high and wide or less and both have white flowers. The dogwood has red twigs which also add some winter interest to the garden.
When it comes to listing my favorite golden leaved plant, I am torn between the many wonderful cultivars of coleus with leaves ranging from clear gold to lemon yellow to chartreuse to the soft, billowy, waterfall blades of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra).
Coleus, of course, are annuals in our climate but they can be used so effectively in containers and in garden beds. I like ‘Spiced Curry’ with its striking gold and maroon leaves and chartreuse ‘Wasabi’ the best but many local garden centers have other intriguing cultivars as well.
Japanese forest grass is just perfect for a gold flowing plant to put a spotlight in shaded areas. It does best in at least part shade and gets about one and a half feet tall and wide. Clumps spread very slowly and it is quite drought tolerant when established.
There are so many more golden foliage plants out there from trees to shrubs, vines to groundcovers, and annuals to perennials. Check out ‘Sweet Kate’ spiderwort, caryopteris ‘Sunshine Blue’ and the chartreuse sweet potato vine. There are too many gold leaved hostas to name but look for the 2016 hosta of the year, ‘Curly Fries’ at your local garden center. Think about where that bright spot might just liven up a dull planting and consider how gold can be a winning strategy in your garden. And feel free to share your favorite gold leaved plant with us.