Why Silver Foliage is a Winning Formula in Your Garden
There’s nothing second rate about silver in the garden, whatever the season. In winter that sparkly foliage chimes spectacularly with frost and sub-zero temperatures, creating scenes of dazzling dynamism. In summer, bright sunlight glances off silver leaves, cooling and providing a shimmering foil to the more saturated reds, oranges and purples of the season’s showiest performers.
It’s true, most silver-leaved plants are happiest in a sunny spot. That’s exactly where their adaptation is meant to perform. The sheen of a leaf is often simply an illusion created by hundreds of tiny hairs that cover green foliage. Together, they reflect the sun’s harsh rays and protect the plant from dehydration. This fine coverage of hairs can also shield from wind and salt-laden air. So it’s an adaptation with various important uses. Other silvers are created by a thin layer of wax – think succulents and perennials such as sedums – which retains moisture when the sun is fierce.
There are other silvered plants that are happy in a bit of shade, too. One of the finest is Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ with its prettily laced silver and green heart-shaped foliage, topped in spring by delicate pale blue flowers, a little like forget-me-nots. It’s hard to beat dotted under deciduous trees. Another is Astelia chathamica, a kind of mini phormium with bright, sword-shaped evergreen leaves and a strong architectural form. It works well in a contemporary garden, either in beds or in a pot on a semi-shaded patio.
In a summer border, right at the front as ground cover, or repeated generously to drift through a gravel garden, Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ does what it says on the tin. It’s wonderfully furry and tactile, too: just what childhood memories are made of. Plant it with a backdrop of purple alliums and you’ve a combination fit for royalty. More heat-loving gravel or drought-tolerant candidates include classic lavender. Some varieties are move silvered than others but they’ll all bring that classic scent, as well as attracting plenty of bees and other pollinators.
Great perfume is something that’s common among silver-leaved plants, the waxy coating trapping scented oils to perfection. Think of the Mediterranean herb garden classics thyme, sage and rosemary. And then there’s the curry plant Helichrysum italicum, the most silvered of them all, which pumps out great billows of perfume in full sun. Its leaves are fine and frond-like and it makes a handsome domed shrub with the bonus of pretty yellow summer flowers. Worth mentioning, too, is that curry plant partners wonderfully with lavender: their habits are pleasingly similar while the purple and gold flowers contrast dramatically at the front of a sun-drenched border.
Pots of gold? It’s silver I reach for when thinking about summer window boxes and hanging baskets. A purple-blue scheme of trailing petunias and Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ brings a cool elegance to a windowsill or patio in summer.
I couldn’t write about shimmer and shine in the garden without mentioning Vita Sackville-West. Her White Garden at Sissinghurst is world famous for its brilliant planting. When I last visited, it was late September but the garden was still glowing gorgeously in the autumn sun. Some of the stars of the silver show there include the lovely weeping pear Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’, artemisias, stachys and Lychnis coronaria. Try them at home to recreate that glow, at its finest in the low evening light.
Perhaps my favourite of them all, though, are the cardoons and artichokes. I’ve written about them before. They’re grand, so perfect for filling big, sunny spaces, architectural, fabulously textured and shapely (the deeply serrated arching leaves are glorious). Plus there’s the purple explosion of bee-tastic thistle-like flowers in mid-summer.
Now is the ideal time to think about brightness in the garden. Either to complement the last of the winter frosts or to look ahead to a shimmering summer. It’s the ultimate silver lining to winter gloom.
Written by: Francesca Clarke