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Color Without Flowers

By Paul James

I like colorful flowers as much as the next gardener, and the palette of possibilities is practically endless. But in the quest for color, I feel as though plants that don’t flower (or whose flowers are inconspicuous) are overlooked. And that’s too bad. So I’m going to draw attention to the colorful plant groups I like most, and below you’ll find links to specific examples within each group.



Although they’re often called evergreens (and most, but not all are), not all conifers are green. The most colorful are blue or yellow to yellow-gold, and are available in tree and shrub forms. They make striking specimens, and when used as background plantings, they make whatever is planted in front of them really stand out, especially flowers in contrasting colors. The powder blue of the Globe Spruce, for example, adds a brilliant blast of color in practically any setting, and the golden foliage of numerous conifers glows beautifully when backlit by the sun. Best of all, the color of conifers is constant.


And then there are evergreens, starting with the Nandinas. Back in the day, you couldn’t pay me to plant the original domestic Nandina. It was lanky — ugly might be a better word — and it reseeded all over the place. But these days there are great, improved, and colorful varieties that stay put and provide awesome color. 

Loropetalums do flower in early spring, but they’re grown primarily for their purplish-red foliage, and are a standout in any garden. They may die back in severe winters, although their root ball is hardier than most folks realize. (Mine have died back to the ground two years in a row, but you’d never know it by looking at them now.)

Privet, another evergreen that I despised in the old days because it reseeded like crazy, has come a long way, and the aptly named ‘Sunshine’ Privet is a huge — and hugely colorful — improvement. Its golden foliage truly does shine like the sun. And it’s sterile.

Euonymus is a (mostly) evergreen workhorse that requires little care, and the variegated selections (such as ‘Chollipo)’ are really beautiful, as is the fall color of the deciduous Burning Bush.

And last but hardly least, there are the Aucubas, the variegated forms of which light up shady spots like no other shrub can. And they’re super hardy. My appreciation for them has grown considerably in recent years.



Deciduous Shrubs

Among deciduous shrubs, it’s hard to beat the beauty of Barberry, whether crimson, burgundy, orange, or gold. Even those that ultimately turn green produce striking chartreuse foliage in spring. I have two flanking the path to my front door, and I almost ripped them out years ago when I first moved in. Now I’m glad I didn’t.

Ornamental Grasses/Sedges

Ornamental grasses are a low-maintenance gardener’s dream, but beyond being beautiful and carefree, they’re available in great colors. I planted a Maiden grass called ‘Zebra’ in front of an unsightly gas meter decades ago, and its bright yellow bands were striking even from 100 feet away. And although green throughout spring and summer, I have five ‘Northwind’ Switch Grasses whose foliage glows golden-yellow in fall.

In the shade garden, Japanese Forest Grass is simply stunning. It takes a few years to get established, but it’s well worth the wait. And it’s equally at home in the ground or in containers.

The grasslike Sedges offer great color (check out the bronze ones), and many of them thrive in wet soils. And have a look at Acorus, aka Sweet Flag. It’s dynamite.




I mentioned a few colorful groundcovers in my blog last week, and in case you missed it, I’d encourage you to have a look at the many Sedums on the market, as well as Black Mondo (it flowers, but I often remove them) and Creeping Jenny.




In the world of annuals, you can’t go wrong with Caladiums in the shade and Sweet Potato Vine in the sun. But my favorite of all are the Coleus, which are available for sun or shade. Yes, they eventually flower, but I trim the terminal growth of mine — including the flowers — to keep them bushier.


And Finally, Two Terrific Trees

I urge you to consider the Honey Locust known as ‘Sunburst.’ It’s thornless, fruitless, fast growing, and native. Plus, it glows in the sun almost as if it were plugged in! I adore this tree, and I think it needs to be planted more. 

And let’s not forget Japanese Maples. I mean, there’s only one thing better than the myriad of colors (and sizes, and leaf forms) available among these jewels of the garden — you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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