Making a Bold Statement- big leaf plants

by Don Statham

Summer 2009

I was a painter (fine arts) for many years before I became a garden designer. For me one of the important considerations in a painting’s composition is the shapes that make up the canvas. If all the shapes are similar in size then the painting will appear flat. The same principal applies to gardens. After creating my first perennial garden I noticed that I had unconsciously planted mostly 2 to 3 foot tall perennials with the flower sizes averaging 1 to 2 inches. When I looked at my garden there was uniformity to everything and nothing stood out. My first attempt at solving this problem was to add plants with large flowers. Tall hollyhocks, Asiatic lilies, foxgloves, delphiniums, daylilies, and coneflowers added some spice, but there was still a “flatness” to the garden. So, deciding I needed to make an even bolder statement, I turned to some perennials that have extremely large leaves.

My favorite big-leaf plant is called Gunnera. You see this dinosaur of a plant in many southern American and European gardens, usually near a stream or pond. The leaves are 5 to 6 feet wide. I cannot grow this plant in our cold climate, but I found a very pleasing substitute: Petasites japonicus. The genus of the name comes from the Greek word petasos meaning wide-brimmed hat, in reference to the large spreading leaves. The common names for this perennial are butterbur, Fuki or sweet coltsfoot. It is native to Korea, China and Japan where it is typically found growing on damp stream banks in woodland areas. The leaves were used to wrap butter in hot weather, hence the common name. In spring, Petasites has a strange large bulbous cauliflower-like green-and-white flower that emerges just above the ground. As the days grow warmer, the umbrella-like leaves unfurl to 2-1/2 to 3 feet across and rapidly take over its allotted space. The plant reaches a height of about 5 feet and spreads by rhizomes.

Considered an invasive plant, this plant is not for everyone! I have a spot along the bottom of an 8 foot tall retaining wall that is consistently wet and receives very little light. It has been a problem area in my garden until I discovered Petasites. A gardening friend curses this plant because it took over her whole flower bed. My theory is that you have to understand what a plant wants to be, and then find the right home for it, or create a boundary for it underground to stop it from spreading. The Petasites I planted is contained by a dry stone wall and stone path. So far it has not escaped and seems to enjoy its incarceration. I get so much pleasure when a friend turns the corner in my garden and sees this giant plant and exclaims “What is that?” The plant does not like full sun and absolutely needs consistent moisture to thrive. There is also a variegated variety, but I find it doesn’t get nearly as large as the common specimen. Petasites would be perfect in a shade garden, bog areas, near a pond or stream; but be warned: it has a Godzilla-like tendency to take over!

A less invasive plant is Astilboides tabularis (pronounced ass-til-BOY-deez tab-yew-LAR-iss). Native to East Asia (China, Japan and Korea) it looks like it would be more at home in the tropics with its large lily pad leaves. It is surprisingly hardy to zone 4-5. It prefers partial to full shade and the soil should be consistently moist. Usually found in damp woods and thickets, the plant reaches a height of 2 to 3 feet, and has an Astilbe-like white flower that towers above the large flat leaves that then turns to a spectacular jewel-like seed head in late summer. What I like about this exotic plant is the architectural element it brings to the garden with its flat rounded leaves hovering like flying saucers just above the ground. The leaves glow a vibrant green and brighten up the darkest areas. Be sure to plant this out of the path of strong winds or else the large fragile leaves will be shredded.

A good plant for full sun is Macleaya cordata (‘plume poppy’). This 7 to 8 foot giant towers over everything in the garden with its large grey-blue leaves that resemble oak leaves. The leaves’ underside is silver in color and when they move in the wind it has a shimmering effect. There are white and pink flowering varieties. Although the plant self-seeds all over the garden it is easy to remove. In late summer the seed heads appear at the top of the plant like a golden halo. I have noticed that in several gardens this plant has been removed from herbaceous borders and given its own specific planting bed to allow it to roam in a controlled space. Last autumn I removed the plant from three different areas of my garden and created an 8×8 foot bed. It is hardy to zone 3 and can spread aggressively by underground rhizomes if given room.

This next shrub Rhus typhina (‘tiger eye’), a member of the sumac family, offers both a deeply cut foliage and brilliant glowing chartreuse green leaves. It was introduced to U.S. nurseries in 2004. The habit is low growing and spreading to an eventual height of 6 feet tall by 8 feet wide and is hardy to zone 4. It is a slow grower unlike regular sumac. In order to get the most from the chartreuse leaves I recommend planting this in partial shade. By planting darker green plants behind ‘tiger eye,’ the plant offers a stunning contrast and brightens up a dark area of the garden. I have seen the plant in several nurseries in July baking under hot sun and the leaves looked fried. The one I planted receives only direct morning light and looks terrific throughout the summer. It is one of the first plants to show its autumn color and the bright orange color is beautiful.

A gardening friend gave me three Angelica gigas, which is a monocarpic biennial or short-lived perennial plant from China, Japan and Korea. Monocarpic plants are those that flower, set seeds and then die. The first year, Angelica rocketed to 4 to 5 feet but did little else. In the second year, the umbel plum flowers emerged on multiple purplish stems. This plant steals all of the attention when it’s in flower. As expected it died that year after flowering, but two years later I found it coming up in several different areas of the garden. The escape plants seem to appear in the areas that need them the most. The Chinese have been using the dried root of this plant for thousand of years for medicinal purposes. In Korea the plant is used to treat anemia.

A few additional perennial plants that will liven up the borders with interesting foliage are Bergenia, hostas, Rodgersia, and Darmera peltata. Shrubs with architectural shapes also help to break up the flowering border, such as boxwoods, yews and holly. The yews and holly will need to be covered in winter to protect them from roaming deer. The more I garden the more I am interested in the foliage of plants rather than the flower. Working some of these larger leaf plants or shrubs into the borders will bring about satisfying results.

Paintings often have resting points within the composition to allow the viewer to retreat into a quiet place before entering back into the action of the painting. Using plants with large leaves and/or different height plants can create a similar feeling in the garden and sometimes with the right plant will make a bold but peaceful statement!

gallery of big leaf plants

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