Once seen...never forgotten...a plant with enormous leaves hovering over the pond at Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s home in Kent, England. And though more than twenty years has passed since we were at Chartwell, I can recall that plant as if I saw it yesterday.
It was a Gunnera (most likely Gunnera tinctoria which is sometimes called the Giant Rhubarb) and I really coveted it. The winters in Kent are comparatively balmy and it was flourishing there. But gunnera is rated as hardy only to Zone 7 (where the winter cold may drop to 0 ℉) so I know there is no point trying to grow it in my Zone 4 Vermont garden.
But I can and do grow lots of plants with great leaves. While none of them are any where near the size of that Gunnera, they certainly attract attention all season long and they often show beautifully against finer textured companions.
Most large-leaved plants do well in the shade, their leaf size being an adaptation that allows them to gather more light for photosynthesis. Here are four large leaved beauties to consider for the shady parts of your cold climate garden... and you can find them all at Cady’s Falls Nursery in Morrisville, Vermont.
Right now the prize for the largest leaves goes to Astilboides tabularis, a plant that hails from Korea and Northern China. In my garden its flat floating discs are full 2 feet in diameter, just slightly angled on short stubby stems. Thus the overall height of the leaves is only about 30 inches, making them excellent companions for low growing plants. Here they are with the fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) for a striking texture contrast.
The leaves are definitely the reason I grow Astilboides; its small plumed flowers on 5 foot stems seem to pop up as an afterthought, and I will cut them down fairly soon.
Every visitor to our garden invariably comments on the umbrella plant, Darmera peltatum, from northern California and Oregon. It has 20 inch leaves that catch water in a little hollow at the base and it grows in the dappled shade behind our gazebo. This plant loves moisture so I planted it where it could enjoy an extra dose of rain from the roof runoff. Over five years, it has rewarded me by expanding, as a single clump, to 7 feet across and 4 feet high... and it’s still growing strong. However, for all its size, it is really well behaved and does not put out running roots.
I also really enjoy the creamy plumes and crinkled palmate leaves (with an overall leaf diameter of 12 inches or more) of Rodgersia aesculifolia, which also originates in Northern China. In this picture, which I took a few minutes ago, you can see the daylilies in the background have finally started to bloom; but ever since May the Rodgersia has been making this corner of the garden a bit more interesting.
Interestingly, in the AHS Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, all three of these plants are all ‘officially’ rated as only hardy to Zone 5, though other sources list them as Zone 4. Certainly in recent years we have had several winters where the temperature has dropped to -25 ℉ up here. I sited the plants carefully in my garden, and they are all growing beautifully. So it all goes to show that you can take ‘official’ zone information with a small grain of salt.
And finally, I have become quite fond of the striking foliage of Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’, another plant coming to us from China, which I can see from my computer as I write this. The original plant has self-seeded, and made a large colony in a difficult spot under the cherry tree on the north side of our house. In my garden ligularias seem to grow much better in the shade, where they produce larger leaves, and are far less prone to the ravages of voracious grasshoppers.
Of course we all grow hostas for their foliage...and some of them sport really large leaves with interesting textures or patterns. One could write dozens of blog entries about hostas, but I am not planning on that. For the record here is one of my favorites, ‘Gold Standard’... lighting up a deeply shaded spot under the serviceberries behind our woodshed.
I am always on the look-out for plants with interesting foliage... whether large or small, fine leaved or big leaved, and also in colors other than green. Against the changing parade of flowers that come and go each month, great leaves really spice up the garden all season-long, and in future blog postings I look forward to sharing ideas on other cold-climate foliage plants.