Many focal plants are bold and bright. Our eyes are drawn to bold foliage with color and stripes. The soothing velvet background of green leaves is punctuated with the bright color of flowers and varied with textures and shapes. I find myself drawn by foliage in  purple and mahogany tints, and contrasts with golden  or cream variegation. But the retiring silver leaf plants play roles the others do not. Have we underestimated the impact and contrast silver and gray lend to the landscape?

Silvery Foliaged Plant Roles In Garden Design

  • Softening, mellowing, melding effects
  • Focal point contrasts
  • Partner and frame for intense flower color
  • Variegation and texture interest

Achillea kellereri; Photo by Patrick Standish on Flickr. CC2.0

Great garden designers have implemented the mellowing properties of gray leaves in some of their most effective plans. Take notice of Vita Sackville-West’s celebrated White Garden. Using the silver leaf plants to seam together her white flowers and their green foliage, centering the entire space with a silver-leaved pear, the whole garden takes on a dreamy look that is both calming to the eye, and exciting in its own way.

I visualize the white trumpets of dozens of Regale lilies, grown three years ago from seed, coming up through the grey of southernwood and artemisia and cotton-lavender, with grey-and-white edging plants such as Dianthus Mrs. Sinkins and the silvery mats of Stachys Lanata, more familiar and so much nicer under its English names of Rabbits’ Ears or Saviour’s Flannel. ~Vita Sackville-West

This garden was successful far beyond her purported expectations, if its worldwide popularity is any indication. I think those soft gray leaves are largely responsible for setting off the beauty of the white blooms in this garden room at Sissinghurst.

Silver gray, as a leaf color, has a subtlety of shade and contrast that places emphasis -without tiring the eye the way bold complementary schemes might. It quietly emphasizes plants, unlike the purple leaf’s impression of receding dark spots.

So, while gray foliage plays second fiddle to the similar role of white flowers, it can have a strong supportive role in a garden picture. It also may feature as a focal point, almost as much as flower color might.

 

Silver Leaf Plants Get Along Well With Flower Colors

While silver shines out of a shady spot, it mellows the harshness of mid day sunshine. Using gray leaves to weave a continuous thread of middle tones gives a cohesiveness to the space and keeps it from looking too choppy when strong contrasts are otherwise included. The more gray, the more a feeling of dreaminess and unity.

That is why it works well in a Serenity or Meditation garden.

For Moon gardensa garden planted primarily for evening time enjoyment it helps reflect the light with the white blooms.

The Natural Assets Of Gray Foliage

For the plant world, gray and silver tints perform a function. Pigments may create the look of this color, but structural features such as plant hairs which reflect light and lower the surface temperature of the plant also play a part. It helps prevent water loss, which is a characteristic valued in xeriscape landscaping.

Another source of gray or glaucous (bluish) leaf color may be from a waxy surface. Seen on many succulents, it is another “grayish looking” impression that helps plants conserve moisture in hot dry environments. (1)

These qualities put them high on the list for areas which require drought tolerant plants.

Visually they almost shimmer in sunlight as well as reflect light in night time.

Common Gray Or Silver Foliage Plants

Here are a few of the perennials, annuals, and shrubs that I have appreciated for their peace making ways in color design.

Stachys Lanata

Lambs Ear, Stachys Lanata

Lambs Ear, Stachys Lanata

Good old “Lambs Ears” needs to be at the top of the list. It has its flaws, but nothing is easier to grow with a more pleasing silvery look. For those who dislike their hot pink flowers, there is a variety to dispense with the blooms, or they can simply be sheared off, but be aware that bees love them. Why deny bees a source of nectar?
Grown from seed, division, or pot plants, Stachys lanata spreads a little too well, but I just rip it  out where it isn’t wanted.

Very wooly in texture with a bright silver color, the felted leaves grow low to the ground and the flower spikes can be somewhat floppy.

I use them to add accent, line a walk, and they are a good ground cover.

Lavender Spp.

Lavender FoliageAlthough it varies a bit, most of the Lavender species have a gray to silver foliage which is very pleasing when kept shaped by pruni

Often included in herb gardens for its fragrance, this is a useful plant in rose gardens and borders, too. It is somewhat stiff looking, but the color helps blend surrounding plants with purple or yellow blooms. It is perfectly paired with pink, white, or blue flowers.

All About Growing Lavender

Silver Makes A Contrast

For years I had a lavender hedge along my front pathway. One effect of silvery leaves is that they stand out visually in the big picture. The vast majority of plants have some shade of green which is calm and restful, but when you wish for more contrast, silver and gray can certainly stand out. Especially in a sunny spot, where these plants are most at home, the color is most accentuated.

Eryngium

Eryngium

This Eryngium has silvery brachts.

The Sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, known by the name “Miss Willmott’s ghost” was so-named because famous English plantswoman Ellen Willmott would surreptitiously scatter seeds of this variety in gardens she visited. It’s an oft repeated story that cannot be verified, but illustrates the imposing opinion of one if the great woman gardeners of her time.
The story also underlines the value of the plant itself. It brings structure and interest along with its silvery brachts, functioning both as a focal point and as a harmoni

Dead Nettle Cultivars

Lamium Maculatum brings light into shady place. The most striking varieties like ‘Silver Beacon’ or ‘White Nancy’ shine out from their lowly heights of only a few inches tall. It is one of my favorite plants and always brings a neat tidy look wherever it is planted.

The dead nettles are very useful for their fine foliage, but also because they tend to do so well in difficult dry shady areas. Although qualified as a ground cover, I’ve never found them to be invasive.

In more moist shady environments, try Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium.

lamium maculatum

Lamium maculatum

Brunnera Macrophylla

The Brunnera cultivars of ‘Jack Frost’, ‘Looking Glass’ and ‘Silver Heart’ have almost white leaves that are also a bold shape, bring good contrast to the usual finer textured gray garden plants like Achillea or Artemisia.

False forget-me-not (another common name for Brunnera) likes a more moist and partially sunny spot than most of the other gray or silver leaved choices. This is a relatively new plant for me; very hardy and holds its own with weedy conditions. The leaves do tend to look a little “ratty” toward the end of summer, however.

It is a plant chosen more for its ability to contrast than to mellow and meld a design.

Caryopteris x clandonensis

A small shrub with fine textured gray leaves and soft blue flowers in late summer, it is another of the drought resistant additions to a garden plan. The attractive blue bloom during the hottest part of summer is their primary feature for most gardeners, I think.

They are a weak shrub that looks more like a perennial plant, and need good drainage to do well.

Once established I found the “Blue Mist Shrub”  to be a long lasting member of my garden space. They do need full sun, as well.

Artemisias

A group of plants well used by english gardeners for a long time, they are not as well loved by many Americans for some reason. The favorite is probably Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’ for its nice shape (while young) and impossibly silver hue.

Other good ones to try are:

    • Artemisia stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’
    • Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’
    • ‘Silver King’ artemisia

Achilleas

While most of them have leaves considered to be a gray green, not all qualify as “silver leaf plants”.  The less hardy Achillea kellereri is the one most likely to give pleasing results for this purpose. It is available from specialty nurseries, so look for it by name. You could also try Achillea ageratifolia. The selling point for these might be more in their pretty white flowers, but they also contribute gray toned foliage.

Not long lived for me, perhaps because I have to be careful to provide places of good drainage for those perennials that require it.

 

Temporary Sources of Gray Foliage

silver leaf plants contrast with mahogany foliage

Container of silver leaf plantsvby designer Deborah Silver

Grown as annuals I always purchase a certain number of tender plants for summer silver leaf effects. They are especially good in container plantings.

  • Dusty Miller, Senecio cineraria
  • Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’
  • Helichrysum petiolare

Contrasts From Variegations

Variegated Holly

Variegated Holly Photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking on Flickr CC2.0

By now it is apparent that the role of silver leaf plants is dual, either producing interest from the way it contrasts with solid greens, or as a mellowing factor for what could be a strident conclave of color.

Variegations can be found that have a lot of distinction within each leaf, but give an overall silver effect. Hollies are an example of that, i.e. Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’. It tends to look rather busy.

Softening Effects

On the other hand, an Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’ is soft in aspect. It looks and feels as comfortable to the eye as the Holly seems spikey and stiff. In nature such silver and softness is often seen with bright golden yellow flowers. Chrome yellow and gray are a classic color harmony.

Infusing The Garden With Light

I hope reading this post inspired you with ways to infuse the landscape with light through the many gray toned foliage plants available. From focal points to mellowing filler plantings, the role such plants give is the one you chose while staging the plan of your garden.

Besides their color, these brighteners bring texture and interesting forms to all sorts of purposes in your landscaped areas.

Try silver leaf plants with shrubs, borders, and in containers. Their contribution will enrich the look in very pleasing way no matter which role you choose for them.