Generally speaking, gardeners grow perennial plants for their flowers, but in this post we focus on perennial plants with beautiful foliage. In my book, plants that have both beautiful flowers and striking foliage are even better.
Let’s face it without making a garden design plan, oftentimes perennial gardens can have periods where they are kind of blah without much color or variety. But, if you have plants with striking foliage, that will go a long way to remedy the situation and provide you with lots of color and variety throughout the growing season.
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Why Add Perennials with Beautiful Foliage to Your Flower Garden
Here are a few reasons for adding hardy perennials with beautiful foliage to your flower garden:
- Perennials with beautiful foliage can add color and texture to a flower garden, even when they are not in bloom. Their leaves can provide a range of colors, from greens and blues to purples and reds, and their textures can range from smooth to rough, and glossy to matte.
- While many perennials bloom for a limited time, those with beautiful foliage can provide interest all season long. They can be used to fill in gaps in the garden or as a backdrop for other plants.
- Many of these perennials are low maintenance and require minimal care once established. This can be a great advantage for gardeners who want to enjoy the beauty of their garden without spending a lot of time on maintaining it.
- Depending on their height, these perennials can be used in a variety of ways in the garden, from edging borders to filling in larger spaces. They can also be used in containers or as accents in rock gardens or other specialized settings. If you are in a cooler gardening zone, most perennials will not survive the winter in a container. I recommend pulling perennials from containers in the fall and planting them in the ground for their period of winter dormancy.
Please note that if the USDA hardiness zone for a particular plant isn’t listed, it’s because the hardiness zone is determined by the variety of the perennial.
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Sun or Part Sun Perennials with Beautiful Foliage
Yarrow (achillea) not only has lovely, long-blooming flowers, but its fern-like foliage looks great too. Some consider yarrow to be invasive spreading by underground runners, but I encourage to to try some of the newer varieties. Yarrow will grow just about anywhere, but looks best in a sunny spot with moist, well-drained soil. It is hardy in zones 3-9.
Beardtongue (Penstemon) is another long-blooming perennial, but if you’re looking for beautiful deep red foliage, definitely consider adding the Husker Red or Dakota Burgundy variety to your gardens. It is a tough perennial that tolerates most any conditions in full sun. Hardiness zone 3-8.
Silver Mound Artemisia (wormwood) – If you don’t have the cultivar Silver Mound in your flower garden, plan on adding some soon. The silver green, silky foliage looks amazing with flowers in a cool color range. As an added bonus, rabbits and deer don’t like silver mound. It thrives in most conditions in full sun. Silver Mound can be divided in spring or fall every few years to keep it looking good. It is hardy in zones 3-7.
Hardy Hibiscus (Rose Mallow) not only have huge gorgeous flowers, but their foliage is also quite lovely. Be sure when you select a variety of hibiscus that it is winter hardy for your area. They perform best in full sun. Unfortunately, hardy hibiscus are Japanese beetle magnets in my gardens.
Cushion Spurge (Euphorbia polychroma) is the most unique plant I have in my gardens. It starts out in the spring with bright green foliage and yellow flower-like bracts. The foliage remains attractive throughout the summer and turns showy shades of red, orange and purple in the fall. Beware that all parts of the plant are toxic and should be handled with care. Cushion spurge is hardy in zones 4-8.
Many newer varieties of Sedum have gorgeous foliage and are a real standout in a perennial. Most varieties prefer full sun and dry soil.
Perennial Grasses with Striking Foliage
Ornamental grasses are always a good choice if you are looking for low-maintenance, attractive foliage options for your landscape or flower gardens. There are practically limitless varieties of ornamental grasses for you to choose from. Be sure to do a little research before you settle on one for your garden. A few of our favorites include:
- Carex varieties
- Blue fescue
- Little Bluestem
- Japanese blood grass
Perennial Plants with Beautiful Foliage for Shade
A shade garden can be so lovely and serene. Lots of gardeners lament over having primarily shade, but by adding some of these plants to your shady spaces, you can create stunning gardens.
Hosta – First and foremost, when we think of plants for shade gardens, most of us think of hostas. Although there are many amazing varieties of hosta, they aren’t the only shade plant with beautiful foliage. Hostas typically have tall stalks of shades or purple or white flowers. I don’t really care for the flower stalks of hostas and cut most of them off.
Although many gardeners plant hostas in full sun, they do best in part shade (3 – 4 hours of filtered sun or morning sun) to full shade.
For a complete guide to growing Hosta and lots more pictures, be sure to check out this post.
Fun Idea – Did you know that you can spray paint the plumes of astilbe plants after they have lost their color. Be sure to use spray paint specifically made for plants so that it doesn’t harm the plant.
Astilbe is a lovely perennial with plume-type flowers in various shades of pink, violet and white. Astilbe will put on its best show in a shady spot with moist soil, but will do okay in partial sun, as long as the soil is kept moist. They can be a bit high maintenance in that respect because they do not like to dry out. The foliage is serrated and can easily be mistaken as a fern when it first emerges in the spring. Astilbe looks the best when it’s planted in mass. It is hardy in zones 4-8.
Ferns are such pretty foliage plants. Did you know that fern fronds (the part that emerges from the soil in spring) are edible? Personally, I’ve never eaten them, but I understand they are a delicacy in some areas.
If you do a little searching, you can find many varieties of ferns with various shades of foliage. Japanese painted fern and maidenhair fern are my favorites, but there are many more cultivars. Although they are beautiful, I recommend avoiding Ostrich Ferns because they can be quite aggressive and take over a garden if planted in the right conditions.
Lungwort (Pulmonaria) has pretty bell-shaped blooms in the spring that last 3-4 weeks. When the blooms have faded, clip them off and you are left with silver-spotted, deep-green foliage that looks good in shady areas of your garden the remainder of summer. Lungwort (ugh, ugly name for such a pretty plant) does best in moist, well-drained soil, but will let you know when it’s getting too dry. Once it’s watered, it perks right back up. Hardiness zones 3-9.
More Shade Garden Plants with Pretty Foliage
Although Coral Bells (Heuchera) has pretty dainty flowers on long stems, they are grown primarily for their dramatic leaves and in my opinion are one of the best foliage plants. Over the years, hybridizers have created many, many different types, and you can pretty much have your choice of what color you want to add to your gardens. Coral bells are one of those plants that will do okay in full shade gardens to mostly full morning sun. They make wonderful border plants. Hardiness zones 4-9.
Foam Flower (Tiarella) are very similar to coral bells, but are more of a woodland plant. They can take dense, wet shade, whereas heuchera likes a bit of morning sun and soil with good drainage. Their foliage is beautiful too, but more lobed and pointy than heuchera. It is hardy in zones 4-9.
Foamy Bells (Heucherella) a cousin of sorts to coral bells are another plant grown primarily for their foliage. Actually, they are a mix between coral bells and tiarella. Heucherella grows best in shade to partial shade in hardiness zones 4-9.
Jacob’s Ladder (polemonium) is a shade plant that has lovely tiny blue flowers in the spring. Once the flowers fade, the foliage looks lovely the remainder of the season. My personal favorite variety of Jacob’s Ladder is Stairway to Heaven. It has the prettiest variegated foliage that has tinges of pink during the cooler weather of autumn. Hardiness zone 3-7.
Cimicifuga (a/k/a bugbane) doesn’t bloom until late summer, but up until then, the foliage looks great in a shade garden. It resembles astilbe foliage. And, oh my, if you are in the market for a new shade plant, you must check out the rich color of the black beauty variety.
Brunnera (false-forget-me-not or Siberian Bugloss) – So what good is a plant that has pretty, little forget-me-not flowers that only bloom a few weeks in the spring, it’s the foliage that remains attractive. The leaves are heart-shaped and have a fuzzy texture and silvery-white or cream-colored veining. Brunnera is hardy in zones 3-8.
Aruncus (Goat’s Beard) has fern-like foliage and beautiful long, feathery plumes. Aruncus prefers a spot in the shade or part sun with moist, well-drained soil, but it does well as a bog plant too. Because of its height, it makes an excellent background plant. Goat’s Beard is most attractive when planted in groupings of three or more odd-numbered plants. Goat’s Beard is a North American native plant and is hardy in zones 3-9.
Fern-leaf bleeding heart (dicentra ‘luxuriant’) The fern-like leaves are blue-green and finely divided, creating a delicate and lacy appearance. Unlike other varieties of bleeding heart the foliage looks great all summer. Fern-leaf bleeding heart also blooms the entire summer. Fern-leaf bleeding heart will tolerate shade, but does best in part shade (at least 3 hours of morning or filtered sun). Hardiness zone 3-9.
Barrenwort (Epimedium) has dainty pink flowers on wiry stems in the spring, but its grown mainly for its ever-changing, colorful foliage. The heart-shaped leaves emerge in the spring as a bronze-purple, change to bright green in the summer and back to bronze-purple in the fall. Barrenwort is a rare plant that does well in dry shade. Hardy in zones 4-8.
Aralia sun king (Japanese spikenard) is a herbaceous perennial, although some refer to it as a shrub. Its gorgeous chartreuse foliage makes a beautiful contrast to other plants in a perennial garden and really brightens up a shade garden. It produces insignificant flowers later in the summer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my aralia sun king bloom. Aralia sun king is one of the best plants for season-long color in a perennial garden. It is winter hardy in zones 3-9.
Perennial groundcovers with beautiful foliage.
Before choosing a groundcover for your garden, be sure to do a little research on the variety you want to plant. Groundcover plants are called groundcovers, because… well, they cover the ground. Many groundcover plants will just take off and won’t stop at boundaries. I love both deadnettle (lamium) and bugleweed (ajuga) in my shade gardens, but many gardeners don’t care for them because they can be aggressive. Both of these pretty groundcovers are easy to weed out where you don’t want them. Plus, they have really pretty blooms and foliage.
There are so many varieties of Bugleweed (Ajuga) and they all have unique and stunning foliage. It will spread wherever you let it, but it is very easy to weed out. Hardiness zones 3-10.
A cousin to lamium is Herman’s Pride or Archangel (lamiastrum) has gorgeous metallic silver splotches on it’s green foliage. It gets a bad reputation for being a vigorous spreader, but is fairly well behaved and easy to manage in my shade gardens. It’s also tough as nails and will grow in most soils. It is hardy in zones 3-8.
Perennial plants with variegated foliage are a great choice to add variety to your gardens.
False Sunflower (Heliopsis) varieties sunstruck and sunburst have beautiful intricate off-white and green variegated foliage that is a standout in the landscape.
Have you ever seen an iris with variegated leaves? They are unique plants and look great in your late spring garden.
There are several varieties of sedum that have variegated leaves, including many ground cover varieties.
Variegated yellow loosestrife golden alexander (lysimachia punctata) is a pretty, well-behaved, non-invasive variety of loosestrife. It is absolutely gorgeous in late spring with long stems of pretty yellow flowers. Hardy in zones 4-8.
Pro Tip – some plants with variegated foliage will revert to their solid foliage parent plant. To help prevent this, clip or pinch off the stems of the plant with solid-colored leaves. Sometimes the change can’t be helped.
Annual Flowers and Plants With Beautiful Foliage
Okay, yes this article is all about perennials, but there are many annual plants and flowers with stunning foliage too. If you prefer annuals over perennials, these ideas are for you. Or, if you’re like me and you enjoy a combination of annual plants and perennials plants, here are some ideas for you too. Many of these work great in container gardens.
- Rex Begonias
- Polka dot plant
- Purple fountain grass
- Dusty Miller
- Purple Ornamental Millet
Take a walk through the specialty annuals area at your local nursery and you’ll find lots more ideas of annual plants with lovely foliage.
I hope you’re leaving today with some ideas of new perennial plants with beautiful foliage that you can try in your gardens. We’ve barely scratched the surface of perennial plants with beautiful foliage. Did we leave your favorite out? If so, please share your favorite in the comments section below.
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