The author, a partner in Western Hills Nursery, continues his discussion of colored and variegated plants with a survey of those with gray and silver leaves.
In the latter part of the last century, Gertrude Jekyll created her famous colored foliage borders and they caused a virtual revolution in English gardening. In one particularly notable example, a variety of blue, blue-green and silvery plants were used in one direction from a central viewing point and yellow and golden plants in the other. Visitors looked one way at a cool, bluish world, then had only to turn around to find a warm, golden one. Since then, many English gardeners and some Americans have attempted borders in limited color schemes; the white garden at Sissinghurst is undoubtedly the most famous example in this genre. Gardens of this kind are tightly enclosed spaces where the visitor is transported into another world. It is a marvelously harmonious and thematic world, very different from the large natural vistas of the great landscape gardens and, most especially, excitingly different from the dark and unrelieved masses of laurels, yews and rhododendrons that had come to be the rule in mid-Victorian gardens. This new form was a careful, detailed and painstaking garden art; the plants were not only carefully placed but also carefully controlled and subordinated to a final, overall effect, whose aim was to dazzle the eye with color or seduce the mind with harmony. Plants had, indeed, become garden material.
I am impressed by these efforts and not insensitive to their results. Nevertheless, I find the exercise as a whole to be too much like interior decoration for my taste. The totality overwhelms the viewer but much of the individuality of the plants comes to be lost in the process as they are tucked here and there and trimmed, trained and staked always with a masterful overall effect in mind. I prefer an arrangement that allows the full display of the plants themselves in all their natural, and preferably unpruned, grace. Also, I think we should, wherever possible, pay attention to the places of origin of our plants. At the same time, I should like to consider all aspects of plant associations, including leaf color, to enhance the general surroundings wherever this can be done consistently with my other aims. There is no doubt a contradiction here, and it is, in fact, one of the banes of my life; it is also a great joy since it makes of the garden an unsolved problem that must be attacked repeatedly with ever renewed vigor. In this scheme of things, what is foliage color? I suppose I should have to say that it is just one of many aspects of plants we can consider and can use freely to create a place where both we and the plants are at home.
Most trees and shrubs with white, silvery or blue leaves differ from the plants discussed in the previous article (Spring, 1982) in that their coloration can in no way be considered abnormal. A blue, white or gray cast to foliage is usually a means of reflecting sunlight and helping plants to survive drought, heat and other adverse conditions; in other words, they are an adaptation to the environment. Most of our store of such plants is not, therefore, the result of vegetative propagation and the nurturing of a few seedlings; unlike most red or yellow foliage plants, these come true from seed — with minor variations. It follows that the best place to look for an increase in such color forms for horticulture is in nature and not in nursery catalogues.
The terms gray, gray-green, blue, blue-green, white and silvery have been used loosely and inaccurately (sometimes indeed synonymously) in a bewildering way. I have seen plants as dissimilar as Acacia baileyana and Salvia leucophylla described as gray. Such words as incanus, glaucus and glaucophyllus have a more scientific sound but are often also used loosely. Since I think this is a matter of some importance to gardeners, I shall try to use these words with greater accuracy.
Forest of Eucalyptus oreades in the Blue Mountains, to the west of Sydney, Australia. Photographs by the author.
- Silver plants for those grey areas in the garden
- Plants with silver or grey leaves for a South African garden
- Silver leaved shrubs
- Indigenous trees with a grey tinge
- 10 plants with silver or grey foliage
- More plants with silver foliage
- Evergreen Trees For Zone 5: Growing Evergreens In Zone 5 Gardens
- Evergreen Trees for Zone 5
- Major species
Evergreen Trees and Shrubs
For gardens where they are hardy and appropriate, the eucalypts offer a very large number of blue and gray trees and large shrubs. As I have said elsewhere, the mass planting of these trees in California has been a disservice to them. Where they are used as specimens, as in the gardens of southwestern Ireland, or as temporary foliage plants, as in England, and where they are not otherwise present in the landscape, their true worth as garden plants can be appreciated. The Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia, are named for the many eucalypts with blue foliage found there. The traveler finds himself in a soft-colored dreamlike world, far removed from the rigid shapes and the deep green of northern conifer forests. Perhaps the most stately of all the trees that comprise this great spectacle is Eucalyptus oreades, the Blue Mountains ash, which has a tall white trunk supporting a mass of interlacing white limbs and an umbrageous head of very blue foliage. In spring, this great tree is alight with red new growth; it is a true paradise garden plant. Equally beautiful is Eucalyptus mannifera subsp. maculosa (syn. E. maculosa) which has blue foliage and the whitest of white trunks. Majestic specimens of it dominate the Canberra Botanic Garden. Both Eucalyptus oreades and E. mannifera var. maculosa are fairly hardy, at least to 15° F.
The most common of the smaller eucalypts grown for their light blue foliage are Eucalyptus pulverulenta and E. perriniana, many acres of which are grown in California for the florist’s trade. There are several others, however, that may have characters more suitable for our gardens. E. melanophloia, for example, is a medium-sized tree with a black trunk of the iron-bark type and a head of blue leaves. The silver peppermints, E. risdonii and E. glaucescens are smaller, very glaucous and very picturesque trees. All of these are among the hardier eucalypts. Even more spectacular, although less hardy, are E. kruseana and the southern cross mallee, E. crucis. The first of these is perhaps the most astonishingly blue of all plants and the second is a very light silvery gray.
Three very blue or blue-gray shrubby eucalypts grown for their large red flowers as well as their glaucous foliage are Eucalyptus macrocarpa, E. rhodantha and E. pyriformis. Of these, E. macrocarpa has not only the largest flowers but also the palest blue-gray foliage. It makes a bush five feet high and up to ten feet wide and its fiery red flowers are five inches across. Unfortunately, it is not very hardy and should not be attempted in gardens with more than six or seven degrees of frost.
Like many conifers, eucalypts have both juvenile and adult Foliage and the former is often glaucous or silvery even when the adult leaves are not. Since, like willows, these trees can be pollarded or cut to the ground and will respond with long annual growths, and since these will all bear juvenile leaves, it is possible by this means to create large and interesting foliage masses. To my mind one of the best to be used in this way is Eucalyptus gunnii, which has unusually graceful juvenile foliage. Because this is one of the hardiest of eucalypts, it is often used in English gardens and its handsome blue leaves displayed in front of dark yew hedges. It is also effective planted with other silver and blue shrubs.
The number of acacias with blue or silvery foliage is so great that I can include here only the most striking of those I know or have seen. The largest of all is the well-known silver wattle, Acacia dealbata, which, grown as a specimen, will make a stately mass of feathery, silvery-gray foliage fifty feet or more high. A. dealbata is one of the hardiest of acacias and is one of those, like A. decurrens, that puts on an overwhelming show of light yellow flowers in late winter and very early spring. Half the size is A. baileyana, which can be trained to a single trunk as a small tree or grown with many trunks as a very large bush. Although common, I find the Bailey acacia one of the most satisfyingly blue of all woody plants. This is particularly true of A. baileyana ‘Purpurea’ which has lavender new growth and bluer foliage as well. Not only is the foliage of this acacia distinctly blue, but it has a remarkably silvery sheen from the white undersides of the leaves, which flash brilliantly in some lights. Of nearly the same size, but with large willow-shaped phyllodes is A. saligna (syn. A. cyanophylla), which has a pleasing blue-green hue overall, and deep yellow flowers.
Smaller than these, but still a very large shrub is the outstanding, very light blue acacia, Acacia podalyriifolia, which has gracefully arching branches and rather large, triangular, stem-clasping phyllodes. Unfortunately, this plant is not very hardy and will show damage at temperatures below 25° F. Its pale yellow flowers, for which the foliage is a perfect foil, appear in mid-winter and remain until spring. It is in every way a very satisfying plant for warm gardens.
Acacia pendula is for many years a graceful weeping shrub, although it slowly grows into a small and finally a large tree. Plants of it in California, fortunately, have silver-gray phyllodes. Acacia pendula is described by Lord, in Trees and Shrubs for Australian Gardens, as green, and all those I saw in Australia were green. A. pendula is hardy to about 18° F., and all the plants I know of survived the terrible winter of 1972 without damage.
In addition to these sizable shrubs and trees, there are many smaller acacias with gray or blue foliage. One of the best of these is Acacia pulchella, a very blue and very delicate shrub to five feet or so from the area around Perth in Western Australia. It is not hardy, and died here in 1972.
Some plants that are described as silvery are merely white. The term is more aptly used to describe those plants with white undersides to their leaves and that glitter in certain lights when moved by a breeze. However, the term best describes foliage that has a gray or white satiny sheen from a covering of silky hairs or shiny scales. Perhaps the most renowned of the plants with foliage of this kind is the silver tree, Leucadendron argenteum, whose leaves are bright green but so covered with long, soft silky hairs that they glisten like silver in the sun. This small South African tree is hardy down to about 24° F., but it is not easy to grow even where temperatures will allow; in a wet winter trees are apt to die almost overnight from collar rot. Banksia marginata, the silver banksia, is an Australian tree of about the same size. It is not nearly as effective as the silver tree since its scalloped leaves have white silky hairs only on their under-surfaces. It is nevertheless a beautiful tree with a distinctly silvery presence. An easy plant to grow, it is not particularly subject to root rot and is far hardier than Leucadendron argenteum.
One of the lamb’s tails, Lachnostachys eriobotrya.
An overwhelming majority of the shrubs with silvery or blue leaves come from the Mediterranean climate areas of the world. Gardeners who like to experiment and whose winters are on the mild side will find the Australian and, to a lesser extent, the South African floras rich with such plants; only a few of them have been introduced into the nursery trade. In addition to the smaller, glaucous acacias, there are at least a dozen Australian genera that have shrubs with startlingly white or silvery or blue leaves. Very striking in the Australian bush, for example are lamb’s tails (Lachnostachys spp.) which have white woolly leaves and densely woolly inflorescences in spikes. Perhaps the most glistening, pure white bush of all is a native of the south coast of Australia, Calocephalus brownii, a mounding shrub sometimes found in California nurseries. Also occasionally available is Melaleuca incana, a very beautiful, gently weeping, soft gray bush to six feet or so that blooms with masses of creamy yellow flowers. A very blue leaved grevillea is Grevillea lavandulacea ‘Tanunda’, a low spreading shrub of reasonable hardiness with large, showy pink flowers. Some banksias, such as Banksia menziesii, have beautiful glaucus leaves and new growth covered with golden indumentum. There are many, many more white-leaved eremophilas and gray-leaved cassias from the inland, for example, and such favorite plants in Australia as the old man salt bush, Atriplex nummularia.
New and old leaves on Banksia menziesii.
From South Africa there is a striking blue-leaved heather, Erica bauera, which has an elegant, thin habit and very large pink or white flowers. There are also several proteaceous shrubs, other than the silver tree, with blue or gray foliage, and all the euryops are gray, woolly, low shrubs with yellow daisies. Special mention should be made of an extraordinary African shrub, Helichrysum splendidum, a very effective, nearly pure white plant that has a wide distribution from the Ethiopian mountains all the way to the Cape. This very ghostly shrub grows to about four feet or so, and as wide; it is well furnished with narrow, revolute white woolly leaves. Unlike most of the shrubs mentioned above, this one is hardy throughout the Pacific Coast. It is beautiful, and its only drawback is a certain gawkiness that is easily cured with a minimum of pruning.
The most famous silver and gray shrubs of all are the santolinas, lavenders, artemisias and similar plants from the shores of the Mediterranean. Many of these I have already described (Pacific Horticulture, Summer 1980). They will also receive further attention in these pages from Christine Rosmini, whose survey of low white and gray shrubs from mountainous areas, will supplement this brief account of the garden-worthy glaucous plants of the world.
A fair number of superb shrubs with blue, gray or white leaves can also be found in the California flora. One of the most outstanding of all these is Arctostaphylos viscida, which catches the eye of all travelers in the Sierra Nevada foothills with its very light gray, almost white leaves and smooth red limbs. Unfortunately this is one of the most difficult of manzanitas to grow away from its native habitat. A good substitute for gardens in the Coast Ranges is Arctostaphylos silvicola, which has a dark red trunk and gray leaves that are not nearly so white as those of its Sierra relative. Leaf color varies considerably among plants of some Arctostaphylos species, and some very blue plants of A. glauca and very pale gray bushes of A. manzanita, among others, are to be found. If collections were made with these qualities in mind, the result would be handsome additions to our stock of colored foliage shrubs.
The California atriplexes are all gray shrubs, but, although they are picturesque in their native habitat, only one, Atriplex hymenelytra, the desert holly, can be considered beautiful and it is next to impossible to grow in the coast ranges. Atriplex lentiformis var. breweri is a plant that, while far from beautiful, can be used to handsome effect among other colored foliage shrubs. It makes a mound of silvery-gray leaves eight feet high and more across — large for a salt-bush. This plant is found in the coastal scrub and is easy to grow throughout most of California, and, unlike A. lentiformis var. lentiformis, it is basically evergreen. Two native artemisias are of rather similar value. Sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, makes a silvery bush sometimes fifteen feet high. At its best it is wild-looking and handsome. In summer A. californica, from the coast, makes a very beautiful, light blue-gray, low shrub with soft, ferny leaves. In winter it looks something like a wet dog and is best pruned back to the base.
Some California salvias also make excellent mounding gray and white bushes. The whitest of all, although its flowers are not very effective, is Salvia Ieucophylla, a very serviceable bush, easy to grow almost everywhere. Salvia clevelandii is more gray but has, in its best forms, beautiful lavender-blue flowers arranged in several heads along the flower stalk. The entire shrub is one of the most delightfully fragrant of all salvias. A hybrid between S. Ieucophylla and S. clevelandii is S. ‘Allen Chickering’, an attractive plant which is often sold in nurseries as S. clevelandii.
Isomeris arborea and Dendromecon rigida subsp. harfordii are both rangy shrubs that have excellent glaucous leaves and beautiful yellow flowers; both of these can be effective planted in the right places. The dendromecon can grow far too tall and straggly; then it is best cut all the way to the ground. Perhaps the most important of all additions to our list from the California flora are the lovely blue mahonias from the southern part of their range. These are excellent, hard-leaved shrubs providing permanent furnishing for gardens, and they accord well with barberries, hollies, boxwoods and manzanitas. When grown from seed Mahonia amplectans is quite variable, but selected blue seedlings are very attractive; they make low bushes, seldom as much as five feet high. M. haematocarpa and M. higginsiae are taller bushes with smaller, very spiny, blue-gray leaves. Mahonia nevinii is still larger and may grow to twelve feet. It can also be very blue and is the showiest of all in fruit, its brilliant red berries hanging in clusters like currants. All of these shrubs are adaptable plants and will grow in northern as well as southern California; they will also thrive in the Central Valley given some shade.
In addition to trees and shrubs with silvery foliage that come from areas with a long dry season, there is a sprinkling of such plants from regions with year around rainfall. Most of these are deciduous, but a striking evergreen exception is Elaeagnus macrophylla from Korea and Japan. This plant has larger leaves than the better known E. pungens, and they are particularly effective in spring when the entire leaf surface, top and bottom, is covered with glistening silvery scales. As the season progresses, the upper-sides of the leaves become green, but the lower scales remain and continue to give the shrub an over-all silvery appearance. E. macrophylla is a large shrub to twelve feet and as much across. It is hardy throughout the Pacific Coast and has the virtue of blooming very late, in October and November, with small but delightfully fragrant flowers. This shrub is not now available in the trade, but E. x ebbingei (a hybrid of E. macrophylla and E. pungens) has now become common in nursery lists. This is also a beautiful shrub, although its leaves are not so handsome as those of its large-leaved parent.
Deciduous Trees and Shrubs
To my mind, the most beautiful of all silvery deciduous trees is a willow — Salix alba argentea (S. alba sericea). For country places with low lying areas, this is one of the best of
all trees to plant. Unlike many silvery or blue-foliaged trees, the form and color of this tree accord perfectly with our native vegetation. Bean praises the “intense silvery hue of its leaves, conspicuous in their shining whiteness for long distances.”
The white-leaved pears are much smaller trees, excellent for small gardens. Pyrus nivalis is a European tree with woolly white leaves and masses of white flowers in spring, although the upper surfaces of the leaves change to green in summer. Pyrus salicifolia from the Caucasus, parts of Turkey and Iran, has silvery, willow-like leaves and a naturally pendulous habit; especially weeping forms have been propagated and sold as P. salicifolia ‘Pendula’. This tree provides more than beautiful foliage; it is also one of the most beautiful of spring-flowering trees, when its masses of white flowers set in white wool unfold at the same time as the silvery new growth. Also an effective tree is Pyrus x canescans, probably a hybrid between P. salicifolia and P. nivalis.
Relatively unknown, but an extremely beautiful tree for its foliage is Sorbus cuspidata from the Himalaya. The leaves of this tree — which are up to seven inches long by five inches wide — are completely covered with white down in spring. Although, again, the upper leaf surfaces gradually become glabrous, the tree continues to present a remarkably silvery look. The corymbs of white flowers in spring are white and woolly inside and are set in white woolly receptacles; the fruits in fall are yellow. Sorbus cuspidata is a large tree in nature but has remained under forty feet in cultivation in England; how large it will grow for us remains to be discovered. Our plant, although still small, is perfectly healthy and seems well adapted to our climate.
Some white poplars, Populus alba and P. canescens, give a silvery impression from the light coloration of their leaves with their white or gray silky undersurfaces. Populus alba ‘Pyramidalis’ (which has been known as Populus bolleana) is the most widely planted of these and is the most common silvery deciduous tree in cultivation. Compared with the trees described above, however, it is a crude plant, difficult to use in the landscape. The only way I can describe its quality is by saying that the tree is extremely fast growing and, unfortunately, looks it.
The Russian olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia, is another common but rather more handsome tree. It is not a large tree and its color is both lighter and less gray than an olive. Planted in groves or where its pale gray-green foliage shows to advantage, it can be very effective, particularly in hot-summer areas.
Perhaps the most beautiful of all silvery deciduous shrubs is also an elaeagnus, Elaeagnus commutata, a native of eastern United States. The leaves of this delightful shrub are covered both sides with silvery scales and, unlike the leaves of many others, remain so throughout the summer. The small silvery and yellow flowers in spring are not showy but are extremely fragrant. Despite its deciduous habit, this shrub is worth growing in Pacific Coast gardens. It will reach twelve feet, but is easily kept lower by pruning in the dormant season.
Zenobia pulverulenta; Drawing by A.W. Damell from Hardy and Half-Hardy Plants.
A close relative of elaeagnus is Hippophae rhamnoides, a tall, upright growing deciduous shrub with narrow silvery leaves and bright orange berries that persist in winter because they are unpalatable to birds. This beautiful shrub is also a very useful one, since it will tolerate over-wet soils but is nonetheless drought resistant. Its only drawback is that it is unisexual; both male and female plants are necessary for pollination.
I must mention two other deciduous shrubs that have garden value. Zenobia pulverulenta is an ericaceous shrub from the southeastern United States. It is a low shrub, only about three feet high, with beautiful gray foliage that turns to shades of pink and yellow in winter. It has hanging clusters of white flowers like a pieris, and is an excellent shrub to plant among rhododendrons to offset their rather heavy green foliage. The other is the blue arctic willow, Salix purpurea ‘Nana’, a shrub to five feet or less with small blue-gray leaves and purple stems in winter; this is a first-class shrub for low-lying areas and is beautiful at all seasons.
Silver plants for those grey areas in the garden
Looking for information about a silver palette garden, well here is some free data about indigenous grey coloured plants from Life Landscapes.
In colour psychology grey can be regarded as emotionless, conservative with a degree of sophistication and business. Grey is moody and dull associated with storm clouds, metal, smoke and mirrors.
Add some metallic to the mix and grey turns to silver. Silver is associated with high-tech and industrial machines and can be considered more modern and ornate.
Plants with silver or grey leaves for a South African garden
Silver waves (Cotyledon orbiculata)
This fast-growing succulent adds life to a winter succulent garden with its orange flowers. Its grey leaves make for a noticeable addition to a silver palette garden.
Silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae)
The silver carpet is ideally suited for between stepping stones and courtyards. It get tiny flowers sprouting for its neat and compact leaves.
Trailing gazania (Gazania rigen)
The flowers and the leaves of the trailing gazania are like a blazing yellow sun set against a grey storm clouds. The burning sunshine yellow flowers will seasonally liven up a grey garden.
Silver leaved shrubs
Silver sweet pea bush (Podalyria sericea)
This shrub adds a silver and silky disposition in a winter rainfall garden. A round and happy bush with leaves that luster as if plated with silver.
Wild wormwood (Artemisia afra)
The silver-grey foliage of this medicinal shrub make a noticeable display in a silver palette garden. It is named after the Greek goddess Artemis because of its medical properties.
Sagewood (Buddleja salviifolia)
Planting a sagewood in silver palette garden? A sterling idea. This bushy tree is a cloud of grey leaves and mauve and pink flowers. A great shrub for insects and insect-eating birds.
The Helichrysum species
It should be 50 shades of Helichrysums. Most of the helichrysum species have grey flowering leaves and sunshine yellow flowers, worthy of a yellow palette garden. For the purpose of the blog we focused grey leaves.
- Kooigoed (Helichrysum petiolare)
- Poplar helichrysum (Helichrysum populifolium)
- Mo’s Gold (Helichrysum argyrophyllum)
- Cape gold (Helichrysum splendidum)
© Andrew Massyn
Indigenous trees with a grey tinge
Silver Sugarbush (Protea roupelliae Meisn. subsp. Roupelliae)
The silver sugarbush is one of the few protea species that grows in summer rainfall areas and is not endemic to South Africa. This tree gas stunning blue-grey leaves and dark bark.
Wild olive (Olea europaea subspecies Africana)
The wild olive is an indigenous tree that has dove grey bark and glossy silvery leaves. Occurring almost country-wide it is a robust species as it is resistant to disease, termites and drought. Great for attracting fruit eating birds.
© Abu Shawka
False Olive (Buddlejia saligna)
Its white flowers ideal for a moon garden. Similar to the wild olive the false olive has grey-brown bark and ash grey leaves. Makes for a super screen plant and a very good garden addition for gardeners looking to attract butterflies.
Wild silver oak (Brachylaena discolour)
With its messy crown, pale brown bark and bicoloured leaves. It leaves are green on top and wooly and white bellow giving the tree a stunning silver hue. Does well in coastal gardens and a superb tree for bee keepers with its creamy white flowers.
Cabbage tree species
Reminiscent of the truffula trees from the Lorax, the cabbage trees have grey leaves and an unusual look suited for a grey palette garden.
- Common cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata) – country-wide
- Grey cabbage tree (Cussonia transvaalensis) – northern provinces
- Mountain Cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculata) – coastal gardens
Silver tree (Leucadendron argenteum)
The silver tree has a fossil grey leaves that reflect sunlight giving the silver tree a literal silver lining. This species is not common and is protected. It excellent tree for bringing sunbirds to the garden.
© Abu Shawka
My first remembrances of gray in the garden was not the many chilly, overcast days gardeners in more northern latitudes experience (Wisconsin), but the gray leafed annual Senecio cineraria and the perennial, Artemisia stelleriana both commonly known as Dusty Miller, or one of its cousins, Silver Brocade or Silver Cascade. It would usually catch my attention late in the season, alone by itself in a pot after it’s companions have given up from neglect. Spindly and ratty looking, it adversely colored my vision for gray and silver foliaged plants for many a year. You would think I should have celebrated its ability to survive. Such was my bias towards green.
Many associate gray foliage with both high and low desert ecosystems. While a good many plants with silver plated appearances are native to dry regions, flora with gray leaves are also native to windswept craggy mountaintops, steppes and salty coastlines around the world, most notably the Mediterranean region. For many gardeners whose first experience was garnered in locals outside the Southwest, gray foliage is more associated with the allure and romance of the Mediterranean coastal areas. It is only in the past decade or two that our native arid flora has made its way into the trade and available for gardeners worldwide.
Having hailed from a rich green-leaved country myself, an appreciation for the finer merits of green color-challenged plants developed after my appreciation for their drought tolerant qualities. Gray and silver foliage plants contain tiny hairs that reflect solar radiation, cooling the surface of the leaf by several degrees, offering protection from the wind, and slowing evaporation. Having adapted to extreme growing conditions, gray and silver leaved plants make excellent companions in gardens with our climate and soil conditions.
This fall, an excursion to Great Sand Dunes National Park, perfectly contrasted negative publicity associated with the harsh reality of growing conditions of gray matter with the stark natural beauty of their environment. In their own environment, such as it is, these plants don’t just survive, they thrive. Subject to frequent winds, low moisture, sun seared days and chilly winters, gray and silver leaved plants are thrivers of some of the most challenging habitats. Perhaps the tiny hairs that cover many of the leaves of these tough and rugged specimens deflect wind and sand, lessening evaporation, reduce heat and solar radiation and maybe even help warm the surface of the leaves when temperatures plummet. Additionally, their hairy or waxy coatings deter consumption by herbivores.
A quick pop-in at our local conservatory even brought to fore a growing condition not normally associated with gray leaved plants. As I walked in at the bottom level, right in front of me lived a gray tillandsia, an epiphyte. Normally, epiphytes live their lives under canopies of trees, however, gray tillandsias can be found in tropical deserts, mountains or tropical arid regions. And like many gray foliaged plants, this tillandsia has tiny hairs covering the leaf surface, reflecting back a lightish color. In a conservatory greenhouse enveloped by green foliage, at least this tillandsia found a way to be noticed.
The color of the foliage, is in fact, most often due to the density, color and length of the hair on the leaf. Underneath the gray or silver appearance more often than not is a green leaf. The chlorophyll in the leaves give plants the green color. Gray and silver leaved plants do contain chlorophyll as do nearly all plants. In some cases, actual leaf color (hairs not withstanding) may vary as it does in the typical green world.
Gray Matter, An Intelligent Choice
After over a decade of growing gray and silver leaved plants, I have learned to love their light color, thin wispy appearance, rougher hairy (tomentose) or smooth glaucous (gray green) surface and their rugged individualism in their native setting while at the same time appreciating their versatility and compatibility with flowers of all other colors.
I think of the neutral gray color, as in real life, to include many shades of gray – dull gray to shiny silvery white, hues of blue-green and gray-green colored leaves. They come in all sizes from thin and tiny (Cerastium tomentosum, snow in summer), to large, flimsy (Salvia argentea, silver sage), tough and fleshy (Stachys byzantina, lambs ear) and thick succulent (Agave parryii, Parry’s agave and Echinocereus reichenbachii albispinus, white spined lace cactus), both smooth and prickly. Regardless of the form and appearance, silver and gray leaved plants found in nature (as opposed to white, hybridized variations) can usually be relied upon to be more drought tolerant and sun adaptable than their green relations.
Gray, interspersed with green foliage plants, increases the interest of a bed or border, although all silver or gray gardens can be dull, gloomy and unappealing. Following nature’s cue is often a safe bet. Even in desert communities the combinations of green with the gray is common. Only in the more extreme environments, mainly in highly salty or sodic soil communities, does gray appear to overwhelm, at least with our green-trained vision.
One of the most commonly seen color combinations is gray or silver with yellow flowers. Desert marigold, gray santolina, desert brittlebush, Algerita, paperflower are just a few to choose among. Blue flowers, white flowers, mauve and purplish flowers frequent gray matter. However paired, the gray leaves add a certain punch to the combination.
Plants with gray and silver foliage pair exceptionally well with pastel and bold colors alike from their green leaved relations. Monet, in his garden at Giverny, was fond of the color combination silver, red and green and silver, red, green and pink. In our climate these combinations can be achieved by using Salvia “Raspberry Delight’ with gray creeping germander’s mauve flowers matching the green foliage of the salvia with the gray-green of the germanders. Or planting Texas red yucca with Artemisia versicolor ‘Sea Foam’; the dark green and long blooming red flowers of the red yucca matched with the artemisia’s silver gray foliage and indistinct blooms.
One of my favorite color combinations, that I’ve termed Zen Gray, are the colors black, gray and yellow. Any combination of silver or gray mattered plants accompanied by plants with yellow flowers mulched with smooth and polished black river rocks presents a contemporary and Southwestern take on Eastern gardens.
Mediterranean gardens featuring lavender, germander, the gray or silver thymes, rosemary, curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), sage (Salvia officinalus), gray santolina, Greek and Serbian yarrow was my first introduction to the evocative appeal of gray foliage. Whether depicting far-away cultures or remote landscapes, coupled with the proper combination of design, plants and accents, gray foliage plants naturally add style to substance in any garden or any container.
Gray by Any Other Name
When reading through plant catalogs, sometimes the Botanic Latin name will give us a clue to the leaf color or hairy appearance (but sometimes the name refers to other plant parts). Here are a few prefixes and suffixes or genus/species names to watch for that signify gray, silver, white or hairy.
- alb, albi, albo – signifying white;
- albescens – whitish, becoming white
- albopilosus, albispinis – having white hairs; having white spines
- arachnoides, spider-like, covered with long and scraggly hairs, cobweb-like
- argent, argentus, argenteus, argenteoe – signifying silver
- argyro, argrophyllus – silver; silver leaved
- asper – rough; asperifolius – rough leaved
- caesius – bluish gray, light gray
- cadicans – white, woolly
- cineraceus – ash colored, covered with gray hair; cinerariaefolius – with woolly leaves
- comosus – with long hair, hairy
- eri, erio – woolly
- floccosus – woolly, like matted wool
- glaucous, glaucifolius – dull greyish-green or blue color, with leaves that are gray, gray-green
- griseus – gray
- incana, incanus – hoary, light gray
- hirtus, hirsutus, hirsutulus – hairy; with hairy stalks or stems; covered with coarse hairs
- laevis – smooth; free from hairs or roughness
- lanatus, lanosus, lanuginosus – woolly, or downy
- leuc – signifying white, (from the Greek leukos, white and phyllos meaning leaf) as in Leucophyllum minus, Big Bend Barometer Bush)
- polio, poliofolius – with white or gray leaves
- subcanus – somewhat hoary or grayish white
- tomentosus, tomentosa – tomentose, densely woolly
- trychophyllus – hairy leaved
(From Gardener’s Latin, a Lexicon by Bill Neal, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1992)
Fifty Shades of Gray
Luckily for us gardeners living at the gateway of the Southwest on the windswept plains with copious hours of solar radiation and minimal cloud cover, gray and silver leaved plants thrive well in our compost-poor, yet mineral sufficient soils. Low water and low maintenance will keep these lighter colored plants not just surviving, but thriving. Here are Fifty Shades of Gray, more or less, that will shine in your gardens, in sun or moonlight.
Acantholimon hohenakeri, prickly dianthus, evergreen blue-green foliage, pink flowers in spring. Low growing, compact and mounded form, prickly, not for the front of borders, up to 8-12” tall. A rock garden plant.
Achillea ageratifolia, Greek yarrow, light gray-green ever-gray foliage, low growing white, daisy-like spring blooming flower.
Achillea serbica, Serbian yarrow, gray-green evergray, low growing white daisy-like spring blooming flower to 6”T. Forms a low, spreading mat for hot and dry areas.
Achillea x ‘Moonshine’, yarrow, silver-gray foliage with lemon yellow flowering late spring to summer, drought tolerant 18’W x 24”T.
Agastache ruprestris, hyssop, light gray green leaves, orange flowering mid-summer to fall to 36”T, water every other week.
Agave parryi, Parry’s agave. Gray green thick smooth succulent leaves that form a rosette up to 2 ½ feet. Cold hardy to Zone 6 .
Alyssum wulfenianum, Wulfen’s Madwort, low growing gray leaved with yellow spring flowers to 6” tall.
Argemone albiflora, white prickly poppy, bluestem prickly poppy. Southern native, silver blue leaves, white blooms spring into summer. Argemone polyanthemos, silver blue leaves, crested white prickly poppy, native, white flowers in late spring.
Artemisia filifolia, Sand Sage, Western native, grow on the dry side for better appearance. 3-6′ tall.
Artemisia frigida, Fringed Sage. Low growing 1.5’ x 1.5’ silvery shrub grows from 3000’ – 11,000’. SW native.
Artemesia ludoviciana, white sagebrush, silver foliage, native to most of the US, any soil/condition nearly.
Artemisia x Powis Castle, large mounding perennial with ferny silver leaves. Forms large rounded mound 3’T x 4’W.
Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’, small mounding silver with silver leaves, about 12” x 12”.
Artemisia stelleriana, Dusty Miller, Old Woman, Beach Wormwood. Perennial native to Japan and Kamchatka has naturalized along the Atlantic coast. Silver white leaves with pale yellow flowers. ‘Silver Brocade’ is a named variety often planted.
Artemisia versicolor ‘Seafoam’. Curlicue sage, yellow flowers with unusual silver foliage. Mounding shrub 18-24”T x 3′ W.
Atriplex canescens, Four-wing Salt Bush, Chamiso, 1-6′ x 4-8′, saline, heat and drought tolerant. Treat lean. SW native shrub.
Atriplex confertifolia, Shadscale, silver gray semi-evergreen leaves. 2 x 2′, suited to the garden but grows well under extreme conditions. SW native shrub.
Baileya multiradiata, desert marigold, annual or re-seeding annual. SW native with silver leaves and yellow daisy like flowers.
Berberis trifoliata (Mahonia trifoliata), Agarita, or B. haematocarpa, also called Algerita. Western native shrub, gray blue evergreen leaves and prickly, grows to 8 feet. Makes a good screen.
Bukiniczia cabulica, formerly Aeoniopsis cabulica, small rock garden plant biennial that reseeds. Drought tolerant. Blue-green rosettes with mottled leaves, small pink flowers the second year. Unusual with a fun name.
Cerastium tomentosa columnae, Snow-in-summer, small white daisy-like flowers, summer blooming, low growing and spreading.
Chrysothamus nauseosus nauseosus, Dwarf Chamisa, Silver green leaves and stems, 2 ft. tall, pale yellow flowers in summer. SW native shrub.
Echinicereus reichenbachii albispinus, white spined lace cactus, attractive clumping columnar cactus with bright pink flowers. White spines are so dense as to make the cactus look white.
Eriogonum umbellatum, sulfur flower, gray green foliage with showy sulfur yellow flowers in late spring to early summer. SW native.
Eschscholzia californica, California poppy, annual; reseeding annual. Finely laced blue gray leaves. Yellow cupped spring blooming flowers.
Heterotheca canescens, Gray golden aster, silver foliage, yellow native wild flower, mid summer to fall blooming.
Lavendula, Lavenders. Several species and many varieties grow in well drained soil, medium water-use. Light gray green leaves with white blue, purple and pink flowers, depending on the variety. Spanish lavender (Lavendula stoechas) is usually not cold hardy in the Texas Panhandle.
Leucophyllum minus, Big Bend Barometer bush, 3’T x 2’W, summer flowering after rain, Silver gray leaves. May be the only Leucophyllum reliably cold hardy for the Texas Panhandle.
Oenothera caespitosa, White tufted evening primrose, drought tolerant, gray green foliage, white blooms. SW native. Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. incana, Silver edged Missouri evening primrose, native summer with silver-blue leaves, long yellow, chalice shaped blooms.
Orostachys iwarenge, Dunce caps. Succulent from Japan, small, low growing glaucous gray rosettes, dunce caps in late summer.
Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian sage, blue gray leaves, blue summer flowering shrub, low water-use. Spreading shrub 3-3 ½ ‘T x 3’4’W at maturity.
Poliomintha incana, Mint bush, gray frosted mint or hoary rosemary mint. Southwest native shrub with blue gray leaves, lavender white flowers in spring. Grows to 3 ½ – 3 foot tall and wide.
Psilostrophe tagetina, paper flower, perennial herbaceous native, gray green foliage with yellow blooms spring and summer.
Ruschia pulvinaris, shrubby ice plant. Small low growing and mounding with blue gray succulent leaves, tiny magenta flowers to 6”. Attractive for the rock garden.
Salvia argentea, silver sage, biennial foliage plant with silver-green leaves with annoying sticky dirty white flowers on stalk. Leaves look tough like lambs ear but tear easily and are easily damaged by hail.
Salvia chamaedroides, New Mexican sage, Beautiful shrub with gray-green leaves with blue summer flowering, 2′ x 2′. Native to the upper Chihuahuan deserts.
Salvia daghestanica, Dwarf silver leafed sage. Xeric, 10” x 12”, violet blue, flowers for 3 – 4 weeks, late spring.
Salvia dorrii, small, xeric, 12” x 12”, silver leaves with purple flowers. SW native.
Salvia officinalis, the herb sage. Gray green leaves with blue flowers in spring. Low water-use.
Salvia pachyphylla, Mohave Sage, xeric, 30” x 30”, unusual sage, Silver leaves with stunning purple sticky flowers.
Santolina chamaecyparissus, gray santolina with small yellow flowers. Gray foliage, mounding and spreading. To control growth, trim back after flowering.
Senecio cineraria, (now Jacobaea maritima) Dusty Miller or silver ragwort. Perennial subshrub native to the Mediterranean region with yellow daisy like flowers, whitish silver leaved plant grown as an annual. Cold-hardy in Zones 8-10. Senecio flaccidus, Threadleaf groundsel, native perennial, silvery blue green leaves with yellow daisy-like flower, can grow to 2’T x 2’W.
Shepherdia argentea, Silver Buffaloberry, grows to 6-18’T x 4-15’W. Gray green leaves. Cold hardy to -30. The flowers are inconspicuous, but in July the female shrubs are filled with red fruits.
Sphaeralcea angustifolia, globe mallow, light gray green foliage, light pink flowers throughout summer and fall, native to the Davis Mountains. Sphaeralcea coccinea, caliche globe mallow, silvery gray foliage, spring blooming orange and orange red flowers, local native perennial. (Also S. ambigua and Sphaeralcea grossulariifolia, gooseberryleaf globemallow, red, native to SW, xeric.)
Stachys byzantina, (formerly Stachys lanata) lambs ears and ‘Helen von Stein’ ‘Silver Carpet’ et al, lambs ears, tough but soft, gray tomentose leaves with pink fragrant flowers.
Tanacetum niveum, white bouquet tansy, silver gray leaves, small white daisy-like flowers late spring.
Teucrium aroanium, gray creeping germander, gray green evergreen foliage, deep lavender pink fragrant flowers summer long.
Thymus pseudolanguginosus, woolly thyme, small gray leaves, a low to the ground ground cover. Rarely flowers.
Veronica incana, silver speedwell, silver gray leaves with blue flowers on spikes summer long.
Veronica pectinata, woolly creeping speedwell, woolly grayish green evergreen leaves, blue flowers, drought tolerant ground cover.
Originally published as a GardenNotes. Angie Hanna, October 17, 2013
10 plants with silver or grey foliage
Used selectively, silver, grey or grey-blue foliage can transform a bed or border display.
Silvery-leaved plants add contrast and interest, and bring a cool elegance to planting combinations. They look especially good combined with plants with pink, white, blue and even burgundy flowers.
Browse our Plant Finder for plants with silver or grey foliage
Many plants with silver foliage are drought tolerant, making them useful in areas of low rainfall or borders with very well drained soil. Most do best in full sun. Some leaves are completely silver or grey; others are more mottled.
More plants with interesting foliage:
- Plants with bold foliage
- Best plants with dark foliage
- 10 plants with scented foliage
Here are 10 versatile, silvery-leaved plants to consider.
Silvery-leaved plants add contrast and interest, and bring a cool elegance to planting combinations. 1
Lychnis ‘Gardeners’ World’
Lychnis coronaria, or rose campion, is a short-lived perennial, with clumps of silver felty leaves and long-lasting magenta flowers, popular with pollinators, in late summer. It does well in most well-drained soils but produces the best leaf colour in dry soil.
Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’
Honeywort, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, is a great hardy annual for filling gaps in a border. It has gorgeous silvery blue-green leaves and pretty bell-shaped purple flowers, which are a magnet for bees. It makes a good cut flower and self-seeds readily. Grow in moist but well-drained soil in full sun.
Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Sterling Silver’
Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Sterling Silver’ is an attractive shrub with silvery blue-green foliage. In late summer it bears deep blue flowers. Grow in a patio container, or towards the front of a sunny border, in well drained neutral to acid soil in full sun. Prune plants hard after flowering to enjoy the best possible display the following year.
Cardoon foliage (Cynara cardunculus)
Cynara cardunculus has striking silvery, thistle-like foliage and tall flower stems are topped by fat thistle buds that look like small globe artichokes. They open into large purple thistle flowers which attract masses of bees. Grow in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun.
Silver bush (Convolvulus cneorum)
As its common name suggests, Convolvulus cneorum has evergreen foliage that is covered in silky-grey hairs. In summer, pink buds open into blush-white trumpets with a pink stripe. Grow it in at the front of a border, in a pot, or in a rockery in well-drained soil in full sun.
Santolina chamaecyparissus ‘Pretty Carol’
Santolina chamaecyparissus, or cotton lavender, is neat, rounded evergreen shrub with finely divided, fragrant foliage and small yellow pompon flowers. Grow as groundcover, at the front of the border, or in pots. Santolina chamaecyparissus ‘Pretty Carol’ (pictured) is a small cultivar.
Eryngium ‘Silver Ghost’
Eryngiums, or sea hollies, bear small spiky flowers on sturdy, upright stems from July to September and have grey/blue foliage; Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’ is especially silvery. Grow in a gravel garden or large herbaceous border in free-draining soil in full sun.
Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum)
The curry plant or Helichrysum italicum is a dwarf sub-shrub that bears clusters of small, bright yellow flowers throughout summer. ‘The aromatic foliage smells of curry. Grow in a sunny, sheltered position in well-drained soil. Prune regularly to keep it compact.
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Queen’
Pittosporum ‘Silver Queen’
Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Queen’ bears white markings on the edge of it leaves, making it appear silvery. During late spring and early summer small, bell-shaped, purple flowers are produced in clusters. It makes a good specimen shrub and can be trimmed into a hedge. Grow in a sheltered spot.
Advertisement Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ AGM
More plants with silver foliage
- Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
- Lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’)
- Senecio cineraria ‘Silver Dust’
- Wormwood (Artemisia)
Evergreen Trees For Zone 5: Growing Evergreens In Zone 5 Gardens
Evergreen trees are a staple of cold climates. Not only are they often very cold hardy, they stay green through even the deepest winters, bringing color and light to the darkest months. Zone 5 may not be the coldest region, but it’s cold enough to deserve some good evergreens. Keep reading to learn more about growing evergreens in zone 5, including some of the best zone 5 evergreen trees to choose.
Evergreen Trees for Zone 5
While there are many evergreens that grow in zone 5, here are some of the most favored choices for growing evergreens in zone 5 gardens:
Arborvitae – Hardy down to zone 3, this is one of the more commonly planted evergreens in the landscape. Many sizes and varieties are available to suit any area or purpose. They are especially lovely as standalone specimens but make great hedges too.
Silver Korean Fir – Hardy in zones 5 through 8, this tree grows to 30 feet in height and has striking, white bottomed needles that grow in an upward pattern and give the whole tree a beautiful silvery cast.
Colorado Blue Spruce – Hardy in zones 2 through 7, this tree reaches heights of 50 to 75 feet. It has striking silver to blue needles and is adaptable to most soil types.
Douglas Fir – Hardy in zones 4 through 6, this tree grows to heights of 40 to 70 feet. It has blue-green needles and a very orderly pyramidal shape around a straight trunk.
White Spruce – Hardy in zones 2 through 6, this tree tops out at 40 to 60 feet tall. Narrow for its height, it has a straight, regular shape and large cones than hang down in a distinctive pattern.
White Fir – Hardy in zones 4 through 7, this tree reaches 30 to 50 feet in height. It has silver blue needles and light bark.
Austrian Pine – Hardy in zones 4 through 7, this tree grows to 50 to 60 feet tall. It has a wide, branching shape and is very tolerant of alkaline and salty soils.
Canadian Hemlock – Hardy in zones 3 through 8, this tree reaches heights of 40 to 70 feet tall. Trees can be planted very close together and pruned to make an excellent hedge or natural border.
In North America there are 10 native species of fir, found chiefly from the Rocky Mountains westward and attaining their fullest development in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges. Several of these fir species attain immense size: the white fir (Abies concolor), the noble fir (A. nobilis), the California red fir (A. magnifica), and the Pacific silver fir (A. amabilis) all can attain a height of 60 metres (200 feet). With the exception of the noble fir, the wood of most western American firs is inferior to that of pine or spruce but is used for lumber and pulpwood.
Of the two fir species that occur in the eastern United States and Canada, the best known is the balsam fir (A. balsamea), which is a popular ornamental and Christmas tree. It may be 12 to 18 metres (about 40 to 60 feet) tall at maturity, with cones 5 to 10 cm (about 2 to 4 inches) long. Canada balsam, an oleoresin collected from pitch blisters on the balsam fir’s bark, is used to mount specimens on glass slides for microscopic examination.
balsam firBalsam fir trees (Abies balsamea) on the edge of a marsh, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. © tiger_barb—iStock/Thinkstock Get exclusive access to content from our 1768 First Edition with your subscription. Subscribe today
The silver fir (A. alba) is an ornamental and timber species that is native to Europe and Asia. It is a lofty tree, sometimes reaching 45 metres (150 feet) in height, with large, spreading, horizontal boughs curving upward toward their extremities. The silver fir is abundant in most of the mountain ranges of southern and central Europe, but it is not found in the northern parts of that continent. Extensive forests of silver fir are found in the southern Alps, and the tree is plentiful in the Rhineland and in the Apennine and Pyrenees ranges. In Asia it occurs in the Caucasus and Ural mountains and in some parts of the Altai chain. The silver fir has soft wood that is easily worked and is hence much used in carpentry. The tree yields a high-quality turpentine from blisters on its bark. Burgundy pitch and other resin products are also obtained from the silver fir.
A number of species, including Guatemalan fir (A. guatemalensis), Korean fir (A. koreana), Spanish fir (A. pinsapo), and Ziyuan fir (A. ziyuanensis), are listed as endangered species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Several are critically endangered, notably Algerian fir (A. numidica) and Sicilian fir (A. nebrodensis), largely due to overharvesting and habitat loss.