More Great Big Leaves

– Posted in: Garden Design

I wrote last month about my affinity for big leaves. I love the really massive ones, like the butterburr above. Those that create instant focal points, that raise the bar for potentially dramtic foliage groupings and that add the tropical pizzaz I’m after to transform my gardens into the landscape of my imagination. Last time out, I mentioned a few of my foliage favorites, but they were all annuals, tropicals, or tender perennials. That was not to suggest there are no worthy hardy plants. There are. Here’s a handful:

I’ll start with the ubiquitous hosta. These amazingly varied garden faves come in all shapes and sizes, from those with dinky leaves smaller than my thumb to big, bodacious brutes with names like Big Mama. While the teeny ones have their uses-slug salad anyone?–I go for the honking monsters. Especially ‘Sum and Substance’, which has big, big leaves–a mature clump can be more than 6 feet across with two-foot leaves. Even hostaphile Tony Avent calls it one of the best hostas ever. Of course, Tony says that about all the hostas, but I’m going with him on this one. In addition to its Brobdingnagian beauty, ‘Sum and Substance’ is a glorious chartreuse, just the thing to brighten a slightly shaded spot. I like contrasting the bold swaths of its leaves with finer details, like the needles of this larch. 

It’s hard to top the eye-catching glory of the princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), so named because in parts of the Orient it was once tradtional to plant one upon the birth of a daughter; by the time she reached marriageable age, the tree could be harvested for lumber to make her a dresser as a wedding present. Its soft, lightweight wood has been used more recenty to make surfboards and guitars. Mine is never going to get big enough to make any of those things–I cut it to the ground every spring. Shortly thereafter, buds covered with purplish fuzz erupt around the stump, then produce shoots that vault skywards. By this time of year they are arrow-straight and nearing 20 feet in height. That explosive growth also yields huge pentagonal leaves, the fewer buds you allow to grow, the bigger the leaves get. In any case, two feet across would be on the small side for these foliar fatcats. Of course, cutting the tree to the ground means I’ll never get wood old enough to produce the cool foxglovelike flowers the tree produces, but its flower buds are marginally hardy here in cold Zone 6; most years I wouldn’t get flowers anyway, and the leaves would be ever so much less dramatic. But there’s an upside to my cultural technique for the princess tree, aka empress tree or dragon tree-it’s listed in some parts of the country as invasive, and by preventing it from flowering, I also prevent it from setting seed and thus spreading. 

I’m also a fan of butterburr (Petasites japonica), in spite of its imperialistic tendencies. Hmm. Come to think of it, a lot of my big foliage faves tend to be fast-spreading brawlers, but if you’ve got the place for such thugs, why not? Anyways…Petasites wakens in eary early Spring-late March or earliest April- with weird flowers that look like some alien spawn. Sooner than seems possible, big–2 to 3 feet or more across-kidney shaped leaves rise. Each is perched like a parasol atop a long rhubarb like stem. The Japanese eat those stalks, I’ve yet to try one. Unfortunately I’ve discovered some critters have a taste for them too. Plants love shade and mositure and will reward a good position by growing like topsy. It’s great alongside ponds or streams.

Rice paper plant (Tetrapanax papyrifera) is usually rated hardy to zone 7, but thanks to planting it in a warm microclimate and pampering it with a thick leafy mulch each fall, I’ve had it growing for a number of years. It’s worth the effort. The leaves have a beauteous gray green hue, look kind of velvety, and are about the size of a really big dinner plate. Each leaf edge is toothed with chompers big as an old-time crosscut saw. It combines well with just about anything. My plants reach about 4 feet in height, and spread quicjly thoguh its far (too far ) form being obnoxious. I understand that may not be the case in warmer climes, where plants grow much taller and, I presume, spread more rapidly.  

I’m also enamored of plume poppy (Macleaya cordata). OK, I know I may be in the minority–I just saw a Garden Web thread entitled “The Curse of the Plume Poppy.” Gimme a break!  Yes the plants are thuggish interlopers, but you plan accordingly. They excel at making backdrops or screens in the more rough-and-tumble parts of my garden. I think they’re good on slopes too. Anyway, I keep their spread down to a dull roar by letting them fill in their intended spot, then yank any unwanted shoots along the clump’s perimeter. It’s easy to weed. And it’s worth the effort: I love plume poppy’s odd, crenellated leaf and ghostly blue-gray color. And I think the creamy pink summer plumes are just glorious.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Fern September 29, 2008, 11:57 am

Steve — Did you see–it was either Garden Gate Magazine or Fine Gardening–where they featured an Elephant Ear with leaves as big as a man’s arm span? They were picnic blanket size!

Hi Fern–Yes I did see it. It was Fine Gardening. Got ‘em, got two in fact, though mine are not quite as large because we haven’t had a whole lot of heat this summer. But they are mighty impressive; the unfurling leaves, when still wound fairly tightly, are something to see too. I wrote about them–when they weren’t quite as large as they are now-in my first Great Big Leaves post last month. –Steve

our friend Ben September 29, 2008, 12:24 pm

Ye gods, Steve! What a glorious clump of petasites! Enough to make a mannequin drool. If you haven’t grown the hosta ‘Great Exectations’, you owe it to yourself to find a plant. It is great in every sense!

Hi Ellie–That big clump is actually from a friend’s garden. I had a huge sprawl of them too, hiding the base of my sci-fi fountain. But some critter ate it this summer-just nibbled the stalks enough to make the leaves topple over, and before that, in late spring, the leaves got shotgunned by hail. Since I wasn’t able to get a good shot of my clump this year, that one shot is from Jim’s. I have ‘Great Expectations’–which I’ve also heard referred to as ‘Great Disappointments’. It is absolutely beauteous, but seems to take forever to bulk up.–Steve

Kitt September 29, 2008, 12:27 pm

Great idea! I love that butterburr. What critters eat it?

I have a large garden that I do want to fill with some larger plants, so these are very useful suggestions. I’m also looking into some of the taller grasses. My neighbors have some (looks like pampas) that gets a good 10 feet tall. Very dramatic!

Kitt-I’m not sure what critters are plaguing me. I tried sprays and a have-a-heart trap but never caught the thing. It would nibble the base of the stalk, and the leaf would then topple over. It was like some little lumberjack was working its way through my stand of butterburr. I’m guessing it was a rabbit.
Another good tall grass is Miscanthus floridulus, gets about 10 feet, and can really create a wall after a few seasons.–Steve

Lisa at Greenbow September 29, 2008, 1:21 pm

You have certainly given us some big thoughts Steve. I have only one of the mentioned large leaved plants, Sum and Substance. It certainly does live up to all you have written about it. I would love to try the plume poppy. I wouldn’t want a plant I have to baby too much. It just doesn’t seem to happen in my garden despite me having good intentions.

Hi Lisa–Why not go for the plume poppy–I just clean up the edges of mine maybe 2 or 3 times a season and it takes just a couple minutes each time. I’ve got enough stuff to baby in all my containers, so out in the garden at large I need tough players who can stand on their own–which includes plume poppy for sure.–Steve

Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden) September 29, 2008, 2:33 pm

During the Garden Conservancy Open Garden Days, I visited a horticulturist who is the director of the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. He has a colocasia gigantea Thailand Giant Strain (from Tony Avent). I didn’t post my close up photos of the leaves and blooms in my blog post, but they are fantastic! Cameron http://definingyourhome.blogspot.com/2008/09/horticulturists-garden.html

Agreed, Cameron. Those plants have a sort of sculptural beauty and sheer drama that is equaled by precious few plants that can be grown in this part of the world. I’m curious to learn about overwintering them, and wondering if the bare tubers will survive.–Steve

Nancy Bond September 29, 2008, 4:08 pm

Now this is just why I love this community so well — I would never have given large-leaved foliage a second thought, probably because I garden in a rather confined space right now. But they’re stunning! All by themselves, they’re just beautiful. Great ideas, and yes, I’m filling a notebook. :)

Big foliage can be especially dramatic in a small space. It could really make a statement! After all, you wouldn’t put just tiny furniture in a small room would you? Go for the glory!–Steve

Linda Baldwin September 29, 2008, 8:55 pm

These are all great plants and I certainly have the room-2 acres to fill-but I wonder if any are deer resistant? Here in rural New Jersey it seems that only herbs and any silver/gray fuzzy foliage and grasses are safe.
They al l appear to have fleshy leaves which the deer love.

I know about deer. We fought them off for years. They will sure eat the hosta, though not as readily as most other hosta. I finally put up a fence to keep them out, but I never had a problem with them eating the Petasites-they ate the flowers, but never the leaves. Never touched plume poppy and I doubt they’d go after the empress tree. No clue whether thyey’d snack on the Tetrapanax, but it is gray, and little bit –teeny bit, downy looking at least. Good luck.–Steve

our friend Ben September 30, 2008, 11:00 am

Ugh, Steve! Our garden got smashed by hail this year as well—seemingly seconds after I’d brought out all the plants from the greenhouse and arranged them on the deck. Nothing ever looked quite right after that—all those ribboned leaves! Sob. Poor ‘Great Expectations’ got a bit scattershot as well, but mercifully it’s under trees so it had at least a modicum of protection. “Great Disappointments’? Nonsense! Worth the wait!

Hail is frustrating for sure! Especially early on. I had cannas that were literally cut to ribbons-they looked like a cheerleader’s pompom. But one of the best things about tropicals is that they grow fast enough to produce a whole new set of leaves in short order. ‘Great Expectations’ looks great, it’s just that every spring I anxiously watch for its appearance, only to see very few new growth points poking through the mulch.So, I’m expecting…–Steve

Li April 15, 2010, 6:44 am

I love your garden, I’m starting one of my own. I’m doing a Tropical / Bohemian / Water Garden. You gave me some nice ideas.

Gardening is for sure the language of Relaxation