TOW - Fabulous Foliage
Tue, 25 May 2004 20:50:32 PDT
Dear PBS members,

I'm a couple days late with this week's TOW topic; sorry about that, but 
better late than never.

Fabulous Foliage
PBS Topic of the Week

With bulbs and geophytes, perhaps more so than with herbaceous flowering 
plants, the attention is primarily placed on floral effect.  Yet there are some 
geophytes with handsome foliage, worthy of growing for their foliar appeal as 
well as the flowers, and even some grown exclusively for the foliage.  

If some of your bulbs stopped flowering on a regular basis, which ones would 
you grow because of the nice foliage?  Veltheimia comes to mind, as a genus 
with gorgeous foliage, worth cultivating regardless of whether the pretty 
flowers show up or not.  I grow some geophytes where the main attraction is foliage, 
and I put together a photo gallery to help illustrate my examples.  For ease 
of access, by having all photos in one place for this discussion, I put 
together a gallery on my website at:…

(* Note: some of the same photos are already uploaded to the PBS wiki and can 
be found there separately. Not all photo galleries at the link above are 
enabled yet, but will be fully enabled in the next couple of days. Those 
mini-galleries that are enabled are indicated in red text).

Alliums contain a diverse range of plants, some of which have striking 
foliage.  One species that jumps out for foliar interest is Allium senescens var. 
glaucum, an Asian species known by a number of colorful common names, among them 
"cowlick oinion", "circle onion", and "spirale onion".  I selected the form 
'Blue Eddy' in which the foliage is extra silvery-blue, and the prostrate 
swirling action more pronounced.  I use it as a ground cover. The late summer 
hemispheres of pale pink flowers are pleasant but do little to improve on the 

Many allium species within the melanocrommyum section (the subgenus that 
contains the "big ball" types, such as A. giganteum), have remarkable spring 
foliage.  I posted a photo that shows a bed of varied melanocrommyum species in 
spring growth with lush, succulent foliage.  That photo is a springboard to the 
next species; Allium karataviense, which has outstanding foliage in the spring. 
 From wild collections, and among several known cultivars, the foliage 
coloration, size, and shape is noticeably variable.  But in all forms, the thick 
leathery leaves held just above ground level are richly pleated, often suffused 
with purplish tones.  The popular new variety 'Ivory Queen' has luxuriant pale 
pewter-toned foliage creating great accents in a shrub/perennial planting bed, 
perfectly complimenting the clean white flower globes.

Allium nutans is another swirling onion, again from the far east, and akin to 
Allium senescens.  By the way, it's interesting to note that the leaves 
always spiral in a clockwise direction.  I wonder if they spin the other way in the 
southern hemisphere?  But back to A. nutans, it is a stalwart sort with 
foliage much larger, wider, and thicker than A. senescens.  In one particular form 
I grow, the foliage is extraordinarily heavy and thick, a real "bruiser", with 
gray leaves that ascend and twist in eye-catching formation.  The dense 
globes of white flowers are pleasant but anticlimactic.

It's always fun to find deviant forms of household plants, and one such plant 
originating in my garden is Allium schoenoprasum 'Curly Mauve' (call it curly 
chives if you like).  I believe it's a cross between typical taller forms of 
chives with some dwarf collections from Corsica that tended to have prostrate 
foliage. One has to see this cultivar in person to believe it; from early 
spring to early summmer bulking up with wild medusan clumps of fine curling 
"tentacles".  The gray-lavender flowers are pretty, but they tend to negate the 
foliage effect.  Novel seedlings appear that are even more extreme in the 
prostrate curled disposition.

This is a group many of you know and love, myself included, yet they are 
plants that your non-gardening friends and loved ones will pretend to admire (or 
possibly just barely tolerate) as you point them out and wax poetic over the 
strange brown structures that you and I know as curiously spectacular blooms.  
But there are some species where the foliage is every bit as alluring as the 
bizarre flowers, in fact, it seems that nearly all of the Asian species come in 
both green-leaf forms and beautiful variegated-leaf forms.  There are some 
too, where the leaf shape, size, appearance, and structure, are to be marvelled 
at, whether variegated or not.  Arisaema ringens is such a species.

Ariseama ringens has simple three-part foliage, each foliage trio so large, 
lush, waxy, glossy and pertly displayed, that they barely seem real.  The 
bizarre clenched-fist-like blooms are fascinating for the collector of such 
oddities, but the huge glossy green leaves appeal to everyone.

The Japanese A. kishidae is a real trooper.. a good doer in our harsh New 
England winters.  I grow the variegated form, which has boldly variegated 
foliage, growing wider than tall, the leaves only reaching about 8" (20 cm).  The 
translucent copper, white-striped spathes appear before the leaves emerge, yet 
remain above the foliage when the leaves finally unfurl. One of the finest 
species.  Some years it doesn't flower, but I can always admire the foliage.

Arisaema heterophyllum is a stalwart giant. It doesn't sprout until June, 
then miraculously grows to 6' tall (2 meters) in just 3 weeks.  The spathe is 
green, and not showy, but it's the stately stature and elegance of this species 
that demands attention.  The complex multi-segmented leaf that encircles the 
flower, atop a strong 4-1/2' (135 cm) stem, is impressively bold and imposing.

A photograph taken in a friends garden shows Arisaema serratum and A. 
sikokianum, two more Japanese species, both in their variegated leaf forms. The 
flowers on the latter species, A. sikokianum, are of course spectacular, but who 
wouldn't grow either species even if they never flowered.

To be continued...

Mark McDonough Pepperell, Massachusetts, United States "New England" USDA Zone 5
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