Sarah Coles

9. GARDENING FOR EVER. Leaves and Trees

                                                        CHAPTER EIGHT

Leaves and Trees


Plant catalogues would have it otherwise, but leaves are often more important than flowers.  They last an entire season, and there’s no need to dead head.  Varied leaves can give an impression of intrigue, creating a lively party you want to join.  This comes from mingling and contrast such as ferny leaves beside solid leaves, feathery leaves and lacy leaves, matt and shining leaves, and various colours.  Some fine performers are (fuller details in next chapter):

Purple and black leaved shrubs and perennials :

Eucomis Sparkling Burgundy, perennial showing leaves in late June until frosts

Sambucus Black Lace, an excellent shrub more black than purple

Ophiopogon planiscarpus nigrescens, like black grass

Cotinus coggygria Royal Purple, shrub with rounded leaves and feather flowers.

Yellow shrubs and grass:

Hakonechloa macra aureola, a neat grass which might be a golden haired pet, its hair stroked the right way.  It dies back in winter.

Sambucus racemosa Plumosa Aurea, a golden elder with serrated edges.

Golden leaved currant, Ribes brocklebankii, which does not flower as generously as its plain green cousin, but makes up with its golden cloak in the shade.

Choisya ternata Sundance is golden all year.  A great shrub for winter cheer.

Silver leaved trees and perennials:

All the silvers and whites given the choice would go for full sun, but most, like the artemesias, can cope with a degree of shade.

Sorbus aria, whitebeam turns green by May but opens with leaves like tulips formed from white felt

Artemesia Lambrook Silver

Artemesia schmidtiana Nana, a neat dwarf

Santolina chamaecyparis, cotton lavender

Variegated trees and perennials:

Not everyone likes variegated leaves, thinking they look unnatural or even sick.  Certainly in the wild they never survive long term, lacking as much chlorophyll as green leaved vegetation, and the shrub Aucuba macculata even at its healthiest looks stricken by plague.  But, in most gardens, bi-toned leaves can add a sparkle and lightness.  Many alas may revert and decide to send out plain green leaved branches, which charged with chlorophyll can be vigorous enough to make the plant lop sided.  Plain leaved branches should be cut back.

Cornus alternifolia variegata, the Wedding Cake Tree, in fact a large shrub, sends out branches at precise intervals in all directions, and from a shrub grows into a small elegant tree.  I have never seen it reverting to plain green.

Acer platanoides Drummondii. A good tree with green leaves edged with golf fading to white, though it does have a tendency to send out plain leaved shoots and branches.

Hostas such as H. fortunei.  Mine sitting in pots either side the path have never been touched by slugs.

Houttuynia cordata Chameleon, the Chameleon Plant.  Some people find this spreads, but mine keeps to itself in a shady spot.  Green and red and yellow. 

All plants

AGM on a label means Award of Garden Merit, a distinction given by the Royal Horticultural Society who considers it particularly worth growing.

The ideal time for planting is usually autumn, giving the plant time over winter to settle and start to put down roots.  When planting, dig a hole larger than the rootball, and add compost.  If the plant is rootbound, with roots congested and spiralling round the base of the pot, tease them out.  Dunk the rootball in water before planting, and water again afterwards.  In dry soil, leave a saucer shaped depression around the trunk or stem for easy watering.  Water regularly through the first season.

With a tree, tie any required stake about a third up the trunk, leaving the upper trunk and branches free to respond to the wind.

Trees for a small to medium garden 

Most trees listed below are deciduous or evergreens, but remember, conifers are underrated.  They grow in a range of greens from sea to pea to racing as well as golds and silvers.  Frequently, as with Chilworth Silver, the leaves have a fruity scent in the wind or when rubbed.

 Aralia elata, Japanese Angelica.  In its early days this is a citadel, its stem armed with stout prickles.  It is smoother with maturity, and within a few years bears fluffy white autumnal flowers.  In Japan they pluck the flowering shoots and fry them in a batter.  The taste is like angelica.

Cercis siliquastrum, the Judas tree, said to be the tree on which Judas hanged himself.  Fine kidney shaped leaves, and pink pea flowers in spring which bloom straight from the branch.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniae Chilworth Silver.  It is termed a dwarf conifer, which means it grows maybe an inch or two each year, but it does not cease growing.  With fine slightly prickly verdigris foliage.

Cornus controversa variegata, a small tree worth placing where it can provide a summer focal point with layered branches and white and green leaves.

Cotoneaster.  As evergreen standards trained with a single upright stem they are transformed from shrubs into trees. Their flowers are dull, though loved by bees, but a good cotoneaster is worth growing for is long lasting winter berries.

Cotoneaster rothschildianus, with yellow berries.

Cotoneaster Cornubia, is even better, because it is so reliable and the lipstick berries are bright and generous, lasting from October through to February. The birds eat them at winter’s end, when flocks of fieldfares may descend for a meal.

Cydonia oblonga, quince.  Tender pale pink flowers in April which then turn the soil below into a shell covered beach.  Fruit appears – not invariably each year – as downy gold globes which have so much pectin they are easily cooked into a cherry coloured  jelly.  Some say these were the golden apples guarded by the Hesperides, Nymphs of the West, and stolen by Perseus.  Seedlings can be grown from the pips, but they are not necessarily robust, and it is better to plant a sound named variety like Serbian Gold.

Koelreuteria paniculata, Golden Rain Tree.  Its elegant serrated leaves are pink when emerging,  It grows fast into a moderate sized tree.  If it obscures the view while sitting in the garden, lift the canopy by pruning the lower branches.  In August it bears on its tips sprays of golden flowers, which in due course turn into beautiful seedpod lanterns.  Three plusses.

Gleditsia triacanthos Sunburst, the golden honey locust tree, gives a screen of gold lace to a dark border.  It is superior to the slightly similar golden Robinia, whose branches have a tendency to snap, and its shape and fine leaves are altogether more refined.

Malus floribunda Royalty.  A purple leaved crab apple, looking splendid in spring with mauve flowers, and bearing tiny sour red apples in autumn.

Malus floribunda, another lovely crab with pink and white blossom and later fruit.  In late spring it becomes a sun surrounded by whirling humming insects.  The sound is as uplifting as Holst’s Planets.

Magnolia.  There are many varieties, of which Magnolia Leobneri Messel is a particularly good.  But beware.  They only perform well on a moist well drained slightly acidic soil.

Prunus pendula, weeping cherry.  The ones with single petals have a translucent look  compared to the double ones with their clotted petals.  Mine can be seen from an upstairs windows, with birds alighting, and in spring its whoosh of palest pink make it the belle of the ball in our communal parking yard.

Prunus generally.  There are plenty of charming flowering cherries – Shmidsu Sakura and dozens more – but apart their brief show of blossom they are dull.  The have no scent, and the doubles – like nearly all double flowers are sterile – and of no interest to bees and other insects.

Prunus serrula is an exception, striking in winter with bark like bands of polished mahogany.

Sophora japonica, the Chinese scholar tree.  Delicate pinnate (like a fish bone) foliage.  I planted one because I wanted a scholar in the garden, and I’d seen one in Hilliers Arboretum with small pink pea flowers in late summer and these beautiful pinnate leaves.  Mine has never flowered, but I love its shade and leaves.

Sorbus aria Lutescens, a generous variety of the common whitebeam.  Its felt leaves open like bouquets of silver tulips in May.

Sorbus aucuparia, rowan or mountain ash.  A British native, steeped in folklore.  Rowan is one of the few plant names given to boys, while the overwelming majority are given to girls.  There are several species of this small tree with its pinnate leaves and bright autumnal colour and berries from Europe, the Himalayas and China.  Attractive and easily grown.  Spaced along the fence I have our native Sorbus aucuparia, Sorbus Joseph Rock from China and the Sorbus commixta Olympic Flame.

Taxus fastigiata, columnar yew.   This a cultivar of Taxus baccata, the yew seen in graveyards which can become a sizable tree, but a couple of these columnar yews are slow growing and wonderful as sentinels announcing the way to a different part of the garden.


Catalpa bignonoides, the Indian Bean Tree.  Perfect for late summer.  It blooms in the dog days of August, and the floppy white bell flowers appear in such profusion they overwhelm the heart shaped leaves.  Each flower repays minute examination, with two yellow flight paths and dark spots for guiding insects to the nectar.  Decades ago we planted one grown from seed, and it did so well that after a few years the lower branches had to be pruned to raise the canopy.  Then, the grass around it could be mown, and bulbs planted.  It comes from north America, and is called after a local tribe of ‘red Indians’ named Catawba.

Davidia involucrata, with large white creamy bracts in June, leading to its name, the Pocket Hankerchief Tree.  Slow alas to produces these hankies.

Fagus sylvatica, beech.  Walking under a beech in early May with the leaves newly open feels like floating through a vast aquarium.  With its grey elephant smooth trunk and branches, this is the most beautiful ‘non flowering’ tree of early summer.

       Fagus riversii, a copper beech deepest maroon in leaf, and appearing khaki when you stand under it.

Beech hedges are not advisable as backing for a flower border.  Their tawny dead leaves persist through winter, and in spring look incongruous as a backdrop for the emerging flowers.  A far better backing is the classic yew hedge, which has the reputation of being a slow grower, but no, give it as little as four or five years, and its dark civilized green is the perfect foil for other greens and flowers.

Juglans regia, walnut.  This glorious tree does need space.  For a smaller variety, Broadview, bred in Canada, is the one to try, growing to about twenty feet after five years.

The plusses of walnuts are numerous.  Their pink early foliage.  The way the leaves when crushed give off a rich spicy odour, which deters midges when you sit under them.  (Cattle like resting under walnuts for the same reason.)  If you pick the soft green walnuts in July, before the squirrels, they can be pricked, soaked in brine, then left in the sun to turn black, and finally bottled in vinegar with sugar and spices.  Delicious.  Later mature walnuts are invaluable, if they have survived the squirrels’ foraging.  The god Zeus was reared on walnuts, and the Romans called them Jovis glans – glans being the bulbous end of a penis.




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