Bleak Midwinter….but wait! It doesn’t have to be! (Part II, non-Conifers)

By Sara Malone
As we noted in Part I, conifers provide the vast majority of golden winter foliage, especially in colder zones. Anyone who thought that ‘conifer’ was synonymous with ‘Christmas tree’ should have a new idea from our photos of the numerous golden varieties lighting up the winter landscape. However, even those of us that use conifers extensively in the garden enjoy the variety of texture and shape that other plants provide, so here we share those that add a golden glow without the needles. In USDA zones 8-10, Phormiums add color and drama to the foliage garden. Many of us have a love-hate affair with the genus, as Phormiums are the over-used, poorly maintained staples of many commercial plantings. In addition, many grow far larger than their tags indicate and reversion to the green is deplorably common in the most attractively colored varieties. In fact, one plantsman we know is fond of saying that if you have a colored Phormium that hasn’t reverted, you just haven’t had it long enough. Happily, a few varieties manage to transcend the sins of their relatives and perform as good garden citizens, and one is P. ‘Golden Ray’. True to its name, it provides a ray of sunshine in the winter landscape, doesn’t get enormous and, at least so far (it was first grown in the U.S. in 2006), appears to be stable. An added benefit is that it is easy to groom, as the old blades can be tugged gently for removal, rather than requiring weaponry to dislodge them. The strappy leaves provide wonderful contrasting structure to the softer, more rounded shapes of the conifers. Yuccas also add sunshine to the winter garden, with structure similar to Phormiums. They are related, although not as closely as they were once thought to be, when both were in the Agave family. Phormiums have recently been moved into a family of their own. Yuccas come in a variety of greens and golds, and our favorite is ‘Walbristar’, patented and sold in the U.S. as Bright Star. In summer Bright Star is crisply green and gold, but colder winter temperatures bring out a pink blush. It is a strikingly beautiful plant. Pam Pennick, of Digging, reports from Zone 8b that “‘Color Guard’ yucca looks great year round and is a nice medium size that doesn’t try to swallow a garden.” She also likes ‘Bright Edge’ and we love ‘Tiny Star’. If grass-like leaves are not to your liking, or your winter temperatures are too low for Phormiums and Yuccas, Abelia Kaleidoscope is a wonderful choice. This A. grandiflora variety is much more compact than the species and has buttery golden winter foliage with highlights of red, orange and chartreuse. It grows beautifully in Zone 9b and is evergreen to Zone 7. This is one of our favorite shrubs year-round, and it can take full summer sun here without burning. The shadier the spot the greener it grows, so for maximum sunshine in winter, plant it in full sun or under a deciduous tree. See how well ‘Kaleidoscope’ pairs with greens and reds? Its compact form means low maintenance, although it can withstand shearing if it gets rangy. We read a lot about red-twigged dogwoods and don’t understand why their yellow brethren don’t get more respect – or attention. Yellow-twigged varieties such as C. ‘Silver and Gold’ and C. ‘Flaviramea’ glow with golden intensity like so many high-wattage filaments in the winter landscape. Much as we love it, we don’t plant a lot of it: the yellow color is brightest on the youngest wood, which means that yearly pruning of older branches is necessary to keep it glowing. We’ve even prospected for gold amongst the grass-like plants and found Libertia, which is woefully underused, given its attributes. Not a true grass but a member of the Iris family, Liberta is evergreen, low maintenance and drought-tolerant in Zones 7-10. There are several varieties – we’ve used L. ixiodes ‘Goldfinger’ and L. peregrinans. There are also variegated hollies or holly-look-alikes. Try Ilex 'Ferox Argentea' or Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’. Both supposedly grow to Zone 6. Their shiny, toothy leaves add structure year-round but their golden variegation is most appreciated in winter on cloudy days. For those of you in the coldest zones, Sedum ‘Angelina’ is hardy to -40° F. We’d call it chartreuse in summer, but in fall and winter it takes on a ruddy hue and shines gold from underneath shrubs or across open spaces. Be careful about adding ‘Angelina’ willy-nilly; it roots seemingly overnight and some may consider it invasive. If you use drip irrigation, it won’t take hold where there is no water. And finally, even though we’re cheating by including this on a foliage blog, what would the winter landscape be in California without citrus? Meyer lemon (Citrus limon ‘Meyer Improved’) is the only citrus that we can reliably grow here in 9b, and it supposedly grows in Zone 8. The golden fruit add ornamentation to the winter landscape, with the added bonus that you can use them in baking, juices, etc. Doesn’t this make you want to go for the gold? Copyright 2012 by Form and Foliage