Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
As exciting as it is to see the first few blooms of spring, it’s hard not to be greedy and wish for more color now. Hooray for years’ worth of digital photos to supply a quick color fix! While I was filing some newer images, I came across pictures of some of my favorite yellow-leaved shrubs, and, knowing that many of you too enjoy great-looking foliage, I figured I’d share them. I decided to divide them into two posts: those that are grown for flowers as well as foliage and those prized mostly for their leaves.
Mock oranges (Philadephus coronarius) normally aren’t the most interesting-looking deciduous shrubs, and their bloom period is quite short: just about 2 weeks in late May to early June in this part of Pennsylvania. But once you’ve experienced its sweet fragrance, it’s hard to resist making a space for it somewhere, especially if you can find one of the colored-foliage forms, such as yellow-leaved ‘Aureus’. Even it isn’t exactly a multi-season shrub: its leaf color is most pronounced in spring, turning an ordinary green in early summer. But still, it increases the interest from about 2 weeks to 8 weeks or more, so it definitely has an edge over the straight species.
Mine does well in morning sun only (until about 11 am), and even there, it can get a little crispy around the edges if the soil gets very dry. I’d guess it might be even happier in light all-day shade. The trick is giving golden mock orange a spot where you can enjoy the scent and color in spring and then let more-interesting companions carry the show for the rest of the growing season. (Mock oranges make great supports for hybrid clematis, by the way!) You can acquire golden-leaved mock orange through Gossler Farms Nursery.
In contrast to the single-season mock orange, viburnums hardly need any improvement to earn a place of honor all year long. But if you’re going to have flowers, berries, and great fall color, then you may as well go all the way and get colorful foliage for spring and summer as well. One option is yellow-leaved European cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus ‘Aureum’).
Like the golden mock orange, the leaf color is most outstanding in spring to early summer. In shade, it turns mostly green after that; in sun, it stays yellowish, but it tends of bleach out. I suspect a morning-sun site might be best for this one.
Another option that I’ve become even more fond of is the yellow-leaved form of wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana ‘Aureum’).
The branching form is dense and well-balanced, the plump flower buds add winter interest, the dense white bloom clusters are pretty, and the red-turning-black fall berries are fantastic (if you have another clone or seedling nearby for pollination). But my favorite feature of ‘Aureum’ is the color of the leaves, which lasts through spring into early or midsummer.
I have this one in the same bed as my golden mock orange (below, the mock orange is on the left and the viburnum is on the right). It too seems quite happy there, with the added advantage of being less prone to crisping during dry spells.
Greer Gardens carries both V. opulus ‘Aureum’ and V. lantana ‘Aureum’. Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica) is a shrub that looks good on paper (and in pictures) for multi-season interest, with showy yellow flowers in spring and bright green stems for winter interest. In the garden, though, it’s one of those suckering plants that can easily earn the status of being aggressive: maybe not a problem if you put it in a tough site such as dry shade, but a quickly-regretted choice if let loose in moist, rich border soil. I should mention here that Japanese kerria is also considered invasive in some areas, as are the species Viburnum opulus and V. lantana, so you may want to check out the lists at the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States to see if they’re a concern in your area before you consider adding them to your garden.
If you think you’d still like to try Japanese kerria, then consider tracking down the yellow-leaved selection called ‘Chiba Gold’. I’ve been begging this one to sucker, even while I’m pulling out dozens of spreading shoots of the variegated form ‘Picta’ growing in the same border. This yellow-leaved beauty gets even less sun than the other shrubs I’ve mentioned (just from dawn until about 9 am); it bleaches quickly in much more sun than that.
I see that even though a few nurseries carried ‘Chiba Gold’ a few years ago, no one seems to have it available right now, so unfortunately, I can’t provide a mail-order source at the moment. And finally, my favorite of my yellow-leaved shrubs for sheer gaudiness: Briant Rubidor weigela (Weigela florida ‘Olympiade’).
The late-spring show of hot-pink blooms against the emerging golden foliage is absolutely outrageous; the leaf color stays distinctly yellow through the growing season; and it’s fine even in full sun here with no signs of crisping or bleaching.
I cut the whole thing back to about 1 foot every 3 years or so to keep it small enough for a narrow foundation border, and it doesn’t seem to mind at all. And it too makes a perfect partner for supporting a clematis. One source for Briant Rubidor (also sold simply as ‘Rubidor’) is Lazy S’s Farm.
Next time, even more woody ways to brighten your life – and your garden – with glorious golden-leaved shrubs (and a few trees, too).