Finding plants with interesting foliage is always a treat, but if they’re discouragingly expensive or too fussy to grow successfully, the thrill can go off pretty quickly. So these days, I turn first to seed catalogs to see what I can grow for myself before I start hunting through online nursery listings or visiting local garden centers. Here are a few of my favorite foliage finds that are easy to start from seed and easy to grow in the garden, too.
Back in the early 90s, tender perennials were all the rage in the Philadelphia area: particularly coleus and the tender salvias, but also the various species and selections of Plectranthus. Before that, we mostly knew Plectranthus through the houseplants commonly called Swedish ivy (P. oertendahlii and P. verticillata). Suddenly, we were finding and trading maybe two dozen different plectranthi (or, um, plectranthuses, I guess): many with beautiful foliage and/or wonderful spicy scents. It’s been a long time since I’ve found more than one or two of these for sale around here, though, so I was delighted to see that one old favorite – silver spurflower (Plectranthus argentatus) – is now readily available as seed.
This is one to grow not for its scent but for its appearance. It looks much like a cross between a coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) and lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), with the upright, branching habit of the coleus and the fuzzy, silver/gray/green foliage of lamb’s ears. The leaves look more green during rainy spells, but they’re silvery gray again when they dry out.
Grown from seed, silver spurflower reaches about 2 feet tall and wide by the end of the growing season. It thrives in sun but also grows well in shade (with a more open habit there). It’s also much more tolerant of moisture than many other silver-leaved plants.
The purple-tinged buds and pale blue flowers are kind of pretty, but, as with coleus, you might choose to keep them clipped off to better show off the leaves.
Silver spurflower looks great with many other colors, especially deep red to purple leaves and flowers, deep to bright greens, and crisp whites. There’s also a pinkish tinge to the stems which makes a pretty echo for rosy pink blooms.
If you have luck overwintering tender perennials indoors, you could take cuttings in late summer to keep silver spurflower going from year to year; otherwise, treat it as an annual and buy new seeds each year. (I’ve not yet had it set any seed.) Sow indoors under lights in mid- to late March and keep the pot warm; on a heat mat, the seed usually sprouts in less than a week.
Online seed sources include Summer Hill Seeds and Thompson & Morgan. (These and other sources list the plant as P. argentatus ‘Silver Shield’, but I suspect that’s a made-up name, because I can’t find any information on how ‘Silver Shield’ differs from the straight species.) If you’d rather buy started plants, check out Digging Dog or Avant Gardens. There’s also a vegetatively propagated, variegated version of silver spurflower called ‘Hill House’ (shown below); unfortunately, I can’t find any current online retail sources.
Polka-dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya; also listed as H. sanguinolenta) is another foliage favorite that I first learned as a houseplant. About 10 years ago, I found seedlings for sale as bedding plants, and they worked so well in the garden that I haven’t been without them since.
It used to be that the leaves were mostly green with distinct pink spots. Now, I always look for the ‘Splash Select’ series, with leaves that are mainly pink, rose, red, or white, with just a bit of green.
From the time they are tiny, the seedlings are showy, and you know right away what colors you have.
The plants usually reach a bit more than 1 foot tall. They have a bushy, upright form if you give them room to fill out. In crowded borders or containers, they can weave themselves up through most companions.
Polka-dot plants produce small purple flowers as the summer progresses (you can see a few in the shot below if you look closely), but they’re not especially noticeable; really, it’s all about the leaves.
The plants adapt to a range of light conditions. Here (in southeastern Pennsylvania), I’ve had them do well in full sun, but they needed regular watering to prevent them from turning crispy on the edges. They’ll also grow in full shade, though they tend to be somewhat leggy and less colorful there.
A site where the plants get some sun and some shade during the day seems to be ideal. Because they’re so adaptable, polka-dot plants make terrific midseason fillers. If you start a packet of ‘Splash Select Mix’, you have a range of color options.
The white ones look great with white flowers and deep green or silvery foliage. The pinks and reds, too, look good with silver, and with yellow, deep red, or purple foliage, as well as pink flowers.
It’s easy to root polka-dot plants from cuttings if you want to bring them in for the winter, but as with the spurflower, I find it easier to start new ones from seed each spring. I usually sow them indoors in late March to mid-April but sometimes start another batch in early June if I’m planning to use them to fill gaps in July.
Park Seed carries ‘Splash Select Mix’ as well as the white, pink, and red strains. You can also get seeds of ‘Splash Select Mix’ (as well as ‘Confetti Mix’ and the individual ‘Splash Select’ and ‘Confetti’ colors) from Seedman.com.
The last neat plant is another houseplant-turned-garden-star: a tender perennial commonly called bloodleaf, chicken gizzard, or beefsteak plant (Iresine herbstii).
The species typically reaches about 1 foot tall here, in dense, upright clumps. Bloodleaf looks a bit like a coleus, but it’s actually in Amaranthaceae, the amaranth family. The plants can produce clusters of tiny, creamy blooms, but I’ve never seen them flower here. The leaves are bright and certainly colorful: definitely hard to miss in either a border or a container.
Last year, I found ‘Blazin’ Rose’, which is a giant-sized version of bloodleaf: the leaves are larger, and the stems are much taller – to about 30 inches. It’s usually listed without a specific epithet, but considering its larger size and pointed leaves, I’d guess that it’s a selection of I. lindenii, rather than I. herbstii.
For a different color option, there are two yellow versions: I. herbstii ‘Aureoreticulata’, which has the same proportions and habit of the species, and I. lindenii ‘Formosa’ (shown below), which is comparable to ‘Blazin’ Rose’ in vigor and leaf shape. Both of these still have some pink, mainly in the stems and in the midrib of each leaf, but they read as bright yellow from a distance.
In a border, ‘Formosa’ usually reaches 24 to 30 inches tall, but it can get even taller if it has something to lean against. Paired with ‘Whopper Orange’ black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) in the container shown below, it fully covered a 3 x 3 trellis and extended another foot or more beyond that by frost.
All of these are fun to grow, but you rarely see seed of either I. herbstii or I. lindenii for sale, and the selections need to be propagated by cuttings (a very easy method, if you have a plant to start with). There is, however, a very pretty beefsteak plant that you can grow from seed: I. herbstii ‘Purple Lady’. In the picture below, it’s the deep reddish purple foliage, mingled with the green-and-maroon leaves of pink knotweed (Persicaria capitata).
‘Purple Lady’ is upright in its seedling stage, but once it’s a few inches tall, its habit changes to distinctly horizontal. The ultimate height is 3 to maybe 6 inches tall, with a much wider spread: a single plant can grow 2 feet or more in all directions. If you’d like some dark foliage to serve as a single-season groundcover in full sun to partial shade, ‘Purple Lady’ is the plant for you.
‘Purple Lady’ thrives in full sun to partial shade, with the deepest purple coloration in full sun. (The plants shown here are more on the reddish side, I guess because they were getting a fair bit of afternoon shade from their taller companions.) I usually sow the seeds indoors in early to mid-April. A couple of online seed sources include Swallowtail Garden Seeds and Seedman.com.
[As with all of my Three Neat Plants posts, I have no affiliation with any of the suggested sources and receive no compensation from them or anyone else for writing about these plants.]