Colourful Evergreen Shrubs
I know some readers will turn off and think “dull, green and boring” as soon as I mention evergreen shrubs, even if they are the backbone of the garden. Others will cringe when I talk about “colourful evergreens” as images of yellow and green hollies, aucubas and elaeagnus spring to mind. (By the way, those are the characters that have contributed so much to the garden picture over the past few months.) However there are other colourful evergreens, with foliage that cannot fail to appeal when it comes to adding enduring colour to pots and containers, beds and borders. Shrubs with leaves so colourful that they can vie for attention with any flower, and walk away with the prize.
Take coprosmas for example. These are becoming more and more popular, despite their rather tender constitution. Certainly not plants for cold, exposed gardens, they are ideal for sheltered courtyards, balconies, window boxes and gardens in milder areas. Small, shining, waxy leaves on compact, bushy shrubs which never get too big. Most change colour with the season, the colours often becoming more intense in winter. Coprosma ‘Lemon and Lime’ is more subtle than most, but its uplifting colours will add zest to dull planting. Coprosma ‘Tequila Sunrise’ is warm and lively and delightful with caramel heucheras and orange primroses for spring pots. Coprosmas cope well in semi shade: ideal for small gardens.
Lophomyrtus is another slightly tender, small leaved evergreen. This has fine, straight stems and small, leathery leaves, much thinner than those of coprosma. The shrubs have an altogether lighter appearance but are still compact and bushy and respond well to trimming. Lophomyrtus x ralphii ‘Magic Dragon’ is delightful with very little green in the foliage. Burgundy-brown twigs and small, almost shiny textured leaves of pink, cream and maroon. It may sound exotic, but it doesn’t look out of place in a garden and is lovely in a pot alongside a purple heuchera or a dark phormium.
Lophomyrtus ‘Black Pearl’ is more dark chocolate to my mind. A good alternative to Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ for dark foliage and small stature, but lighter in appearance and a less intense colour. I would protect this with horticultural fleece in cold winter weather, or bring it into a cold conservatory. Having said that, if given good drainage in mild areas or in sheltered gardens it should overwinter quite satisfactorily.
The small leaved hebes are more familiar and more widely available shrubs for colourful foliage. Of course these have more conspicuous flowers, which are very attractive to bees and butterflies, but this is of secondary importance. There are loads of varieties to choose from, some hardier and better long-term garden plants than others. Hebe ‘Heartbreaker’ is well known and popular. I often joke that the name is appropriate: it isn’t one of the hardiest. However it does deliver loads of colour and even if it does not overwinter you will get great value from it.
Hebe ‘Frozen Flame’ is much hardier and works as well as most small-leaved hebes. With narrow grey green and white leaves, flushed with pink, it is attractive through summer. In winter the colour intensifies as pink-purple shades spread through the foliage, especially at the tips of the shoots. A great plant for a pot or to plant in a narrow border.
I often recommend pittosporums and I would rate them as my favourite evergreen shrubs. The varieties of Pittosporum tenuifolium all have fairly small, waved, shining leaves on slender stems. They are so versatile: as structure shrubs, for screening, for hedging and to cut for floral decoration. The variegated ones are some of the lightest and brightest, especially in the world of green and white variegations. However those with a distinctive pink flush in the foliage are becoming increasingly popular because of their ability to add soft colour which is so compatible with many of our favourite plants. Pittosporum ‘Elizabeth’ and Pittosporum ‘Victoria’, with smaller leaves, are well worth looking out for.
One colourful little shrub that I’ve found much hardier than I expected is Ugni molinae ‘Flameau’. This has very wiry, lax stems with well-spaced tiny leaves, grey-green, edged with cream and flushed with lilac-purple. The overall effect is delightful and now that it has got going and grows well I cut it and use it for floral decoration. It is perfect for bridal bouquets.
Of course pieris are ericaceous so they need acid soil. If your soil is alkaline you can still grow them: they are great in pots using a lime-free potting mix. Two to look out for with amazing foliage are Pieris japonica ‘Carnaval’ and Pieris japonica ‘Little Heath’. The latter has tiny leaves of grey-green edged with creamy white and copper pink new growth. The small sprays of flowers are at their most attractive in bud when they add to the overall subtle colour combination.