On The Garden Path: Silver Plants

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GARDEN BEAUTY: An especially choice narrow-leaved form of the old favorite Stachys lantana shines with a mix of green and gleam.
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SHIMMERING ELEGANCE: Sunlight sparkles through the leaves of 'Powis Castle', which also harmonize with cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) in the author's garden.
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SHIMMERING ELEGANCE: Sunlight sparkles through the leaves of 'Powis Castle', which also harmonize with cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) in the author's garden.

The word ‘silver’ conjures up visions of gleaming teapots, sparkling museum pieces brought from faraway places and hours of polishing to prevent Mother’s cutlery from tarnishing. Silver has little place in the modern home, because, after all, no one has time to polish candlesticks. However, you can bring the glamour of these silver memories to your garden by planting silver-leaved plants.

Silver plants appear silvery because their leaves are covered in a coating of wax or tiny hairs that reflect light. This layer not only looks good, but it also protects the leaves from extreme weather conditions. In addition, many silver plants hail from near-desert climates, so they’re great for dry and gravelly spots.

Even with the extreme heat and drought last summer, I was impressed by the exceptional performance of several plants with sparkling silver foliage. While the petunias and sunflowers were wilting in the heat, and the hydrangeas were prone to dehydration, the artemisias and dichondras stayed as cool and refreshing as ever. Then, when winter set in, with thick frost upon the grass and harsh winds sweeping down from the north, the silvers continued to shimmer. If anything, their leaves were enhanced by the etching of frost which fell upon them.

Beautiful shimmering plants

Perhaps the most astonishing new plant in my garden last year was Dichondra ‘Silver Falls,’ a tender perennial that shimmers down in a cascade of icy silver leaves. Silver Falls is the sort of plant passionate container gardeners dream about. Its leaves are scalloped, about 1/3  inch across, and they shimmer as if they were coated in a layer of mother-of-pearl. However, the most astonishing thing about Silver Falls is its trailing habit. It plunges down, forming 3- to 6-foot-long cascades of silver beauty.

While visiting the Missouri Botanical Garden, I observed this plant spilling out of baskets, the shimmering waterfalls of foliage nearly reaching the ground, while out of the top of the baskets arose a haze of gaura grounded by sparkling white pentas. My own plants were slightly less spectacular, but still impressive with 3-foot-long trails of leaves.

Lotus ‘Amazon Sunset’ is another wonderful silvery tender perennial for container gardening. This is a true lotus, quite unlike the great umbrella-leaved Nelumbo lotuses that grow in water gardens. Amazon Sunset is a ferny plant whose soft, grey-green needles look a little like some strange seaweed. It is less overtly silver than Silver Falls, with more hints of blue and green. Occasionally, hooded orange blossoms will appear, flickering like flames upon its wispy boughs. This plant grows tremendously in containers. It should be fertilized only lightly, in order to maintain its silvery effect. Too many nutrients can cause the leaves to turn green and lose their silver sheen.

With Artemisia ‘Powis Castle,’ we move from tender perennials to perennials that can generally be regarded as hardy through our unpredictable winters. This plant has a pleasant mounding habit, and unlike some of its relatives, this plant will not smother your zinnias. In fact, you may need to watch that it’s not smothered by more exuberant neighbors, not that it’s lacking in vigor. One of my plants started out life as a 1-inch plug last spring, and by October it was more than 4 feet in diameter. Just make sure that Powis Castle’s beautiful shape is not marred by any overenthusiastic companions. The foliage of this plant is finely feathered, giving an impression of filigree molded by a Rococo silversmith. Powis Castle is cold-hardy in Zones 6 through 10.

When I first picked up a plant of Salvia argentea, I was somewhat nervous. Could a plant with such furry leaves be growable? The wide, spatula-shaped leaves of this plant are covered in a thick layer of white down. This layer is most prominent on the younger leaves, but retains a strong attraction even as the leaves mature. My plant is of the cultivar ‘Hobbit’s Foot,’ and has a lime tint to its leaves. The effect would be even more silvery without the underlying hint of green, so I will attempt to find the straight species next time.

Nearly everyone has a plant of the old favorite Lamb’s Ear (Stachys lantana) growing somewhere in the garden. I have several different forms with varying provenances. Some have more of a tendency to turn yellow and die out in the center, while others stay tight and silver all season long. Take time to search out a good, silvery form, as individual clones vary widely in desirability. Lamb’s Ear is winter-hardy in Zones 5 through 10.

These are only a few of the silver plants that can add glamour and sparkle to a garden. The range of silver-foliage plants is diverse, and there’s always something new to try. However, these five silvers provide a good introduction to the delights of metallic gardening.

Once you try these silvers in your garden, you will wonder how in the world you ever enjoyed your garden without them.