Debbie Arrington

New plants come in rainbow hues

Obsidian coral bells is a heuchera with purple-black foliage. Grown in full sun, the leaves look jet black.
Obsidian coral bells is a heuchera with purple-black foliage. Grown in full sun, the leaves look jet black. Monrovia Growers

“Green is not a color.”

That’s what a customer recently told longtime plantsman Barry Yinger of Conard-Pyle Star Roses and Plants. And no, she wasn’t referring to sustainable living.

Green – as seen in healthy chlorophyll-packed leaves – has become boring to today’s plant buyers, said Yinger, whose job is to find new plants consumers want to grow.

“In 40 years of plant introductions, this is one of those life lessons,” he said. “Timing is really very, very important. Back when I started, everybody told me American gardeners wouldn’t accept colored foliage. In the 1970s, there was practically no variegation in the nursery.”

Now, it’s just the opposite, he noted. “Gardeners are demanding variegation and unusual foliage. To introduce a plain green plant now is unacceptable; consumers won’t buy them. They want color and – as that one customer told me – green is not a color.”

Instead, gardeners look for rainbows. They gravitate toward plants with purple, red, orange and yellow foliage. They love leaves in tones of blue, silver, white and black.

“Purple always sells,” Yinger said. “So does chocolate brown.”

Besides buying up plants with foliage in deep purples or wine reds, customers can’t resist multicolored leaves with strange patterns or stark contrasts to neon-bright blooms. The reasoning? While flowers may quickly fade, eye-catching leaves provide color, pattern and texture for many months, if not year round.

Recent introductions illustrate that trend. Sunset magazine hailed the new variegated hybrid Meerlo lavender (Lavender allardii “Meerlo”) as the most heat- and drought-resistant lavender in its Western Garden Collection; besides its low-water attributes, this perennial features fragrant blue-gray foliage edged in pale creamy yellow. Its leaves contrast with spikes of blue flowers, which seem secondary to the eye-catching foliage.

Variegated forms of honeysuckle, hibiscus, milkweed, weigela and many other landscape staples have gardeners doing double takes. Barberry, a plain green workhorse in American landscapes, has been reimagined in multiple tones of yellow and red. Heuchera – the once-familiar coral bells – now comes in dozens of leaf variations from white-splashed Snowstorm to Obsidian black.

“We work with more than 50 species of heuchera; they’re easy to cross,” said plant breeder Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries. “The decision becomes: What to blend? You can be like an artist with an artist’s palette of colors. Collect all these different species, then blend and see what you get.”

Most of all, gardeners want something different that serves a need, Yinger said. During California’s ongoing water woes, that means drought resistance as well as good looks and easy care.

“New is not enough,” said Yinger, who made his career bringing new plants to market. “There are always lots of new plants. Now, plants have to solve a problem for growers as well as gardeners. If the growers don’t like it, the gardener will never see it.”

Among the issues new plants have to solve: “Growers demand enhanced features (such as bigger flowers or different foliage forms) and performance,” Yinger said. “That includes drought tolerance. Gardeners want deer resistance and a long season of care-free blooms. Nobody wants invasiveness, so we’re also looking for sterility.”

In the search for new plants, some invasive thugs were accidentally unleashed, he noted, especially among some native plants that bear thousands of seeds. They can quickly become weedy in home gardens. Gardeners gravitate toward natives because of their benefits such as drought tolerance and attracting bees and butterflies, but they can be tamed for home gardens.

“Native plants can be even better,” he said. “(Hybridizers) can tame them for home gardens, make them sterile, compact and with desirable habits.”

Yinger and other horticulturists have seen a surge in colorful ornamental grasses as consumers search for lawn alternatives. One of his favorites is Ogon grass (Acorus gramineus). Also called golden variegated sweet flag, this butter-yellow grass with thin green pinstripes was introduced in the United States in 1970 at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.

“Nobody wanted it,” he said. “It was an oddball. Now, it’s everywhere. It sells by the millions.”

Another favorite is Ice Dance carex (Carex morrowii “Ice Dance”), a Japanese sedge with a silver sheen. Bright white bands run along the edges of each blade. In landscapes, it looks like shiny little waves.

“It’s the perfect grass,” Yinger said. “It’s evergreen, beautiful and zero maintenance. In 30 years of growing this grass in my garden, there have been no problems. It’s absolutely indestructible and noninvasive.”

Both those grasses originated in Japan, which has become a go-to source for plant hunters such as Yinger. He originally found Plum Delight (Loropetalum), the first Chinese fringe flower with purple foliage, during a plant search in Japan.

“I brought back to the U.S. two 5-inch cuttings,” he said. “Within three years, we had 100,000 plants to sell. It was the first purple loropetalum on the market and people loved it. They still do.”

Now, several purple hybrids have joined Plum Delight in nursery aisles with such evocative names as Crimson Fire or Sparkling Sangria.

In a Tokyo plant shop, Yinger found an interesting one-of-a-kind perennial with golden leaves. That glowing yellow-chartreuse foliage caught his eye, and he knew other gardeners would want it, too. That plant became Sun King aralia (Aralia cordata “Sun King”), another non-green best seller.

“Sun King lights up the landscape,” he said. “It loves shade, it’s very easy to grow and deer resistant. It does need water, but it’s a beautiful plant.”

Expect to see more golden beauties in nurseries along with those red, blue and purple plants, he said. “Green” may be reserved for thumbs.