Recently I went to see a big garden—seven acres to be exact. It was located on some of the priciest real estate anywhere, and it was gorgeous. It took a big crew to maintain it and a big chipper shredder machine to keep it in wood chips. Needless to say, it was bankrolled by someone with a big pocketbook. It also took a lot of big-leaf plants to cover the ground. Small and delicate plants have their charms, but when you have acreage to cover, eyesores to hide, or lots to do other than gardening, big plants are the ticket.
Lots of people have hostas, but when you want really big hosta, Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ is the ticket. It has big blue-green seersucker-like leaves and an immense spread of 2-3 feet across. A sport of Hosta sieboldiana, ‘Frances Williams’ has the same blue-green coloration with lighter green variegation to add sparkle. A small number of plants of either variety can fill a fairly large space and provide a lot of visual impact. As everyone knows, hostas tolerate shade, even fairly dry shade, and manage to look quite respectable while doing it.
But what if you’re tired of hostas or never liked them to begin with? Rodgersia aesculifolia may be just the thing to restore your faith in big-leaf plants. This species is distinguished by large palmate foliage that will remind you of the leaves on horse chestnut trees. Though Rodgersia is grown mostly for its leaves, it also sprouts tall stalks of white flowers in the spring. The plants like shade, though dryness is taboo.
Then there is Brunnera macrophylla, sometimes called perennial forget-me-not (Whenever you see the species name “macrophylla”, you know you are dealing with something that has big leaves). Brunnera, which comes in plain and variegated, is another shade lover. It has heart-shaped leaves that grow bigger as the growing season advances, and blue flowers that appear in the spring. As the common name suggests, Brunnera blossoms really do look like those of annual forget-me-not.
Much of the charm of various big plants is in the bold foliage, but many people also want flowers. Bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) is made for them. Not only does it have deeply dissected, spiny, almost thistle-like green leaves, but it also has striking hooded flowers born on three to four-foot stalks. On some plants in some gardens the flowers look almost brown with cream undersides. The tops of the blossoms may also seem almost maroon or bluish-purple. It doesn’t matter. The flower stalks are not pretty in the obvious sense, but they hold your attention.
Angelica gigas also has tall flower stalks, which, at four to six feet, tower over almost everything else in the garden. The allium-like flower heads are dark red, as are the stems of the plant, which also sports lots of bright green foliage. Technically speaking Angelica is an herb, and its stems have long been harvested, candied and used for confectionery concoctions such as fruitcake. But even if your taste does not run to fruitcake, it should run to Angelica. Both Acanthus and Angelica bloom in high summer, providing rich color and architectural interest at a time when other plants are slowing down.
If you crave lovely flowers, choose meadow rue (Thalictrum, especially Thalictrum aquilegifolium and Thalictrum rochebrunianum). Thalictrum is definitely a back of the border star, with flower stalks rising on occasion to six-feet in height. The flowers, which are most often pinky-purple have a soft, fluffy appearance and make a great filler in bouquets. Joe Pye-Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), a common roadside weed in some parts of the country, comes into its glory in late summer and early fall, when the rosy flowerheads appear. Like Angelica gigas, its stems are dark red. When the flowers are gone, the seedheads can provide winter interest, either outside or in a vase on the coffee table.
Obviously, big leaves are not right in all situations. Don’t allow your Brunnera or Eupatorium to walk all over the smaller plants. Site them properly so they achieve their full measure of greatness, and when you install them as youngsters, give them sufficient room to grow. Then sit back and watch the horticultural drama. After all, when it comes to visual impact on the garden stage, one grand elephant ear or Thalictrum is worth at least ten smaller plants
CHANGE IN THE GARDEN