I'll admit it, I've developed an addiction to gold leafed shrubs. Over the last few years, I've added a variety of them to my front garden and I'm still going. I've stopped counting on flowers for flash - I love them, but foliage is much more reliable and provides long-lasting color and texture flowers can't provide. They're easier to take care of too - the varieties I've chosen require minimal care and cover space I used to weed.
More beauty and less work is what I'm after. If you're inclined to add a little bling to your garden, there's nothing like a blast of gold to liven things up.
Western exposure, sandy soil
I have less than perfect growing conditions - punishing winter winds, dry sandy soil and beating down sun. These bullet proof beauties hold their own in my zone 5 garden.
Cotinus coggygria 'Gold Spirit': (right side of photo above) I supposed you could call this a small tree, but I think it's technically a shrub. It matures at around 10-12 feet if it isn't cut back. But you can prune it heavily and it will look just fine whatever size you deem necessary. It puts on a show of fuzzy plumes in the summer, but I like it best in spring when the new growth is brightest and in fall when the foliage turns orange. It gets by on very little water - a big plus in my sandy soil.
Spirea thunbergii 'Ogon' (left side in top photo): This shrub has an arching habit and can get to be around 4-5 feet tall and wide. It's a little too hefty for the space I have it in, but very tolerant of hard pruning. The little white flowers it puts out in spring don't impress me much, but it's fabulous in the fall - a striking shade of orangey red that hangs on late into the season. It's the best for adding textural detail,I like the way the delicate branches weave in and out of the other plants.
Spirea japonica 'Gold Mound' (foreground of top photo): It's kind of a cheap thrill, but I find this stalwart little shrub to be very useful. It's small, (around 3 feet) and in addition to the bright gold foliage, it pumps out showy pink blossoms in late June. After it flowers, the gold color gets a little dull, so I shear it back to keep growth in check and to get a new flush of foliage (see photo below). Afterwards it rewards me with more flowers. What's not to like?
Beyond my own garden, I have an arsenal of gold plants that are handy for other situations.
View from afar
At a distance, there's nothing like bright gold foliage to grab your attention. I planted a mass of Sumac, Rhus aromatica 'Tiger Eyes' in an enormous pool garden I designed on this hillside (photo below). I used several groups of them behind the pool to make a strong contrast against the deep green forest behind them and to draw the eye downward.
The serrated leaves look delicate, but this thing is tough as nails. Here,it's keeping the soil from eroding downhill. Poor soil and dry conditions - bring it on! On the down side,underground runners spread and pop up around it. Not as fast as other sumacs, but you have to keep your eye on them.
It's kind of a lanky looking shrub - the foliage is heavier toward the top. I like that though because there is room at the base to layer in other perennials and grasses.
For small gardens, Cut Leaf Elderberry - Sambuccus racemosa 'Lemony Lace' has a fine textured leaf that contrasts softly against other shrubs and perennials.
The mature height is around 3-5', but you can cut it hard to keep it as small and compact as you like. It's a vibrant contrast to it's dark cousin, Sambuccus racemosa 'Black Lace.' I like that one too, but it gets much larger (8-10').
If you're searching for an arrresting groundcover, this little shrub, Hyperium calycinium 'Brigadoon' (aka St. Johns Wort) is just the ticket. This tidy gem is around 18" tall with a two foot spread. It performs best in part sun/shade conditions. Too much sun causes the leaves to burn, the foliage fades if you put it in a heavily shaded spot. If you like yellow flowers, you'll enjoy the little buttercup yellow flowers that blossom in June. I have found it to be a slow grower, and takes a year or so to get established - worth the wait though.
Commonly known as Japanese spikenard, Aralia cordata 'Sun King' is a 3-6 ft. herbaceous perennial/shrub that can light up a shady spot. Its bold leaves can tolerate some sun, but hot afternoon rays will burn the edges. To be honest, I have not tried it in full shade, but it is touted as one that will perform well. I have my doubts - so far all the gold foliaged shrubs I've planted need some degree of light to get the bright color I'm after.
Because of that, I stick with perennials when I want a dependable gold fix for shade. There are tons of hostas that will do the job, but Hosta sieboldiani 'Frances Williams' is one of my favorites. Pair it up with Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold' and you've got a wow. Although hostas tolerate a wide range of conditions, Hakonechloa needs moist soil to thrive. I stubbornly grow it in my own dry shade garden, but it has taken a long time to get established. I think it's enough of a wow to wait for.
I can't take credit for this flashy combination, but it stopped me in my tracks when I saw it at Wave Hill in the Bronx, NY. So simple, striking and easy! Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' will grow just about anywhere and you can always count on it for bodacious white blossoms. Pair it up with Hosta 'Sum and Substance,' and you've got something special.
One caveat... it's easy to get carried away. But it's so much fun! If you want to go bold and gold, I'd put any of these on the 'can't kill' list.