Massive storms rolled through Kentucky in late May. We were spared disaster. Thousands of others weren’t so lucky. Trees were downed and power knocked out. This wasn’t the Commonwealth’s maiden voyage with Mother Nature’s crumbling disposition. We’ve been nipped in the bud before, and we’ll be nipped again.

I may be stalled by the carbon clock as I pull up to the summer intersection of hackberry nipple galls and squash vine borers, but I won’t stop flirting with foliage.

                                            “I play with foliage. Bloom is very secondary and fleeting.”

                                                       –Lucy Hardiman  

Heuchera ‘Molly Bush’ in bottom center encircled by Clematis tubulosa ‘China Purple’ (L-R), Hymenocallis caroliniana, Syneliesis aconitifolia, Polygonatum ‘Grace Barker’, Lobelia siphilitica and Brunnera macrophylla.

Dogwoods, Derby roses, and peonies are now in the bloom-time rearview mirror, while spring ephemerals like bloodroots, trilliums, and mayapples are setting seed and going dormant until next year. Summer flowers are standing by.

Don’t be swayed by blooms alone.

 Visit your favorite independent garden center. Introduce yourself. Tell them you need a foliage restorative. That should catch their attention. You will also find inspiration in gardens, parks, and even your own neighborhood.     

Goodness gracious foliaceous

An obscure botanic reference crossed my screen for the first time last month. The earliest evidence of the adjective foliaceous, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated with the physician and author Thomas Browne in 1658. The word, according to ChatGPT, means resembling or pertaining to leaves.

I couldn’t wait to show off and use the new word in the subheading above.

The images below bear witness to my random, perhaps peculiar, selections of foliaceousness from the garden, roadside, and wild places these past few weeks.

Most, though not all seven selections, are outliers, including a few weedy misfits. I take full responsibility for my choices. I would be surprised if any of my picks make anyone’s rootin’ tootin’ Best of Whatever list.

Abies nordmanniana

We don’t do fir species well in the Ohio Valley, but the dark green Nordmann’s fir is a surprising success. The hardy species is indigenous along a line, south to east, hugging the Black Sea in Turkey, Georgia, and the Russian Caucusus at elevations from 3,000-4000 feet with over 40” of rain. I am smitten with the contrasting lime-green new growth, a color also found on hemlocks, some spruces and taxus. The new growth on Nordmann’s fir is as thick as a Cohiba cigar. Forget this for if you are expecting rapid growth comparable to the arborvitae Thuja ‘Green Giant.’ There’s nothing wrong with pokey unless you plan on checking in to assisted living within ten years. If it’s any help, our beautiful tree is approximately 15 years old and seven feet tall in poor, but well-drained soil.

Nordmann’s fir

Calycanthus floridus var. purpureus ‘Burgundy Spice’ PP28886

I’m a long-time fan of the sweet bubby bush or Carolina allspice. ‘Michael Lindsey’ is the only cultivar I have grown for over 30 years that has both glossy foliage and fragrant blooms. (I’m biased. ‘Michael Lindsey’ originated at my former Holbrook Farm and Nursery.) The straight species tends to feature either shiny foliage or sweet-smelling blooms, but seldom both. ‘Burgundy Spice,’ introduced by Pleasant Run Nursery, was this spring’s door prize with lustrous, burgundy-colored leaves and brick-red, fruity-scented blooms. It has yellow fall foliage. The roundish mahogany seed pods are like baby rattles. Children love them. It spreads modestly by root stolons. Saddle up ‘Burgundy Spice’ with the bright yellow foliage of Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’ and the white blooms of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Haas Halo.’

‘Burgundy Spice’

Cotinus x ‘Grace’

‘Grace’ is a hybrid between the underutilized American smoke tree, Cotinus obovatus, and the popular Cotinus coggygria ‘Velvet Cloak’. ‘Grace’ was introduced in the late 1970s in England by Hillier Nursery’s propagator Peter Dummer and named in honor of his wife. This hybrid  cross proves that a flirtation may pay dividends. The leaves of ‘Grace’ open with a pinkish tint but darken to reddish within weeks and fade to green as the summer proceeds. Wispy pink blooms emerge in June. It has occasional yellow, orange and red fall colors like the American smoke bush. ‘Grace’ needs space: 18’ x 15.’  Every few years I forego flowers when I pollard (cut back) ‘Grace’ at a four-foot height in the late winter. (You could also coppice—cut back to the ground.) Dozens of straight, eight-foot-long, branches appear quickly in a thick cluster. These might make good stakes for spring peas. Pair with bottle-brush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) and Juniperus ‘Grey Owl.’

Cotinus obovatus, ‘Velvet Cloak and ‘Grace’

Trachystemon orientalis

The early-flowering borage relative has overlapping ten-inch, oval-shaped leaves that are texturally rough as a cob and impenetrable to weeds. No vicious invasive seedling of privet or Bradford pear dares to attempt a toehold on this rhizomatous perennial. Though modestly drought tolerant, when it does get too dry, the leaves wilt, a reminder to give it a drink. It stands sturdily again within the hour. Blue-purple borage-like blooms arrive early in the season as the leaves unfurl. Geranium macrorrhizum, so called bigroot, is tough-as-nails in shade also. Aromatic leaves, to boot, occasionally turn reddish in fall.

Early borage

Silphium perfoliatum

I hold a sweet spot for cup plant but am mindful of its strengths and shortcomings. Cup plant is beautiful and naughty. The 18”-long serrated Silphium leaves sit opposite one another and clasp tightly around thick stems. They hold little puddles of rain. The bold eight-foot-tall perennial, with yellow daisy-like blooms, is perfect for a hell strip, where they can reseed prolifically, protected by sidewalks or pavement. Cup plant and Hibiscus coccineus compete for tallest kid in the class in our garden. However, don’t wait long to remove (deadhead) spent prairie dock blooms in your garden. Odds are, you’ll be facing battalions of little seedlings next year if you don’t. Deadheading takes a few seconds. If you forget to deadhead, don’t blame me.

Cup plant

You didn’t t know that native plants can run rampant?

I allowed several dozen woodland native, hummingbird-loving jewel weeds, or touch-me-nots, from two Impatiens species (I. capensis and I. and pallida) to do as they pleased last year. They did just that. I should have curbed my enthusiasm. Two weeks ago Rose, Travis Anderson, and I pulled thousands of bejeweled seedlings. You can pull a hundred jewel weeds in the time it takes to dig a long, tapered tap root on a single weedy burdock.

As long as I’m being straight about dishonored weeds

Laportea canadensis

Wood nettles would have been swept carefully under my rug if it hadn’t been for my daughter Molly who made me a convert. They are nutritious and tasty, but beware. They have tiny daggers (trichomes) on the leaf surface and stems, and once stung you will never forget. Wood nettles are the kissing cousin of stinging nettles, Urtica dioica. Why would anyone be the least bit interested in either one? Delicious pesto, that’s why. Harvest the leaves before they begin blooming. I’m not suggesting you plant nettles. Wood nettles are abundant in our moist woods. Take all you want, but don’t wade into a dense thicket without pants and long sleeves. Bring gloves for protection when you are collecting leaves. We have a mother lode of wood nettles along the Salt River. You are welcome to all you want.

Wood nettles

Verbascum thapsus

I wish I could successfully grow the giant Turkish silver mullein, Verbascum bombycifierum, but I have failed once too often. Our summer heat and humidity are lethal. There’s another option. Here’s what is written about common mullein, in Plant Life of Kentucky: “Disturbed places, Across KY. Frequent. Naturalized from Europe.” I might plead for your sympathy by adding: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The biennial grows along our gravel road near a mossy limestone outcrop, covered with the native, annual Sedum pulchellum in dry, inhospitable soil in partial shade. I am perfectly content to enjoy the fuzzy leaves of common mullein from the roadside but would give it a reprieve if it popped up in the garden. There’s nothing shameful, either, about their sturdy flowering stalks and screaming-yellow blooms.

Common mullein

Flirt on.

May beautiful leaves of differing dimension and distinction be with you always.