A little textural contrast is necessary even on sunny summer days. That’s why we plant hosta and tolerate iris after they finish blooming. And that’s why I welcomed a monster through the garden gate a couple of years ago. Admittedly, in my garden, rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Steroidal Giant’) goes beyond contrast. It’s the focal point. It captures my attention when I look out my window, sit on the steps of my deck, or walk to the compost. It didn’t die back to the ground like it should have last winter and is now towering 8-feet tall over my partially shaded back border with about a dozen construction paper pinwheels the size of bear hugs. If I’m really lucky, it might even flower this fall. I call it “monster” more as a tribute to its size than because one of these days it will start sending up suckers (baby monsters) here, there, and everywhere. But then I also deeply appreciate generosity in a plant. I planted butterbur after all. Petasites japonicus rivals tetrapanax for leaf size but has it beat for rampant horizontal spread. And didn’t it love the rain!
I have a friend who compares growing plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) to jumping out of airplanes for fun. I don’t consider myself that much of a daredevil but I won’t garden without plume poppy’s 12’ tall feather-topped towers of palm-sized gray-green oak leaves. And I never even noticed before how its storm-gray foliage holds the rain like mercury. Whenever it ever spreads too far, it’s easy enough to yank out by hand just walking by.
Feathery bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’), by contrast (so to speak), is deeply tap-rooted and not so easy to evict. It drops seedlings all over and the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars and I don’t seem to mind. The more the merrier. And last week I was reminded that its foggy foliage turns rain into diamonds.
I wish my golden spikenard (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’) was as vigorous. It will probably never travel the way my other favorites do so my fingers are crossed simply for growth. Its tropical-looking sprays of compound leaves are supposed to be deer resistant but the bunnies found them in my garden. I thought the plant was a lost cause until one dark day I noticed a neon yellow glow against the blue-green backdrop of our garage. With any luck (I’m shaking my fist at the bunnies) the aralia will finally become established and increase in height and girth to at least 3’x3’ (taller with late summer flowers and berries).
If I lose that battle, I’ll continue to console myself with Tiger Eye sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’). Given a full-sunny spot, its finely-cut foliage would also radiate yellow on a dark, gray day. But because I prefer it slightly tempered to chartreuse, I planted mine in partial shade. It also gives away suckers, which, dug up, make excellent—and cheap—thrillers for containers.
I now know for certain that I prefer Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee’ on a gray day when its pale yellow foliage looks less anemic than it does under the sun’s glare. But even if we never get another rainy day for the rest of the summer, I’ll enjoy staring out at that anise hyssop’s French-blue bottlebrush flower spikes covered in a million bees and butterflies.
In fact, now that the sun is back out again, I have a whole new appreciation for some of the plants in my garden…