The Role of Silver & Gray in the Garden

Salvia pachyphylla, Prunus cistina, ChrysothamnusSilvery foliage makes a lovely backdrop for other plants. Shown here: Salvia pachyphylla (foreground), Prunus cistina, Chrysothamnus (rear).

Plants with silver and gray foliage are unusual enough that they readily attract our attention. They are quite different than the typical green leafed plant we're accustomed to seeing. And it's their strikingly different look that provides us with many visually appealing uses in the garden, as companion and specimen plants.

Echinacea angustifolia ArtemisiaEchinacea angustifolia shown with silvery Artemisia

The deserts and arid lands of the world are rich in non-green plants because silver/gray foliage helps to reflect the sunlight and its drying heat. And these same plants often have thin leaves because they lose less water than big, wide leaves. So most of these plants discussed here, have foliage with thin, gray, silver and even white leaves, which makes them exceeding well adapted to hot, dry growing conditions and less-than- ideal soils. They are the perfect choice for xeric landscapes.

How to Use Silver, White and Gray Plants

There are three primary ways to show off these silver and gray plants and to help them make other plants look better.

  • Place taller silver/gray plants in the rear of planting beds to serve as a backdrop for shorter flowering plants and plants with green or blue foliage.
  • Place silver/gray groundcovers under taller flowering plants and plants with green or blue foliage.
  • Mixing tall and groundcover silver/gray plants with ornamental grasses.
    • Blue bladed grasses look even more exotic when contrasted with gray or silver. Try Festuca 'Siskiyou Blue' surrounded by Snow-in- Summer (see below)
    • Green bladed grasses look less common when they are next to gray or silver.

Monarda fistulosa 'Wichita Mountains' Artemisia filofolia
Monarda fistulosa 'Wichita Mountains' in front of Artemisia filofolia

Some of my favorites Silver/Gray Perennials:

Favorite Silver/Gray Groundcovers

Ratibida columnifera 'Yellow' Artemisia frigida
The blooms of Ratibida columnifera 'Yellow' stand out
when blended with Artemisia frigida.

Favorite Silver/Gray Shrubs

  • Artemisia filifera (Sand Sage) - the ultimate silver shrub with fine foliage to plant in back of flowering perennials.
  • Artemisia tridentata (Big Sage) - aromatic, gray and wonderful.
  • Lavandula 'Silver Frost' (Silver Frost Hybrid Lavender) - the most silver foliage of any Lavender, it blooms all summer long and is powerfully aromatic. One of the very best. Available for spring 2015.
  • Santolina chamaecyparissus (Silver Lavender Cotton) - aromatic gray evergreen foliage and bright yellow button-like flowers. Needs a sandy soil for best results.
  • For more in depth information and wonderful photos showing how to use gray and silver plants, I recommend this excellent book on this subject: "Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for Every Garden," 2005, by Jo Ann Gardner and Karen Bussolini.

    Text and Photos by David Salman

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