form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care

Golden Spring – and lots of other colors, too!


As winter subsides the garden magazines and blogs proliferate with emblematic photos of spring: bulbs in bloom, flowering trees and early floriferous annuals such as pansies.  Buds, particularly, capture our imagination, as they exemplify spring’s promise with their enticement to envision the unfolding flower tucked inside.  But garden writers woefully neglect the backstory: what is going on out there besides the flowers?  What has just as much color, interest and pizzazz?  Leaf buds, cones and young, tender vegetative growth.  Come with us on a tour through the spring garden as seen through the eyes of self-confessed foliage freaks.

Part I – Flower ‘substitutes’

Picea pungens ‘Gebelle’s Golden Spring’ gets our vote for New Foliage Poster Child.

One of the brightest garden lights as new growth pushes is Picea pungens ‘Gebelle’s Golden Spring’.  The new needles are daffodil yellow, a color that persists for 5-6 weeks until it gradually fades to bluish green.  Unlike real daffs, however, there are no unsightly withering leaves lingering for months. Apparently, the sunny needles of this spruce look like flowers not just to us. Try as she might, however, this errant honeybee is not going to get any nectar out of them!

New foliage on Picea p. ‘Gebelle’s Golden Spring’ with honeybee.

For a nearly perfect nosegay, we love the young leaves of Cotinus coggygria, or smoke bush.  They say where there’s smoke, there’s fire, but we know that before there’s smoke, there are luscious little leaves clustered around the immature flower buds.  Cut a bunch, stick in it a vase, and you have a ready-made ‘flower’ arrangement.

A ‘nosegay’ of Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’.

Now, to make a point, we’ll show you a branch with actual flowers on it: Acacia pravissima, an Australian plant known down under as wattle:

Acacia pravissima

Acacia pravissima in spring bloom.

We couldn’t help but notice that right next to the Acacia in the garden is a Picea abies ‘Rubra spicata’, which is notable for having rosy red new growth, arrayed along its branches in a matter very similar to the Acacia!

New growth on Picea abies ‘Rubra Spicata’ is a rosy red – are you sure those aren’t flower buds along that branch?

Not to be outdone, Picea orientalis ‘Early Gold’ is resplendent with cones in almost the same rosy red.

Wine red female cones drip off the branches of Picea orientalis ‘Early Gold’ in spring.

A bouquet of purple shows up on Abies x arnoldiana ‘Poulsen’

Abies x arnoldiana ‘Poulsen’ has grape-colored cones in spring.

Berberis thunbergii ‘Admiration’ leafs out like a vivid paprika dahlia.  Who says that spring colors are pastels?

Berberis ‘Admiration’ new spring foliage – who says spring is for pastels?

Another warm-toned flower look alike is the maple Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’, whose unfurling leaves resemble the bell-shaped varieties of Clematis or Campanula.

New growth on Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’ just after bud break.

And if you prefer pink, why not go for Pinus parviflora ‘Cleary’, clearly a pine with attitude!  These are the immature female cones, but they look pretty sophisticated to us.

The female cones of Pinus parviflora ‘Cleary’ are hot pink!

Do you like spiky flowers, such as Gladiolus or Delphinium?  It’s hard to beat the new candles of Thunderhead pines, Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’.

Candles on Pinus t. ‘Thunderhead’ look more like matches with sulfur heads. In any case, they look ready to be lit!

Want rosebuds?  Check out the cones on Picea abies ‘Pusch’.

The dainty ‘rosebuds’ of Picea abies ‘Pusch’.

‘Pusch’ is a mutation of Picea abies ‘Acrocona’, and you can see that the parent has its own ‘flower power’.

A rosy ‘bud’ on Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ (in reality a female cone).

The blue spruces get into the game, too, as P. pungens ‘Fat Albert’ demonstrates. In spring the new growth is not so much blue as minty green.  Scrumptious.

The minty green new foliage on Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’ has us reaching for the dark chocolate.

Lobelia tupa, generally grown for its 7’ tall spikes of deep red flowers, masquerades as a foliage plant in spring, when it wears felted leaves in soft green.  They appear as pointed ‘buds’ that remind us of lily petals unfolding.


Felted leaves in fresh green glow in the spring foliage garden….long before the scarlet flowers grab center stage.

And for those that insist on a rosette, look no further than Echeveria agavoides ‘Lipstick’.  No wishy-washy shade for her!  We wonder if she wears matching nail polish.

Echeveria agavoides ‘Lipstick’ forms a rosette with perfectly outlined ‘lips’.

And to end where we began, with ‘golden spring’, is Corylopsis spicata ‘Golden Spring’.  Leafing out in a deeper yellow than ‘Gabelle’s Golden Spring’, it deepens to  chartreuse in summer and then in autumn a golden yellow again.


New foliage on Corylopsis spicata ‘Golden Spring’ glows in the shade garden in spring.

So look harder, look longer, look beyond the flowers, and find the gold…and burgundy and red and purple and powder blue and pink and….

Next up: Part II – Compelling Color Combos.

Stay tuned.

Copyright 2012 by Form and Foliage

16 thoughts on “Golden Spring – and lots of other colors, too!

  1. Glorious! Lucious colors and texture. I love the Cotinus and Berberis. Must make space for both at new place.

    • Thanks Sandy! There is another new Berberis introduction called ‘Orange Rocket’ that is also quite stunning. ‘Admiration’ has smaller leaves and the plant stays smaller – both are garden-worthy. The Cotinus gets big – you may want to save your space. There is a smaller Cotinus called ‘Young Lady’ that supposedly tops out at 5′ and is ‘shrubbier’. It has green leaves, not purple, but we like what we see so far.

  2. There are very few thing in life that touch the emotion of envy. Your garden comes close.

    What glorious Photos. I can’t wait to see how it is all coming together.


  3. Magnificent photography and so well written!! I thoroughly enjoy reading each issue and look forward to the next. I can’t get over the cones – so beautiful. Thanks for sharing your beautiful creation.

    • Thanks, Jan! The cones are unbelievable. As beautiful as any flower and in so many colors and shapes. We always think of them as dry and brown, and that’s not doing them justice.
      Sara and Jan

    • Jan,
      Thanks so much for the encouragement on the photos. Sara and I have had a great time working together photograph her garden in a way that effectively shows her vision. It is a lot of fun.

      • I agree – the photos are magnificent. Question: Will the cotinus coggugria grow in zone 5-6?

      • Yes it will…but it gets quite large! There is a smaller variety, Cotinus coggygria ‘Young Lady’ with green leaves rather than purple, that supposedly tops out at 5′. We’re trying it to see if that is really its growth habit. Many plants have a way of getting larger than the tags read!

  4. Wonderful! Love the all these photos and really terrific plants for foliage interest. As time goes by I’m adding more shrubs and plants for foliage interest and fewer perennials grown for flowers alone.

    • Thanks Deanne. The foliage plants generally ‘carry their weight’ in the garden for much longer than those grown for flowers alone. We think of the foliage plants as clothing and the flowering plants as jewelry, and so use the flowers as adornment. Have fun working in your own garden with this concept, and we’d love to have you share some photos on our Facebook page!

  5. I really love those pink cones on the Picea orientalis ‘Early Gold’. At what age do they usually start to get cones? Also, thanks for adding me to your blog roll.

    • Our plant is about four-five feet tall…not sure how old it is but if it reaches 12′ in 10 years that makes it about four years old. There is not a lot written about this plant. Its claim to fame (and the reason for its name) is that it pushes new growth earlier (by about two weeks) than Picea orientalis ‘Aureospicata’, which is very similar otherwise. Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’, another gold spruce, is known for setting cones at a young age. Unlike the other two, it holds its gold color all year and needs some sun protection for part of the day (I had to move mine out of full sun – it burned). That may be more information than you wanted! Sara

      Sara Malone 909 Mustang Court Petaluma CA 94954 Follow us on Facebook

  6. That is definitely not more info than I wanted. My knowledge of conifers, of a manageable size for small yards, is definitely a bit lacking so learning about 3 cultivars is better than one!

    • For small yards it is best to seek out not ‘dwarfs’, but ‘miniatures’. Dwarfs can reach 30-40 feet in a shorter time than we would like to believe. Miniatures grow very slowly and can fit in most yards. In Seattle you can grow a wide range of conifers – you just need a good local supplier! And they definitely change through the year, despite their evergreen tag. So it might be nice for you to follow one or two.
      Sara and Jan

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