Annuals Container gardens

Silver Leaves for Gorgeous Containers (Or My “Snow Queen” Theme)

The last few years have given us many very interesting annuals with gray foliage, and I believe that this year, my theme for my flower boxes will be the “Snow Queen”!

Cineraria ‘Angel Wings’, with large leaves, and sagebrush ‘Silver Bullet’, with cut foliage, are two annuals with gray foliage that promise to be the new darlings of decorative containers! Photo: Proven Winners

So yes, I confess, each year, I give myself a theme to guide the composition of my flower boxes and my decorative containers. Most of the time, orange flowers and lime green leaves are on the menu, being colors that I particularly like. But this year, I’m going for the grey!

Why Grey?

As I mentioned, I notice an interesting arrival of plants with gray foliage, which makes me want to try them all at once, just to compare them and use them as a source of inspiration for my flower boxes.

I am also very interested in plants with gray foliage, because I know that these are, in general, more resistant to drought. Indeed, the fine down that covers the leaves serves as protection against perspiration. Many plants in arid and desertic environments have gray foliage, and some of the annuals in this post are indeed native to these arid areas.

By creating arrangements with a few drought-tolerant plants and gray-leaved annuals, it’s possible to reduce watering needs! I like that!

Remember that most plants with gray foliage are to be grown in full sun. They are rarely happy in shady locations. Then, on the watering side, they will be grateful if they are watered regularly, but they are also willing to forgive the “water forgetters” (a group in which I have been an active member since 1999!).

Classic Grays

The first plant that comes to mind is the silver ragwort (Jacobaea maritima, formerly Cineraria maritima), sometimes known as the Dusty Miller. Very popular in the 70s, this small plant with deeply lobed leaves is making a comeback since the arrival of its new cousin, named ‘New Look’. The latter bears broad and slightly cut leaves. This new introduction forced us to contemplate the classic silver ragwort with new eyes. Once planted in straight rows at the edge of a clump of burnt orange marigolds, dusty millers are now the touch of gray that can jazz up a modern arrangement!

Then came the ‘Angel Wings’ sea cabbage (Senecio candicans) with its broad, full, almost white gray leaves. It is a taller variety than the two previous ones, as it can reach 18 inches (45 cm) in height. This plant is widely used to decorate the flower boxes of trendy urban terraces. It does indeed have a little something unique and original about it.

Well Known Greys… Are Spreaders

Among the decorative foliage plants that are now well known to gardeners are the plectranthus ‘Silver Shield’ and ‘Silver Crest’ (Plectranthus spp.), both with a spreading habit. These plants can branch out their stems up to 2 feet (60 cm) long. They are commonly used in hanging baskets, often with petunias or ivy geranium. Helichrysums (Helichrysum spp.) are very similar to plectranthus, but their foliage is smaller. Both plants are relatively easy to grow indoors during winter.

An original composition that brings together helichrysums with gray foliage, purple petunias and a purple misery plant (Tradescanthia pallida). The latter, being a very easy to grow houseplant, is an inspiring addition to hanging planters. Photo: Proven Winners

While the previous plants have a fairly rigid foliage, the dichondra (Dichondra argentea) is totally drooping. The plant forms long stems of round, silver-grey leaves. Like almost everything that has been named above, the dichondra is extremely easy to grow. It can fall down for several meters. Like all annuals with gray foliage, dichondra goes with EVERYTHING, absolutely everything!

Grays to Discover

In recent years, wormwood has also made its appearance in the annuals department. Artemisia ‘Silver Bullet’ (Artemisia stellariana) resembles  the dusty miller in many ways, but it has a slightly drooping habit. This makes it a nice addition in hanging baskets.

One must also discover the helichrysum ‘Icicles’ (Helichrysum thianschanicum ‘Icicles’) with its thin, rod-like leaves. This plant has a somewhat more compact habit than other helichrysums. Thus, it is more suitable for decorative containers and flower boxes than for hanging planters. Sagebrush ‘Makana Silver’ is another lovely novelty with even finer foliage than helichrysum ‘Icicles’. This artemisia forms a beautiful, rounded bush and is ideal for large containers.

What a great idea to combine variegated leaf sage with helichrysum ‘Icicles’. Sages are also well known for having good resistance to drought. Photo: Proven Winners

Then, you have to go in search of the didelta ‘Silver Strand’ (Didelta ‘Silver Strand’), whose leaf shape and rather upright habit are quite unique! This will be my plant to discover this summer!

Very similar to silver ragwort, centaurea is also entering the list of annual plants with gray foliage! Centaurea ‘Chrome Fountain’ is one of a series of plants called ‘FanciFillers’. This is a beautiful assortment of decorative foliage plants, not just gray ones. The alternanthera ‘Choco Chili’, with chocolate brown foliage, and the plectranthus ‘Guacamole’, with variegated foliage of green and gold, belong to this series. In the case of our beautiful gray leaved centaurea, it has well-rounded lobed leaves, which are midway between common and ‘New Look’ dusty miller.

The didelta ‘Silver Strand’ will be a personal discovery this year. If you have already cultivated it, I would be curious to collect your impressions in the comments. Photo: Proven Winners

What Plants go Well with Gray Foliage?

Anything mauve or purple goes very well with gray leaves. For example, we can plant heliotropes (Heliotropium spp.) and mealy sage (Salvia farinacea) with the broad-leaved plants. Finer foliage can be combined with large-flowered plants such as petunias or tuberous begonias. Beautiful results can also be obtained by combining gray foliage with light pink flowers.

In my case, my selection will be all white, with ‘Summer Snow’ euphorbias, calibrachoas and white-flowered pelargoniums. In short, anything that can illustrate snow and frost! I was so cold this spring, that it is quite possible that the gloomy and rainy weather inspired me this theme. A perfect theme to keep me from grumbling about the scorching heat that awaits us in the coming months!

And you? What will your flower boxes look like this year?

Here is my source of inspiration for my theme ‘Snow Queen’. Sagebrush, helichrysums, dichondras and euphorbias, all dressed in white or gray! Photo: Proven Winners

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

1 comment on “Silver Leaves for Gorgeous Containers (Or My “Snow Queen” Theme)

  1. joni boyer

    How about Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’/

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