Gardeners have their own vocabulary, on that can seem a bit strange to the uninitiated. For example, when they speak of a “golden” color, they don’t mean the shiny metallic color of your 14-karat ring, but rather, when it comes to flowers, to bright yellowy orange … and when golden is linked to foliage, there is yet another definition.
“Golden” foliage is not really yellow at all, but rather a very, very clear green. You could call it lime green, and in fact, many “golden” leaved plants do turn lime green as the summer advances, but the true golden shade of plant foliage is even paler, with perhaps a touch of lemon. I often describe it as “chartreuse yellow,” much like the color of the brilliantly colored liqueur. Still, most gardeners continue to call these yellow-leaved plants golden, a use that is, by the way, mirrored in the Latin term often used as a cultivar name for golden plants, ‘Aurea’ (also ‘Aureum’ or ‘Aureus’, depending on the gender of the preceding word). It too means ‘golden’.
It’s a color that definitely stands out from the crowd. Especially when the golden-leaved plant is in a shady spot or surrounded by plants with darker foliage. Under such circumstances, it seems almost to glow, like a ray of sunshine breaking through overhead leaves.
What Causes Golden Foliage
Golden foliage is very common in horticultural circles, resulting from a fairly frequent mutation. In fact, I occasionally find golden seedlings among the plants I grow from seed (that and occasional variegated or albino plants). It results when chlorophyll, a green pigment which is usually highly concentrated in leaves and thus usually gives them a mid- to dark green color, is very diffuse, resulting a green much closer to lemon yellow.
Usually, this lack of chlorophyll is somewhat detrimental to the plant’s vigor. In the wild, such mutants would be eliminated, as they won’t grow as fast as their brethren with green foliage, but it’s a minor flaw, not serious enough to truly damage the plant’s performance in the garden as long as the gardener removes any competition.
And gardeners do love it: golden foliage is increasingly popular in gardening circles everywhere.
In landscaping, golden foliage has an advantage over plants with beautiful flowers. The latter are only attractive when they are in bloom and most plants only bloom for a few weeks each summer. Golden-leaved plants, on the other hand, shine through from late spring to fall, sometimes all winter in the case of golden evergreens. Try them in a location that seems a bit dull or shady or where the surrounding plants are very dark green and you’ll see: the site immediately perks right up!
The golden leaves have an innate defect: they tend to “burn” in the sun. Sometimes the color simply washes out, leaving them with a white overlay. In other cases, the leaf can actually die back. Unless otherwise stated (and there are many exceptions to this rule), it’s best to plant golden plants in partial shade or at least to protect them from the afternoon sun, especially in the regions with hot summers. In cooler climates, though, you can often plant them in full sun and see no damage.
Another factor to consider is that golden foliage can be so dominant that it can bury other colors, notably those of the plant’s flowers. This is especially the case with white or yellow flowers: unless they are very large, the brilliance of the golden leaves often simply overpowers them and you scarcely notice the bloom! On the other hand, I think you’ll find that golden foliage is so attractive that you really don’t need the flowers.
A Vast Choice
There are hundreds of plants with golden foliage and they’re found in all plant categories: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, climbers, etc. What follows are just a few suggestions to brighten up your garden. Any garden center offers plenty more!
Golden aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’): A huge perennial with golden compound leaves. Color brightest in partial shade, but still remarkable in deep shade. Insignificant white flowers. Has become hugely popular very quickly due to its ability to give punch to the shadiest nooks. ☀🌤☁ 6 ft x 3 ft (2 m x 1 m). Zone 4.
Golden arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Jantar’): Mutation of the popular all-green columnar arborvitae ‘Smaradg’ (‘Emerald’). Foliage bright chartreuse yellow all summer, turning amber in winter. (Jantar means amber in Polish.) Very narrow, upright habit. ☀🌤 15 ft x 3 ft (5 m x 1 m). Zone 4.
Golden barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea Nana’): Shrub forming a beautiful rounded mound of small chartreuse-yellow leaves. Very thorny stems. Insignificant flowers; small red berries, few in number, most visible in fall. The foliage turns red in autumn. Adapts well to full sun. 3-4 ft x 3-5 ft (90-120 cm x 90-150 cm). ☀🌤 Zone 4b.
B. thunbergii ‘Monlo’ (Gold Nugget ™) is similar, but more compact (18 in x 40 in./45 cm x 100 cm).
Golden coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides): Wide choice of varieties with golden foliage, such as ‘Wasabi’. Others mix chartreuse-yellow with other colors. Shade or partial shade; sun only if you can keep the soil moist. ☀🌤☁ 1-3 ft x 12-18 in. (30-90 cm x 30-45 cm). Annual.
Golden elderberry (Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’): Shrub. There are actually several golden elderberries, but this variety is among the most attractive, with beautifully cut foliage almost like a feather duster. White flowers scarcely noticeable, but remarkable red berries. Partial sun or partial shade. 5 ft x 5 ft (1.5 m x 1.5 m). ☀🌤Zone 4b.
Golden forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’): There are dozens of golden grasses, but this is one of the better ones for shady spots. Arching mound of narrow chartreuse-yellow leaves. Insignificant flowers. Does best in part shade. ☀🌤☁ 18 in. x 18 in. (45 cm x 45 cm). Zone 4.
Golden hosta (Hosta spp.): There are many golden hostas, including the popular Hosta ‘Sum & Substance’, a giant slug-resistant variety. Bloom often insignificant. Variable sizes, from just 6 inches (15 cm) in height and diameter to over 3 feet (90 cm) in height and 9 feet (3 m) in diameter. ☀🌤☁ Zone 3.
Golden meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria ‘Aurea’): Perennial with attractively cut and textured foliage in a particularly striking shade of chartreuse. Relatively insignificant white flowers. Tough, long-lived plant. 3 ft x 2-3 ft (90 cm x 60-90 cm). Zone 3.
Golden mock orange (Philadelphus coronaria ‘Aureus’): Golden leaved shrub. White flowers exquisitely scented … but less numerous than green-leafed varieties. In cold climates, it will bloom well only after mild winters. Sometimes burns in intense sun. ☀🌤 6 ft x 6 ft (2 m x 2 m). Zone 3b (foliage), 5b (flowers).
Golden ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’): Shrub with maple-shaped leaves. Insignificant white flowers, bright red fruits. Red leaves in fall. Doesn’t burn in full sun. ☀🌤 4-5 ft x 4-5 ft (1.2-1.5 m x 1.2-1.5 m). Zone 2b.
P. opuliformis ‘Luteus’ is similar, but larger: 6-8 ft x 6-8 ft (2-2,5 m x 2-2,5 m).
Golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’): Perennial herb, both ornamental and edible. Brightly colored foliage; white flowers nevertheless fairly visible. True to type from seed. May burn a little in full sun. ☀🌤 8-12 in. x 12-18 in. (20-30 cm x 30-45 cm). Zone 4.
Golden perennial cornflower (Centaurea montana ‘Gold Bullion’): Perennial with wide golden leaves that make the deep purple flowers really stand out. Leaves bright orange in spring. Flowers in midsummer. ☀🌤 2 ft x 1 ft (60 cm x 30 cm). Zone 3.
Golden spiderwort (Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Sweet Kate’, syn. ‘Blue and Gold’): Perennial with narrow, ribbonlike foliage resembling a grass. Beautiful purple flowers highlighted by the foliage. There are also spiderworts with golden foliage in other flower colors. ☀🌤 20-30 in. x 12 in. (50-60 cm x 30 cm). Zone 4.
Golden sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’): Shrub with deeply cut pinnate foliage. Chartreuse yellow with red veins. Foliage turns bright red in fall. Dark red fruits on mature specimens. Much less invasive than other sumacs. ☀🌤 6-8 ft x 4-6 ft (2-4 m x 1-2 m). Zone 3a.
The plants described above are only a drop in the bucket. If the golden leaves are your thing, you’ll have plenty of choice!