A touch of frost: best silver plants for the winter garden

Phlomis fruticosa (Jerusalem sage) likes full sun and good drainage
Neil Ross

Phlomis fruticosa (Jerusalem sage) likes full sun and good drainage

Evergreen silver foliage and seedheads are especially welcome in winter, brightening the garden and providing a frosty touch even in places that never get cold.

But a little goes a long way. Set silver against a dark backdrop or near rich, green, glossy foliage and it will shimmer.

So silver works brilliantly against the plum leaves of heucheras or coprosmas but it doesn't fare so well in pale settings such as against concrete paving, bleached wooden fences or light stone walls where they make no contrast. 

Giant cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is a muscular perennial with towering seed heads.
neil ross

Giant cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is a muscular perennial with towering seed heads.

The Mediterranean regions are particularly rich in silver treasures whose leaves are covered with a fine fur or thick wax to better hold on to water in summer months.

Many are aromatic, as you'd expect, slightly tender and demand keen drainage.

These plants include the rounded balls of pungent lavenders, curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) and santolina, to the looser forms of woolly Ballota pseudodictamnus, frilly leaved artemisias and shrubby Jerusalem sages – either yellow-flowered Phlomis fruticosa or pink Phlomis italica, both with curious whorls of flower. 

Brachyglottis repanda is a reliable silver native shrub for dry shade.
neil ross

Brachyglottis repanda is a reliable silver native shrub for dry shade.

These plants all need sunshine and good ventilation and plenty of elbow room to develop their personalities.

A gap in the paving of a wide terrace is an ideal place to let them range freely, or plant them in containers or on a mound of soil with plenty of gravel mixed in.

The furry-leaved sorts such as lavender tend to hate shady places where water from the canopy above is going to drip onto their foliage and cause it to rot.

Anaphalis triplinervis: a neat, unusual perennial with silvery leaves and everlasting flowers
neil ross

Anaphalis triplinervis: a neat, unusual perennial with silvery leaves and everlasting flowers

But the few furry customers bucking this trend include tender Plectranthus argentatus with big, hairy leaves and Helichrysum petiolare, which can be clipped into hedges and mounds. 

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There are plenty of silvery natives on offer, notably the olearias, cassinias and the Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis) but all of these can be tricky in anything less than perfect conditions.

They dislike still, humid weather, for example, and baulk at heavy soils too. So stick to less temperamental prima donnas such as astelias, Hebe albicans or the lower and neater Hebe pimeleoides 'Quicksilver'.

Honesty (Lunaria annua) self seeds, and has mauve or white flowers.
neil ross

Honesty (Lunaria annua) self seeds, and has mauve or white flowers.

Or investigate the more dramatic brachyglottis family, which, though furry in leaf, seems to tolerate growing under trees. Brachyglottis greyi is the easiest species and 'Sunshine' the best-known hybrid.

 But for quirky practicality our common rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda) is hard to beat. Its colloquial name of Bushman's toilet paper makes the plant worth growing just as a talking point! 

For less crude drama however, my favourite silver plant has to be a stately import, the giant cardoon (Cynara cardunculus).

Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan’ is one of the best variegated forms of spurge.
neil ross

Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan’ is one of the best variegated forms of spurge.

Though not technically evergreen, this herbaceous artichoke begins erupting into life in autumn and by late winter it has swollen into a fountain of architectural leaf.

Among the dead stems of winter, this is truly the geyser of the garden. 

For more like this, subscribe to NZ Gardener at mags4gifts.co.nz.

Agave parryi var. huachucensis is grown more for its exquisite leaf form than for flowers.
neil ross

Agave parryi var. huachucensis is grown more for its exquisite leaf form than for flowers.

 - NZ Gardener

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