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Quicksilver: 11 Plants for a Silvery Gray Garden

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Quicksilver: 11 Plants for a Silvery Gray Garden

February 27, 2019

Soothing, silvery, and elegant, one of the most beautiful and useful colors in the garden is gray. It is complex and variable, and often works skillfully in the background to make other plants look a lot better than they would on their own.

Here are 10 top picks for gray gardens in sun and shade, to expand your landscape’s horticultural palette:

Photography by Marie Viljoen, except where noted.

Artemisia

Artemisia absinthium likes full sun, and favors poor soil with excellent drainage. It is a good choice for low-water gardens and is hardy from USDA zones 4 to 9. Photograph by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr.
Above: Artemisia absinthium likes full sun, and favors poor soil with excellent drainage. It is a good choice for low-water gardens and is hardy from USDA zones 4 to 9. Photograph by Andreas Rockstein via Flickr.
Paired with sturdy allium flowers (these happen to be leeks in flower), the silver filagree of Artemisia and lilac pompom both increase in visual impact.
Above: Paired with sturdy allium flowers (these happen to be leeks in flower), the silver filagree of Artemisia and lilac pompom both increase in visual impact.

Artemisia in all its variation (there are many species) belongs to the A-List of silver-leafed plants. Its feathery leaves define textural delicacy while the fine-cut surfaces manage to glow and offer shadow at the same time.

Cotyledon

Frothy gaura is planted against backdrop of flesh-leafed Cotyledon orbiculata var. oblonga. The sturdy succulent-fingers provide a visual foundation for the airy stems of gaura.
Above: Frothy gaura is planted against backdrop of flesh-leafed Cotyledon orbiculata var. oblonga. The sturdy succulent-fingers provide a visual foundation for the airy stems of gaura.
And cotyledons come with spectacular benefits: powdery silver spikes of apricot flowers in late spring. Succulent cotyledon species have rounded as well as elongated leaves, and are very drought tolerant. They are hardy from USDA zones 9 to \1\1.
Above: And cotyledons come with spectacular benefits: powdery silver spikes of apricot flowers in late spring. Succulent cotyledon species have rounded as well as elongated leaves, and are very drought tolerant. They are hardy from USDA zones 9 to 11.

Salvia

Above: Another star of the gray-leafed galaxy is salvia. And there are so many salvias, worldwide. Salvia clevelandii, above, is a North American species originating in southern California.

S. clevelandii‘s numerous hybrids are now sold in the nursery trade internationally. Its fragrant gray leaves are topped throughout summer by tubular flowers of clear lavender-blue, and much loved by pollinators and hummingbirds. Tolerant of dry spells, and intolerant of overwatering, it can grow three to five feet wide and benefits from cutting back, sending out new shoots to replace woodier stems. Cleveland sage is hardy from USDA zones 8 to 10.

Sage

 In gardens where every inch of space counts, the attractively furred leaves of edible culinary sage double as an ornamental. Planted with osteospermum and society garlic, above, its leaves are frames for the flowers of Osteorpermum daisies.
Above: In gardens where every inch of space counts, the attractively furred leaves of edible culinary sage double as an ornamental. Planted with osteospermum and society garlic, above, its leaves are frames for the flowers of Osteorpermum daisies.

Society Garlic

The silvery ribbons of society garlic, in this case Tulbaghia violacea &#8\2\16;Silver Lace&#8\2\17;, happen to be edible, too (and pack a garlicky punch). Plants in shade will produce fewer flowers but more abundant foliage, making it a useful ground cover. In full sun the slender stalks of (edible) lilac flowers in early and late summer are a beautiful bonus. Society garlic is hardy from USDA zones 7 to \10.
Above: The silvery ribbons of society garlic, in this case Tulbaghia violacea ‘Silver Lace’, happen to be edible, too (and pack a garlicky punch). Plants in shade will produce fewer flowers but more abundant foliage, making it a useful ground cover. In full sun the slender stalks of (edible) lilac flowers in early and late summer are a beautiful bonus. Society garlic is hardy from USDA zones 7 to 10.

Curry Bush

Like the sages, the silver foliage of so-called curry bush (no relation to curry leaf, Murray koenigii) is deliciously aromatic. In the foreground above, Mediterranean Helichrysum italicum&#8\2\16;s soft needles provide a linear contrast for the rounded mounds of sweet alyssum (in summer this Helichrysum produces vivid yellow flowers). Behind, South African Helichrysum petiolare is topped with everlasting-like cream blooms that are highly fragrant.
Above: Like the sages, the silver foliage of so-called curry bush (no relation to curry leaf, Murray koenigii) is deliciously aromatic. In the foreground above, Mediterranean Helichrysum italicum‘s soft needles provide a linear contrast for the rounded mounds of sweet alyssum (in summer this Helichrysum produces vivid yellow flowers). Behind, South African Helichrysum petiolare is topped with everlasting-like cream blooms that are highly fragrant.

Helichrysums favor Mediterranean climates (with winter rainfall and summer dry spells), and require full sun. They also grow very successfully as annuals in regions with bitter winters.

Rose Campion

With its velvet leaves and fuchsia (or white) flowers, Lychnis coronaria, or rose campion, is a self-seeding filler for beds and garden path edges with shallow soil that tend to be on the dry side—the drier the soil, the more silvery the leaves. It is very important to deadhead the plant as soon as its blooms are spent, or it tends to be invasive.
Above: With its velvet leaves and fuchsia (or white) flowers, Lychnis coronaria, or rose campion, is a self-seeding filler for beds and garden path edges with shallow soil that tend to be on the dry side—the drier the soil, the more silvery the leaves. It is very important to deadhead the plant as soon as its blooms are spent, or it tends to be invasive.
The tight mounds of rose campion leaves complement the habits of looser-limbed plants such as the coreopsis, above. Native to Europe, rose campion is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8.
Above: The tight mounds of rose campion leaves complement the habits of looser-limbed plants such as the coreopsis, above. Native to Europe, rose campion is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8.

Rockrose

Above: The many Cistus species and hybrids all have in common their pretty, day-blooming flowers resembling miniature roses.  Rock roses require full sun and perfect drainage, and are good choices for gardens in dry climates, and near salty seashore winds. Their silver-green leaves show off the crèpe texture of their blooms.

Silver Spurflower

For gardens in semi shade, Plectranthus argentatus can be grown as an annual where winters freeze, or a perennial in warmer regions (silver spurflower is only winter hardy in zones 9 to \1\1). The Australian native has broad velvety leaves and partners especially well with whites and greens for cool color palettes.
Above: For gardens in semi shade, Plectranthus argentatus can be grown as an annual where winters freeze, or a perennial in warmer regions (silver spurflower is only winter hardy in zones 9 to 11). The Australian native has broad velvety leaves and partners especially well with whites and greens for cool color palettes.

Cobweb Spiderwort

Another excellent silver-leafed plant for shade is the intriguing cobweb spiderwort–Tradescantia sillamontana is native to northern Mexico. Semi-succulent and drought tolerant, it is a good ground cover for the dry shade beneath trees. While it will grow in full sun, it will be taller and more graceful in semi shade or high shade. It requires excellent drainage and is hardy from USDA zones 8 to \1\1.
Above: Another excellent silver-leafed plant for shade is the intriguing cobweb spiderwort–Tradescantia sillamontana is native to northern Mexico. Semi-succulent and drought tolerant, it is a good ground cover for the dry shade beneath trees. While it will grow in full sun, it will be taller and more graceful in semi shade or high shade. It requires excellent drainage and is hardy from USDA zones 8 to 11.

Cardoon

For large gardens, statuesque cardoons, Cynara cardunculus, are stunning focal points as well as gorgeously textural reliefs for flowers and foliage in the foreground.
Above: For large gardens, statuesque cardoons, Cynara cardunculus, are stunning focal points as well as gorgeously textural reliefs for flowers and foliage in the foreground.

Globe Artichoke

And finally, the dramatically toothed and chalky leaves of cardoons&#8\2\17; close relative, the globe artichoke, eventually give way to their famous, amethyst flowers, extending their season of interest once their foliage is past prime.
Above: And finally, the dramatically toothed and chalky leaves of cardoons’ close relative, the globe artichoke, eventually give way to their famous, amethyst flowers, extending their season of interest once their foliage is past prime.

See more of our favorite blue and purple flowers to complement silvery foliage in Lavender 101, Salvia 101, and Thistle 101 in our curated design guides to Perennials 101. Read more about successful plant pairings:

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