Add instant interest by going big, with leaves

THERE’S AN old story, no doubt apocryphal but grounded in truth, about an English designer who was asked by a dissatisfied gardener to diagnose what was wrong with her place. The designer looked around, then down his nose, and declared to the hand-wringing gardener, “The problem is, dear lady, that all your leaves are the same size!”

We forget that plants can be as bold and breathtaking in leaf as in flower. There’s no quicker way to update your garden than to add a few big-leaf plants. Go ahead and keep your boxwood and pyracantha for background, but minimize their fussiness with some big-leaf eye candy. Instant makeover.

You really get into the artistry of gardening when you start playing around with foliar effects. This exercise in leafy contrast livens up the garden year ’round if you mix in evergreens like magnolias and big-leaf rhododendrons.

We don’t need the hugest, showiest foliage to avoid the dreaded “little-leaf-itis” suffered by that poor English gardener. Banana trees, canna lilies and tree ferns are about as mammoth-leafed as they come (except for gunnera, but we’ll get to that). But these exotics aren’t so practical in our climate and can be challenging to fit harmoniously into Northwest gardens. Quieter plants, like our native sword ferns, trillium and wild ginger, have foliage large and dramatic enough to play off conifers or wildflowers.

Size is relative, meaning that large leaves can be as effective as huge ones. Which is one reason heucheras and hostas are so popular. Their leaves are just showy and outsized enough so that they read well set against spiky-leafed plants or ones with more diminutive leaves. And don’t forget texture. Because of their reflectivity, glossy leaves look even larger than they are. Variegated, dimpled, wavy and veined foliage creates yet more interest.

If you can’t quite figure out how to fit a big-leaf behemoth into your garden, simply plant a Gunnera tinctoria in a spacious container. I’ve had one of these monsters, dosed regularly with manure and water, living happily in a half barrel in a shady corner of my garden for years. A single hit of huge is better than none.

Here are a few of the hundreds of possible big-leafed plants for every level of the garden from overhead to ankle-high. All are well suited to our climate:

• Bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla) forms an extravagant canopy with its 2- to 3-foot-long leaves backed in silver-gray.

• Hardy fig trees, like Ficus carica ‘Corky’s Honey,’ have big, dramatic leaves and delicious fruit.

Gunnera tinctoria has enormous, rough leaves that grow 6 feet wide. Each leaf.

Acanthus mollis ‘Whitewater’ is a variegated version of the more familiar green-leafed species, with wide, white-splashed foliage and ghostly pale, pink-tinted flowers.

Melianthus major ‘Antonow’s Blue,’ named after a local gardener, is the hardiest of these South African beauties with big, powder blue, saw-toothed leaves.

Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ is a giant; a single clump of its ribbed, chartreuse leaves can spread 6 feet wide.

• Our native western wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) grows in dry shade, and has shiny, big (for a ground cover), heart-shaped leaves.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at