PLANTS Silvers provide garden shimmer

The plants add contrast amid colorful flowers and green foliage.
AKRON -- Silver plants do for a garden what silver accessories do for an outfit. They add a little luster, a little eye-catching glitz, a contrast that sets off the rest of the ensemble.
It's quite a glamorous role for a group of plants that are basically tough-as-nails survivors.
Silver plants -- plants with foliage that ranges from near white to gray-green, or that has silvery markings or a metallic sheen -- owe their eye-catching color to nature's protectiveness. The silver comes from fuzzy hairs, a waxy layer or a thickening of the leaf that protects the plant against harsh conditions, said Jo Ann Gardner, who recently published the book "Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for Every Garden" with photographer Karen Bussolini.
Gardner, a noted herbalist, first took an interest in silver plants when she started noticing the way silvery herbs stood out from the others she grew on the farm she and her husband tended for 30 years on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. "My eye would inevitably be drawn to these plants, but I didn't know why," she said in a phone interview from her current home in the foothills of New York's Adirondacks.
Then a series of trips to Israel left her "absolutely bowled over" by the silver plants she saw growing wild in the desert. She was especially taken by a type of artemisia called white wormwood, which commonly grew alongside pink-flowered helianthemum. "I never saw such a beautiful combination," she said.
New appreciation
Most gardeners, like herself, only recently have begun appreciating silver plants on their own merits, Gardner said. Originally silver plants such as artemisia, lavender and sage were merely considered useful for medicinal purposes. Then, they were incorporated into herb gardens planted in formal knot designs, and later the Victorians used silver plants in gardens that mimicked Oriental carpets -- a movement that lives on in the ubiquitous combination of red-hot salvia and dusty miller found in countless civic gardens.
More recently, though, gardeners have gotten more adventurous about sprinkling silver into the landscape. One Connecticut garden included in her slide show abandons all caution and incorporates silver plants all along a border, with striking results, Gardner said.
In her book, Gardner divides silver plants into three categories: downy types, waxy types and variegated types. Those categories encompass many types of plants, from creeping ground covers to towering trees.
Downy plants, the most common, have tiny hairs that maintain a layer of humidity close to the plant's surface to protect it from extreme heat or cold. Waxy types have a waxy coating called bloom on the foliage, which protects against temperature extremes, drought, wind, salt spray and harsh sun. Variegated plants have leaves that are streaked, spotted, edged, frosted or marbled, and the markings are believed to cover air pockets that keep the cells beneath them from overheating.
Proper conditions
Because the silver color in plants is a form of adaptation to the environment, Gardner said the plants thrive and look best when they're grown in the conditions to which they're naturally suited. A downy plant that grows naturally in full sun and sandy soil, for example, will lose much of its silvery fuzz if it's placed in a shady site with rich soil.
But even when the plants are matched to their ideal conditions, their appearance can change with conditions, seasons and even age, she said. The fuzz on lavender flattens in the rain. Colorado spruce loses some of its winter iridescence when the weather warms. Lamb's ear turns bluish in winter.
"You really have to know what to expect," she said.
The good news, Gardner said, is that silver plants encompass so many varieties that there's a plant for almost every use and growing condition. For example, she said many people are familiar with only one variety of artemisia, Silver King, but her book covers more than a dozen others that might be more suitable, depending on the site.
And there's been an explosion of silver plants for shade, including varieties of heuchera and brunnera. They light up the shady spots and give gardeners new options for an area of the landscape that's traditionally been somewhat limiting.
You might say silvers are getting their chance to shine.

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