Mellow Yellow in the Garden

Posted: August 13, 2012

When we think of color in the garden, we usually picture the bright colors of flowers – yellow, pink, red, blue, purple, white, and orange. But the predominant color in any garden or landscape, and the one that tends to get overlooked because of its ubiquity, is the green of foliage.
Tiger Eyes Sumac

Tiger Eyes Sumac

Foliage comes in myriad shades of green, and that is very useful in garden design, since the leaves are present from spring to fall, much longer than flowers last. Flowers are the icing on the cake of design, so to speak; combining and contrasting foliage shape, color, and texture is a key element in creating a garden that looks good all season. Foliage becomes particularly important in designing shady areas where flowers may be sparse or fleeting.
One of my favorite shades of green is chartreuse, which is defined as a color ranging from a brilliant greenish yellow to a moderate yellow green. The name of the color comes from a liqueur called Les Peres Chartreux. This cordial in its finest form is a pale apple green color and has been made by Carthusian monks in Grenoble, France, from brandy blended with a secret formula of fragrant herbs, since the 17th century.
I have never tasted the liqueur, but I imagine that, like the color, a little goes a long way. Chartreuse is a great color to use in the garden to add a bright “pop” or create a focal point that attracts the eye here and there in the garden, but it should be used sparingly. It combines well with other shades of green, including blue-green, contrasts beautifully with red, burgundy, and purple foliage, and lights up shady areas. Used in this way, it mellows the garden; but if overused, it can become glaring and strident.
There are many, many trees, shrubs, and perennials with yellow-green foliage available for the garden landscape. Some are best used in full sun and some in partial shade. Proper placement is important, because chartreuse sometimes will scorch or bleach out in full sun, or turn darker in full shade; but how the color will react to sunlight really depends on the particular variety of the plant.
Here are just a few of my favorite chartreuse plants:
·         Hinoki False Cypress ‘Crippsii’ (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’) – this lovely evergreen conifer is broadly pyramidal, with frond-like, slightly drooping branchlets of rich golden yellow that turn green in the interior of the plant. It does best in full sun and can get to be 50’ high and 10' to 20’ wide. ‘Fernspray Gold’ has similar coloring but does not get as large as ‘Crippsii’.
·         Tiger Eyes Sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) – this hybrid of our native Staghorn Sumac has dissected, almost fern-like, yellow-green foliage on a shrub that gets to be 5' to 10’ high. The fall color is an outstanding mix of orange, yellow, and scarlet. This shrub grows best in full sun and does well in average to dry soil; give it room to grow, as it will spread by suckering, although not as much as the species.
·         Mellow Yellow Spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’) – this smaller shrub grows to about 3' to 5’ high and wide, with slender, arching branches forming a mound of small, almost wispy yellow-green foliage. It grows best in full sun and average garden soil, with pretty little white flowers in early spring, and fall foliage that turns a softer yellow-orange. Prune after flowering to maintain the nicely mounded shape.
·         Heuchera ‘Citronelle’ – this perennial is one of my favorite heucheras; it’s a year-round keeper, forming a 12-inch mound of bright lime-green foliage that stays evergreen even under snow in winter. It also gets spikes of small white flowers in mid-summer. It grows best in partial or dappled shade and rich, organic soil; its leaves will bleach and scorch if it’s in too much sun, but will turn green if it’s in too much shade.