12 Good Foliage Plants for Your Garden

Hosta plant with variegated white, yellow and green leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Flowers are the highlights of many gardens when they are present, but foliage plants (plants grown primarily for their leaves) boast reliability that is not to be scoffed at. Blooms come and go. But if you grow specimens with long-lasting and attractive leaves, there will always be something in your garden to delight you. Often, foliage plants are used in shady locations, since most flowering plants don't perform well in these conditions. But there are also foliage plants that work well in sun. These 12 options offer something for every situation and climate.

Warning

Some ground covers are pretty but invasive. You can grow such plants in pots so as to contain them while still enjoying their marvelous foliage. An example is bishop's weed (Aegopodium podagraria), one type of which has variegated leaves.

  • 01 of 12

    Japanese Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis)

    Japanese pachysandra closeup

    The Spruce / K. Dave

    Pachysandra terminalis spreads to fill in an area via underground runners. Reaching a height of about 6 to 12 inches, Pachysandra has shiny, dark green oval leaves that terminate in a whorl at the end of the stem. It bears insignificant white flowers in spring. Pachysandra prefers shade, so it's a great choice for those problem areas you have that don't receive much sunlight. In warmer regions, it may remain evergreen year-round. It is sometimes called "Japanese spurge," but don't confuse it with wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides), which is also essentially a foliage plant (although it does flower).

    This plant is prone to fungus, so it's best to keep ground areas clear of debris and avoid overhead watering in favor of soaking.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 4–9
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Medium- to dark-green; some cultivars with white edges
    • Light: Part shade to full shade
    • Mature Size: 6–12 in. tall, 12–18 in. wide.
    • Deer Resistant: Yes
  • 02 of 12

    Creeping Liriope (Lirope Spicata)

    Image of large patch of Liriope (in bloom) under trees.
    Liriope spicata is a shade-tolerant ground cover. penboy/Getty Images

    Liriope spicata grows a bit taller than Pachysandra, reaching about 1 foot in height at maturity. And whereas Pachysandra exhibits fleshy, oval leaves, Liriope resembles a grass. Liriope puts out a nice spiky white or lavender flower, but its main selling point is its leaves. Perhaps its greatest value lies in its versatility: It is amenable to a sunny location or to partial shade. Used as ground cover, it is easily maintained simply by mowing it off in the spring before growth begins.

    This is a fast-growing, fast-spreading plant that should be used carefully in warmer climates; it is considered invasive in parts of the southeastern United States.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 4–10
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Dark green; variegated varieties are available
    • Light: Full sun to partial shade
    • Mature Size: 9–18 in. wide, 1–2 ft. wide
    • Deer Resistant: Yes
  • 03 of 12

    Foamy Bells (x Heucherella)

    My photo of Solar Power foamy bells shows a leaf with few splotches.

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Foamy bells (Heucherella) and the related coral bells (Heuchera) are showier picks than either Pachysandra or Liriope. Foamy bells originated as an unusual hybrid cross between plants in two different genera: Heuchera and Tiarella (foam flower). Plant breeders have subsequently produced a number of cultivars that bear leaves with jaw-dropping beauty. For example, 'Solar Power' foamy bells display fantastic golden leaves.

    These plants are usually grouped together in perennial beds or as a ground cover. If you enjoy color contrasts, black mondo grass makes an outstanding plant partner for 'Solar Power'.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 4–9
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Yellow, gold, bronze, red, green; many with contrasting veins and splotches.
    • Light: Full sun to part shade
    • Mature Size: 12–18 in. tall and wide
    • Deer Resistant: No
  • 04 of 12

    Artemisia

    Silver Mound Artemisia

     

    Fanliso / Getty Images

    Artemisia is another plant with colorful leaves. But in this case, the color in question includes various shades of greenish silver in the fine wispy, fern-like leaves. The most common cultivar in this genus is 'Silver Mound' (Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound'). Hardiness range varies somewhat between species, so make sure to choose one rated for your region. The most popular forms of this genus form neat, soft, mounding shapes, usually less than 1 foot tall.

    This plant does best in very well-draining soil; it won't tolerate soggy conditions.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 4–9
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Greenish-silver, bluish-green
    • Light: Full sun
    • Mature Size: 6 in. to 4 ft. tall (depends on species; most are 6–12 in.)
    • Deer Resistant: Yes
    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12

    Wall Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys)

    Image showing what germander looks like. The densely-packed foliage makes it a good plant for hedges.

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) is a broadleaf evergreen sub-shrub that stands about 1 foot tall, with a width that is slightly more. With its small, shiny dark green leaves with toothed edges, you can use it much as you would a miniature boxwood, which has a similar appearance: Plant a row of it to form a short, ornamental hedge in a small area. Some cultivars are small enough ('Prostratum') to make an effective ground cover in dry, sunny areas. Although they are not especially showy, small pinkish-purple flowers will appear in late spring to early summer.

    To keep it attractive, this plant needs to be pruned down after flowering.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 5–9
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Shiny dark green
    • Light: Full sun
    • Mature Size: 6–12 in. tall, 1–2 ft. wide
    • Deer Resistant: Yes
  • 06 of 12

    Tricolor Sage (Salvia officinalis 'Tricolor')

    Tricolor sage (image) is an ornamental. It likes fast-draining soil.

    The Spruce / David Beaulieu

    Tricolor sage plants (Salvia officinalis 'Tricolor') do put out violet-colored blooms, but they are grown more for their variegated leaves. The older foliage on this perennial herb tends to be green in the middle, with an irregular white margin; the younger leaves are purplish. These foliage plants are also fragrant (although the aroma is an acquired taste).

    Be careful not to overwater these plants, as too much moisture easily kills them.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 6–9
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Purple when young, then green with white margins
    • Light: Full sun
    • Mature Size: 12–18 in. tall and wide
    • Deer Resistant: Yes
  • 07 of 12

    Hosta

    Hosta plant with variegated white and green leaves near rocks

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    Although they do bloom, hostas (Hosta spp.) are such terrific foliage plants that we often remove the flowers so that they don't distract us from enjoying the leaves. Classified as perennials, many hostas are nonetheless used in the landscape as if they were small shrubs (note, however, that hostas vary greatly in size, depending on the type). For instance, they are sometimes used as edging plants for a flower bed.

    There is an amazing diversity of size and color to be found in the Hosta genus, and entire gardens can be designed around this single plant, with foliage that ranges from the palest yellow to nearly pure blue and every shade of green in between—including hundreds of variegated forms. Leaves can range from tiny, smooth needle-like leaves to huge paddle-shaped leaves with the texture of seersucker. Some gardeners specialize in growing nothing but hostas, yet manage to achieve some of the most spectacularly diverse shade gardens imaginable.

    These plants are toxic to dogs, cats, and horses, so they are not the best choice if you have gnawing animals. Unfortunately, this does not stop deer and rabbits from feeding on them.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 3–9
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Yellow, light green, dark green, blue-green; many variegated forms.
    • Light: Partial sun to full shade
    • Mature Size: 6 in. to 4 ft. tall, 10 in. to 6 ft. wide
    • Deer Resistant: No
  • 08 of 12

    Elephant Ear (Colocasia esculenta)

    elephant ears

    The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

    Want green foliage with a tropical feel? Even northern homeowners include elongated heart-shaped elephant ear plants (Colocasia esculenta) in their landscape design, treating them as annual plants by digging up and saving the bulbs through the winter or buying new bulbs each spring. These ground-hugging plants have massive, crinkled glossy-green leaves up to 3 feet long.

    Elephant ear looks especially nice near water features. But be aware that these plants are quite toxic to pets and humans. Even nibbling on the leaves can cause considerable pain and swelling.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 8–10
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Shades of green
    • Light: Full sun to part shade
    • Mature Size: 3–6 ft. tall and wide
    • Deer Resistant: Yes
    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus)

    Cyperus papyrus

     

    Linjerry / Getty Images

    Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is another tropical plant. Though it resembles an ornamental grass, papyrus is actually a sedge, with triangular stems that support tufts of fine grass-like leaves. Once cultivated to make paper, papyrus now often functions as the centerpiece of a water garden.

    Invasive in some of the warmest states in the U.S., elsewhere, papyrus plants will die back after an autumn frost and are most easily treated as if they were annuals: let them spruce up your water feature during the summer, then replace them next year. They can be grown in ordinary garden soil, as well, though they will need to be kept constantly moist.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 9–10 (but often used as annuals)
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Light- to medium-green; brownish burgundy
    • Light: Full sun to part shade
    • Mature Size: 1–12 ft. (depends on variety)
    • Deer Resistant: No
  • 10 of 12

    Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana)

    Interrupted fern with fertile leaflets.

     Laszlo Podor/Getty Images

    Ferns are a classic choice for shade. As a group, they are easily recognized by their fine lacy leaves spreading out from long arching stems. You're not always restricted to shady areas with these ancient plants, though. Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana) can be grown in a location that receives substantial sunshine during the course of the day, including afternoon sun. Do, however, keep its soil thoroughly moistened.

    This plant typically grows in a spreading-vase form to 2-3' tall, but with constant moisture can reach 5' in height. Broad fronds are "interrupted" in the middle by spore-bearing pinnae (leaflets) which typically fall off in mid summer.

    If you can't provide the consistent moisture needed by interrupted fern, try common lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) instead. It is suited for USDA zones 4 to 8. It tolerates dryish soil fairly well, though it must be well-drained. Lady fern grows up to 3 feet tall.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 3–8
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Medium green
    • Light: Partial sun to full shade
    • Mature Size: 2–3 ft. tall and wide
    • Deer Resistant: Yes
  • 11 of 12

    Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra)

    japanese forest grass
    Japanese forest grass, hakonechloa. Flickr member Megan E. Hansen

    Japanese forest grass is a slow-growing perennial that forms a neat clump that spreads conservatively and does not need frequent division. Arching mounds of light green foliage (some cultivars are variegated) make a nice contrast to the predominant deep green of other plants. It is one of the few ornamental grasses that do well in somewhat shady conditions.

    Avoid too much hot direct afternoon sun. In the northern part of the range, a layer of mulch may prevent winter kill.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 9
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Yellow, medium green; many variegated forms
    • Light: Partial sun
    • Mature Size: 12–18 in. tall, 2 ft. wide
    • Deer Resistant: Yes
  • 12 of 12

    Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)

    Coleus blumei (Painted Nettle), variegated foliage
    Harley Seaway / Getty Images

    Unlike other plants on this list, coleus is usually planted as an annual rather than a perennial—though it is hardy in tropical environments. Few foliage plants offer the incredible diversity of color, pattern, and leaf size as coleus, and it can be used in almost infinite ways—from a colorful ground cover in shady areas to hanging baskets. Newer cultivars and those with yellowish foliage are typically more tolerant of sun than those with deeper color shades.

    Coleus plants form dense clusters of leaves along upward-growing stems. Leaves are typically spade-shaped, but sizes can vary from tiny varieties suitable for fairy gardens to varieties with leaves larger than a human hand. Leaf surfaces are matte, brighter on top and somewhat duller on the undersides, There are both smooth-leaved and ruffled varieties, and both solid colors and hundreds of patterned forms.

    These plants are very cold sensitive, so wait until soil temps have thoroughly warmed to plant them in the garden in spring.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 10-11
    • Leaf Color Varieties: Red, yellows, greens; many patterned leaf varieties
    • Light: Partial sun to full shade
    • Mature Size: 6–36 in. tall; 12–36 in. wide
    • Deer Resistant: Moderately

Beyond Bedding Plants

Larger options for outdoor foliage include trees and shrubs. Look for types with flashy colors to inject added interest into your plantings. Some offer golden leaves, for example; others, blue leaves, such as 'Blue Star' juniper (Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star'), blue spruce trees (Picea pungens Glauca), and 'Blue Rug' juniper (Juniperus horizontalis Wiltonii). If you want gold with height and you want it fast, you could also grow a vine: namely, golden hops (Humulus).

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Teucrium chamaedrys. North Carolina State Extension.

  2. Hosta. ASPCA.

  3. Colocasia. North Carolina State Extension.