By Mel Bellar

Some folks are star-struck over big plants, and big-leaved plants in particular. This has never really been my thing, but recently I realized that I have a little fandom over some big-leaved plants. Now I am not talking about trees or shrubs, I am talking about plants that do this all in one season, be it perennials from the ground or annuals from a seed or tuber.

Texture is something I really love in the garden and there is no better way to add eye-popping texture than introducing some big plants with some big features. Color, habit, leaf shape and finish (shiny, matte)  all contribute to the texture of a plant, but add in big leaves or big flowers and you see how they stand out and contribute greatly to the cumulative composition of a garden. Yes, I could go on and on about what makes a nice texture and why that is so important, but let’s talk about some big leaves.

May Apple in Woods

The first plant that comes to mind that readily grows in our area is Petasites japonicus, Butterburr. This plant produces one leaf per stalk and is fairly close to the ground (no taller than 3 feet but usually less) which makes it a striking groundcover. The leaves range from 12 inches to almost 3 feet in the right conditions. This plant can be dangerous (a real thug that can really spread), but folks do have it in their gardens, including me. It likes moist shady areas and in those conditions it can go wild and take over huge areas. I have it planted it in a dry shade, so the leaves on my plants are on the smaller side (18 to 20 inches) but this strategy seems to have worked, and it has been easily under control for well over a decade.  But beware: I have seen it take over acres in a boggy area.  This past weekend on the West Kortright Centre annual garden tour, I saw it in several gardens (and it looked beautiful) but I know that those folks have to battle it constantly.  There is a variegated version which is very nice and not quite as aggressive.

Ligularia (sometimes called Leopard Plant) is a great plant for the garden. It has several wonderful qualities, and it is not dangerous (although it will reseed). There are many cool varieties, and they all have biggish leaves. I love the ones with dark eggplant-colored foliage because they add color along with the big leaves and they are good in the shade. The variety Britt Marie has really dark and somewhat shiny leaves, adding a lot of texture to a shadier garden.

Actually, many of the big-leaved plants seem to be shade plants. I guess it makes sense, since they must be trying to capture as much sunlight as possible to photosynthesize. Rodgersia (it has no common name) has palmate or star-shaped large leaves that add even more interest. There are numerous varieties, but again I like the ones with darker leaves like Bronze Peacock or Chocolate Wings. The have large white to pinkish blooms and provide a  stunning addition to the shady spot.

Unlike the other plants mentioned thus far, the May Apple, Podophyllum peltatum, is native to the northeast and has interesting large lobe-shaped leaves that appear in the early Spring. This plant colonizes through rhizomes and makes quite a showing while the trees are still trying to leaf out. They produce sparse but showy flowers that are largely hidden by the leaves. Pollinated flowers produce lime-sized fruit and then the plant goes dormant in the Summer.  The Umbrella Plant, Darmera peltata, is native to the northwest.  But is zone 5. It is a lovely big-leafed plant that I have never grown but I admire in the Bonnes’ garden around the upper pond every time I get the chance. You should all support our local library and participate in the Andes Library Benefit Garden tour on August 6th.

Now another native, but one that grows in the sun, is the Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum. This plant has large, serrated leaves emanating out from big square stems in such a manner as to hold quite a bit of water after a rain, hence the name. This plant can reach 8 feet tall and makes a grand statement. There are 2 things about it that you should keep in mind.  It often does a big flop when it gets really tall and wet. The yellow sunflower-like blooms produce a lot of seeds so it can be very prolific. I took it out of my main garden for these reasons, but I love it in a meadow or wild area.

The Giant Fleeceflower, Persicaria polymorpha¸ featured in last month’s “Garden Therapy” is another great plant with big leaves and big flowers.

Castor Bean Plant

There are 2 annuals that I love and use regularly that have big leaves. Cannas and Castor Beans both have stunning foliage, and nice blooms. Sometimes I have trouble getting castor beans to take off, but when they do you are in for a treat. They are amazing and use a lot of fertilizer.  In Ecuador, where they never die back, they grow to be huge shrubs.  I love cannas because they can grow in water. So I put them in a horse trough which is full of water. This way I never have to worry about them drying out.  I just fill the trough about once a month and have a nice water garden.

Go forth and think big (leafed)!

Mel Bellar is the owner of
Zone4 Landscapes and a
passionate Andes gardener.~