WICHE: Winter perennials have summer-like foliage

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There's lots to see in the gray days of winter.

By Jeneen Wiche

Most people would say that there is not much going on in the garden during the winter months. I beg to differ.

There are dozens of plants out there doing something interesting. Some are just showing their pretty bark or their sculptural quality bare of leaves.

Others are just beginning to emerge and will be blooming soon. And others just have some crazy quality that allows their foliage to look as fresh and clean as a spring garden despite the fact it is winter in Kentuckiana.

Arum, also called lords and ladies, is a great winter perennial for foliage interest. There are several different species of arum, but the most common is Arum italicum,and it has an interesting life cycle that makes it a great companion plant for the summer garden and a lush cover in the winter garden.

Arum is a tuberous perennial that is considered deciduous because the foliage disappears in the early summer. Right now, however, the arrow-shaped green leaves with white veins provides a lush ground cover in the garden. The foliage is quite dramatic.

By early summer, just as other perennials begin to take hold, the foliage of arum will begin to die back, and a spathe, reminiscent of a calla lily bloom, will emerge.

The flowering part of the spathe, called a spadix, will then begin to fruit, displaying a stalk covered in orange to red berries; these brightly colored berries look great sticking up among other perennials.

Because arum is a tuberous plant, it will fill a garden space over the years, creating a lush ground cover of interesting foliage in winter. It is an adaptable plant that will tolerate full sun to part shade.

Moist, well-drained soil is ideal but it will tolerate drier situations. In poorer soils, however, the foliage will die back earlier in the season.

There is a point in the year that the two qualities that make arum a valuable garden plant perform together. In late summer the foliage begins to emerge again alongside the stalks covered in red berries.

Another invaluable winter performer is the helleborus.

In the last week the new foliage of Helleborus orientalis (syn. Helleborus x hybridus), or the hybrid Lenten rose, began to poke through the large leaves from last season’s growth.

This winter’s bloom is still in tight bud, but soon we will be enjoying the dappled white, burgundy and pink cup-shaped blooms nodding above and among the deeply cut foliage.

Now is the time to trim away the old foliage to make room for all the new activity, however, most of mine still look perfectly clean so I may put off their winter trim for a while.

Helleborus prefer light shade and rich well-drained soil, so they work well in a dappled shade garden. The hybrid helleborus are plants that have always seemed so refined in the garden, so, in my mind, they are perfect in more formal garden schemes.

Other helleborus species, on the other hand, are perfect for more natural designs. Try the H. foetidus,the stinking hellebore, for a more native feel.

This plant will reach 1 to 2 feet in height, has deeply cut foliage and greenish-white blooms from mid-winter to early spring. The “stinking” moniker comes from the fact that the foliage has an unpleasant smell, but only if you crush it.              

There are many perennials that can stand the test of a Zone 6 winter. Take a stroll about the garden, and you may be surprised that there are still ferns, hardy geraniums, epimediums, salvias and euphorbia that look as good as they did last spring.