Evergreen Shrubs for Foliage Interest

Ilex aquifolium ferox argentea, evergreen shrub, variegated foliage, silver edged leaves, purple stems


Not all evergreens are just green.

Evergreen shrubs for foliage interest are frequently suggested as being the solution to an interesting winter garden.

Or indeed as a solution to an easy maintenance garden, especially for communal gardens where the maintenance budget may be small.


Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not against using evergreen shrubs in this way. I’ve used them as part of a planting design for this very reason. However, and it’s a big however, they should be used for the benefits they bring to a garden and a planting scheme. Not because they’re the ‘easy option’. That way lies the dreaded unchanging scenario of dark green foliage all year round.

Nevertheless, evergreen shrubs, indeed any shrubs, can be boring for a large part of the year unless chosen carefully. They may be part of a mixed planting scheme, where herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses also feature. These would give changing interest through the seasons against a rich dark green background. And could provide an easy maintenance solution (do ask about our planting designs if you’re interested for your own garden).

But what about evergreen shrubs for foliage interest as the be all and end all of a planting design?

To which I would respond with this can be an interesting scheme. For example, some shrubs have –

  • differently coloured juvenile, or young, foliage
  • variegated foliage
  • textured foliage
  • foliage which isn’t green
  • coloured stems
  • spring flowers
  • summer flowers
  • scented flowers
  • autumn berries
  • winter berries

So, how do we go about using evergreen shrubs for foliage interest? For starters, I’ve suggested five below that I know are reliable and which I’ve used in gardens and planting designs. The shrubs all have variegated foliage; some you’ll know, some should be new to you.


5 Evergreen shrubs for foliage interest

Pittosporum tenuifolium variegatum

Pittosporum tenuifolium, sometimes known as paperbark. A large evergreen shrub with crinkly greyish-green leaves narrowly margined with creamy-white. The crinkly leaves give the added bonus of texture. It can also be pruned into topiary shapes.

Pittosporum tenuifolium variegatum, evergreen shrub, variegated foliage, tawhiwhi, Kohuhu, parchment bark, greyish-green leaves narrowly margined with creamy-white, crinkly leaves


Photinia variegata

Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ is the more frequently seen shrub. Red Robin has the bold red-bronze young foliage at the tips of its stems. It is frequently used as a more decorative hedge than laurels.

However, for a subtler approach, I prefer Photinia variegata with its purple stems and white variegated leaves. This Photinia can be used as a single specimen or as a hedging plant. It can also be grown in a large pot if you have a courtyard garden.

Photinia variegata, evergreen shrub, variegated foliage, white edged leaves, red-purple stems


Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

This Daphne has a rounded compact habit and attractive glossy, yellow-edged leaves. It’s also known as gold-edged winter Daphne, and has the added benefit of scented flowers during the winter. You could also grow this shrub in a large pot. In an enclosed area, you would certainly get the full benefit of the perfumed flowers.

Daphne odora Aureomarginata, evergreen shrub, variegated foliage, silver edged leaves, scented flowers, winter garden


Buxus sempervirens ‘Gold tip’

Golden tipped Box has, obviously, yellow-gold tips to its leaves. Good for both shade and sun, this variant of common boxwood is less often used for topiary as the gold tips would be cut off.

If you would like a golden knot garden, then Buxus microphylla ‘Golden Triumph’ is the one to use. This has young yellow-gold foliage, maturing to a yellowish green two-tone.

Buxus sempervirens Gold tip, gold tipped box, evergreen shrub, variegated foliage


Aucuba japonica

Aucuba japonica, commonly called spotted laurel, Japanese laurel. It is a reliable shrub for virtually any aspect, including next to busy polluted roads.

spotted laurel, red berries, evergreen shrub, variegated foliage, Aucuba japonica, Japanese laurel, Japanese aucuba, gold dust plant


Evergreen shrubs for foliage interest – Case Study

Aucuba japonica is one of those shrubs which has been overused, particularly in development plantings. It’s also found in gardens where a landscaper with little plant knowledge has chosen the shrubs, and where the client isn’t aware of the choices available.

Spotted laurel gained a utilitarian reputation. It meant I was reluctant to suggest to clients it as it seemed the lazy choice for a garden designer who’s also a member of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture and should know her plants.

But a particularly challenging design brief some years ago made me take another look.

The client was frequently absent and needed an easy maintenance garden, ‘but not boring’. They had a long border alongside a fence under neighbouring conifers. Raised beds, or a long raised border didn’t appeal. A curving border did. As the soil was poor it would obviously need the addition of soil improver. That was the easy bit.

Not only was dense shade cast from the Leylandii hedge, but the border faced north. I considered spotted laurel but didn’t feel inspired.

Then I remembered that gold dust plant is one of the common names for Aucuba japonica. Suddenly I could see its benefits as part of an easy maintenance planting scheme for that challenging dark border.

As for the rest of the planting, it included the yellow variegated Vinca minor for ground cover around the laurels. This is an evergreen and has pretty blue flowers in the spring. Under planting with shade loving flowering bulbs gave some variety over the year.

Heuchera 'palace purple', evergeen herbaceous perennial, ground cover

The initial plan was to then edge the newly curved border with Buxus sempervirens ‘Gold tip’. This would keep the basic colour scheme simple and give a glowing effect to the dark border. For various reasons, we finished by using Buxus along some of the border and Heuchera ‘palace purple’ along the rest. As purple and yellow are complementary colours, this design tweak also looked good. And more to the point, worked in this particular situation.


Evergreen shrubs for foliage interest – further suggestions

There are, of course, other shrubs with variegated foliage. For example, Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’, Osmanthus heterophyllus, Hebe ‘Pink Paradise’ and some of the Hollys (Ilex)

In a later blog, we’ll look at some good garden shrubs in the rest of the above list. For previous shrub related blogs, check out Plews Potting Shed list below.

And if you’d like some help in putting together a planting design for your difficult border, please get in touch! We can offer planting designs ‘at a distance’ as well as in South East England.


Related Gardening Blogs you may enjoy

Shrubs and Herbaceous Plants for Seaside Gardens
Flowering shrubs for Late Summer Colour
Ten Winter Flowering Shrubs – Planting Ideas for your Garden
Topiary – Easy Maintenance Gardening?

osmanthus heterophyllus, holly osmanthus, evergreen shrub, variegated foliage, scented flower, Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’

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