Star Gardener: Let There Be Light

Transform a black hole into a destination
Variegated deutzia, related to mock orange, is an attractive, reliable, and easy June-flowering shrub. Abby Jane Brody

   How can you shed a little light on densely shaded corners of the garden? Or, better yet, how can you transform a black hole into a destination?
    Inadvertently this is what happened last week at the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden behind Clinton Academy, after I stumbled upon both a shrub and perennial with ice-blue foliage.
    Fothergilla Blue Shadow is the shrub. A deciduous member of the acid-loving ericaceae family that includes rhododendrons and azaleas, fothergilla is native to the Southeast. Like most of its relatives it does well in partial shade, although autumn color improves with more sun. Its white bottle-brush flowers attract attention in April when they bloom, but subsequently the shrub recedes into the background.
    There is no way F. Blue Shadow will become a wallflower. Its electric foliage guarantees that. There also was no way I was going to leave behind the shrub at a distant nursery in rural Connecticut, even though I didn’t know where it was going to go.
    The perennial is a new selection of baneberry with white doll’s-eye berries, Actaea pachypoda Misty Blue. Its bright ice-blue foliage, similar to that of another native plant, black cohosh or Cimicifuga racemosa, caught our attention from a distance as we were scouting plants at Glover Perennials, our wholesale supplier from the North Fork, and we scooped it up for the East Hampton Garden Club plant sale. 
    It never did make it to the plant sale; by the time it arrived in East Hampton I realized it would make the perfect companion to the fothergilla and planted them together in a dark area to the rear of the native plant garden.  Serendipitously, we had massed a long-flowering bright pink phlox, P. glaberrima Anita Kistler, in the front a few weeks earlier.
    I think you’ll agree that when the plants fill out in another year or so a dark hole will have become a destination.
    In my own garden another plant with evergreen ice-blue foliage, the miniature Colorado spruce Picea pungens St. Mary’s Broom, has been a successful accent in an area that receives only morning sun. Most conifers require full sun, but after 20 years this spruce remains happy and healthy.
    My mostly shady garden has many very dark areas, and variegated shrubs have been my default response both to brighten them and create interesting focal points. Of course, evergreen shrubs are ideal and three come most immediately to mind.
    Osmanthus heterophyllus Goshiki is a compact shrub that resembles hollies, but with spiny foliage splashed with cream. It probably was introduced to our area by Jim Cross, the legendary founder of Environmentals Nursery. His garden was filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of rare treasures and new introductions, but my first sight of Goshiki, tucked into a shady shrub border, is stamped indelibly in my memory.  
    Pieris japonica Variegata is relatively easy to find at better garden centers. Pieris is one of the few plants unaffected (at least as far as I’m aware) by deer, and when it is grown in the shade the leaves are resistant to leaf-feeding insects.
    The third reliable and vigorous shade-loving evergreen is the variegated cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus Castlewellan. It is named for the National Arboretum of Northern  Ireland, which is probably where it was found. Cherry laurels can take whatever adversity nature and man throws their way. In my New Jersey garden it thrived in a sunless narrow bed alongside the driveway, where it received winter blasts from the northwest and regularly was covered with snow.
    Castlewellan, which has glossy dark green leaves marbled and speckled with white, is one of the most admired plants in the garden on open days. It would reach 10 feet high or more if left untended, but growing in a northwest-facing corner of the house under a window, it is regularly clipped. At least two good mail-order nurseries, Fairweather Gardens and ForestFarm, carry it.
    Deutzias are a large genus, related to mock orange, of attractive, reliable, easy, June-flowering shrubs that are desperate for good publicity and well-deserved popularity. Deutzia scabra Variegata is a treasure. The olive-drab leaves are splashed with flecks of creamy white; the shrub has panicles of fragrant white flowers, generally in June, but this year in late May. It is thriving in a densely shaded area, casting light and interest on the dark green foliage of nearby rhododendrons, camellias, and conifers. It is listed by Avant Gardens and ForestFarm.
    The low-growing shrubby but horizontal dogwood Cornus kousa Wolf Eyes, has wolf-eye-shape leaves with bright creamy irregularly shaped margins that make it an arresting choice for shade.
    Flowers may come and flowers may go, but if you want to cast a bright light onto a dark space, foliage will last, if not forever, for a good long time.