It’s easy to get wrapped up in the beauty of flowers, yet some plants can add phenomenal structure and drama to the garden through their leaves alone. Here are some of the best:
Large leaf hardy perennials
These herbaceous perennials act as great ground cover. Many thrive in the damp, shady parts of the garden shunned by other species.
Giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata): The largest of all herbaceous plants and therefore the first on the list. Plants can grow up to three metres tall and four metres across. Gunnera will grow in the sun or shade but has thirsty roots, so is best suited to a bog garden (main image).
The colossal, coarse leaves are born on spiny stems and can grow up to two metres in diameter. Cone-shaped flower spikes appear throughout the growing season and have an unusual appeal. Old leaves can be used to protect the crown from frost over winter.
Rogersia species provide excellent ground cover for damp soil, with their chestnut-like foliage and cream flowers.
Butterburs (Petasites spp.): The broad, round leaves appear in spring, following the fluffy mauve-white winter flowers.
Does well in shade and prefers damp conditions. Winter heliotrope (P. fragrans) is scented. Excellent shade-tolerant ground cover, but a word of caution, most butterburs are invasive.
Leopard plant (Ligularia dentata): Known for its rustic golden flowers which appear in late summer, Ligularia has some beautiful round foliage.
The leaves are a very deep green, with red hues, and work well in humus-rich, moist soil. ‘Desdemona’ and ‘Othello’ are popular varieties.
Umbrella plant (Darmera peltata): An unusual relative of the tiny alpine saxifrages, the umbrella plant is a staple of bog gardens because of its three-seasons of colour.
First, long drumstick-like pink flowers appear in early spring from the bare earth.
The large leaves that follow are held aloft on the stem, much like real umbrellas. Come autumn, they turn rich shades of copper and red.
Astilboides tabularis has leaves that are almost identical to the umbrella plant at first glance. Both are excellent large leaf plants.
Plantain lily (Hosta spp.): Perhaps the most popular of all large leaf plants, hostas come in a wide range of sizes. They prefer semi-shade and moisture-retentive soil.
They are also, infamously, at the top of slug and snail à la carte dining, so surround with coarse grit or use copper tape on container specimens.
‘Sum and Substance’ has broad yellow-green leaves, will tolerate more sun than most and is relatively slug-resistant (as are most large-leaved varieties). ‘Empress Wu’ is a blue-green behemoth spreading almost two metres across. ‘Gentle Giant’ isn’t far behind. For variegated leaves grow ‘Dream Weaver’ and ‘Victory’.
Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum): Curious sulphur yellow flowers appear in spring ahead of the foliage. The huge leaves that follow can reach around 1.5 metres in height.
There is a white-flowered Asian species too (the unpronounceable L. camtschatcensis). Both need deep, rich soil and are good marginal or bog garden plants.
The common name comes from the plant's bizarre odour.
A true rhubarb (unlike Gunnera), Rheum palmatum makes an equally glorious foliage plant, especially the variety tanguticum.
Large leaf shrubs and trees
The interest doesn’t just have to be at ground level; the large foliage of these trees and shrubs also make a bold statement.
False castor oil plant (Fatsia japonica): Most large leaf plants prefer damp soil due to the moisture lost through transpiration, but Fatsia is pretty much indestructible.
The large palmate leaves have an exotic aura about them, and in time you’ll find yourself with a sizeable shrub. ‘Spider web’ has white details on the leaves and a variegated variety exists.
You may see the cream, ivy-like flowers late in the season on more mature plants.
Foxglove tree (Paulownia tomentosa): If you can bear to coppice the plant down to ground level each year (at the expense of the gorgeous blooms), then the foxglove tree will reward you with massive foliage.
Can grow to over three metres in a single season and the leaves are broad and downy – a very imposing specimen.
Indian bean tree (Catalpa bignonoides): Occasionally confused with Paulownia, Catalpa has large heart-shaped leaves in shades of light green/yellow.
This tree is late into leaf and is averse to late frosts, but has beautiful summer flowers on more mature specimens.
The is also a red-tinged species, C. erubesens, which benefits from coppicing to produce bigger leaves.
The bigleaf magnolia (M. macrophylla) produces foot-long leaves and beautiful flowers in sheltered gardens.
Large leaf tender and half-hardy plants
These plants can add drama and flare in the summer but will need heavy protection or moving under cover in the winter.
Elephant’s ears (Alocasia & Colocasia spp.): Growing from tubers, the elephant’s ears are imposing plants with large shield or spade-like foliage.
Colocasia esculenta is hardier and has some stunning purple-leaved varieties. ‘Black Magic’ is the most readily available and can grow in water.
Alocasia is larger but requires a milder climate. A. macrorrhiza (giant taro) can reach up to three metres in height.
Bananas (Musa & Ensete spp.): For large leaves, the banana family is hard to beat.
The Japanese banana (M. basjoo) is hardy in most parts of the country when protected. Other types, such as M. acuminata and M. ornata must come indoors.
The Abyssinian or Ethiopian banana (Ensete ventricosum) has the most spectacular foliage of all, with leaves growing to three metres in length. ‘Maurelii’ has striking red tones.
Bananas are not true palms, however the Chusan fan palm (Trachycarpus fortuneii) has impressive foliage and is fully hardy.
Rice paper tree (Tetrapanax papyrifer): Think Fatsia on steroids. The rice paper plant is hardy in milder areas and has large palmate leaves up to a metre across.
Plants will die to ground level in cold climates, but if kept frost-free then shrubs can grow to four metres in height.
Castor bean (Ricinus communis): A real beauty for the exotic border, Ricinus is a tender perennial that usually grows as an annual in our climate.
The stunning, palmately-lobed leaves are produced on fast-growing plants. Small, spikey flower clusters appear in late summer.
Greedy feeders and sun-worshippers, the downside to the castor bean is that it is extremely toxic, so avoid growing near children and pets.
Naranjilla (Solanum quitoense): A rare but stunning member of the potato family, the naranjilla has velvety green, prickly leaves with violet veining.
Few plants have such an unusual combination of colours and textures. To top it off, it also has edible fruit (though rarely produced in our climate!).
Grow in the same manner as Ricinus, but this plant also enjoys light shade.
A young naranjilla plant.