By Erin Marissa Russell
Are you looking for outdoor plants with the prettiest, most unique foliage? Get ready to be inspired by this list of the best outdoor foliage plants to grow. We’ve combed through all the options to present you with the plants that will beautify your garden with their striking foliage. With these plants, blossoms take a back seat to the eye-catching foliage. You won’t miss the flowers with the stunning foliage of these plants to admire. (Some do have blooms, but they just aren’t the main attraction.) We’ve provided the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones for each plant, but keep in mind that some perennials can be grown in other zones if treated as annuals.
Banana Plant (Musa)
Zones: 6 through 11
Banana plants have supersized leaves. Depending on the variety you choose, the foliage may be green, red and green, or purplish red. These plants also go by the names banana tree and plantain tree. Sizes vary depending on the variety you’re growing, but range from two to 30 feet tall, with a one-foot to 15-foot spread. Plant in full sun, at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Banana plants prefer acidic soil that’s loamy and drains well. There are spring flowers in white, purple, and orange that turn into fruits. The thick trunk and huge paddle-shaped leaves will make this one of the most attention-getting plants in your garden. Find out more with our article How to Grow Your Own Banana Plant or Banana Tree.
Butterbur (Petasites japonicus)
Zones: 5 through 9
This plant also goes by the name coltsfoot. The enormous green leaves are kidney-shaped and can grow to measure from 25 to 30 inches wide. The white flowers tinged with purple are not that impressive, but they are some of the first flowers of spring, which means they’ll emerge at a time when not much else in the garden is flowering. Flowers aside, you’ll love the look of the mounding foliage, which adds a jungle feel to the garden. Butterbur does need plenty of sunshine, but will benefit from some shade in the hottest part of the day, so plant in partial shade. Plant in a spot with moist, rich soil.
Zones: 8 through 12
Caladiums are sometimes called Angel Wings, and the leaves resemble miniature elephant ears. There are so many varieties of caladium to choose from, with different colors, color combinations, and patterns on the leaves. You’re sure to be able to find a variety that fits perfectly into your garden. You’ll find caladiums in green, pink, red, and white, combining colors in mottled or striped patterns. Depending on the variety you choose to grow, expect a caladium’s mature size to be 15 to 35 inches tall. The leaves themselves can measure 18 inches across. Plant caladiums in full to partial shade, in a spot with moist soil. Find out more with our article How to Grow Caladiums.
Zones: 7 through 10
It’s true that canna lilies have spectacular blossoms, but the foliage is also a showstopper. The plants grow quite tall, up to six or even eight feet high, and the leaves are supersized, too. You can find cannas with foliage in jungle green, but there are more unusual types as well. For example, the variety “Red King Humbert” has deep burgundy leaves with scarlet flowers. “Louis Cotton” has deep green leaves edged with red. “Cleopatra” has vivid green leaves striped with purple. “Red Stripe” has green foliage striped with red, orange, and yellow. Depending on the variety, blossoms come in hues of cream, orange, pink, red, and yellow. Plant in moist, rich soil that offers plenty of drainage, in a spot where cannas will get full sun (at least six hours of direct sunshine each day). Find out more with our article How to Grow Canna Lily Flowers.
Coleus (Coleus scutellarioides)
Traditionally, coleus has been a shade plant, but new varieties have been developed that grow happily in the sun. You’ll find varieties that like conditions on the spectrum from full sun to full shade. Coleus has varieties featuring foliage in a range of different hues. Coleus comes in orange, pink, purple, red, and yellow, with some varieties featuring combinations of these colors. Coleus are known for being easy to care for, just needing a little extra moisture if the weather gets dry. Plant in a spot where coleus can grow in consistently moist soil. Find out more with our article How to Grow Coleus.
Coral Bells (Heuchera)
Zones: 3 through 9
Coral bells have some of the prettiest, most vivid foliage you can find. Different varieties come in colors like bronze, green, orange, purple, red, and silver. Some types combine these colors, with stripes, streaks, spotted, speckled, mottled, veined, or edged foliage. As a bonus, there are spikes of white flowers in summer. Coral bells can reach up to three feet tall. If you live in a cool region, you can grow coral bells in full sun, but in warmer areas they need partial shade. Coral bells grow best in loamy soil with a pH level from 6.0 to 7.0 that’s moist and rich in organic material. Find out more with our article How to Grow Coral Bells (Alumroot, Heuchera).
Zones: 9 through 11
Croton plants are some of the most striking you can add to your garden, thanks to their brightly colored foliage. The colors include green and yellow as well as fiery shades like blaze orange or vivid red. Some varieties combine up to six different colors on their intricately patterned leaves. Croton grows up to four feet tall and is happiest in full sun to partial shade, planted in moist soil that offers plenty of drainage. Find out more with our article How to Grow Croton Plants (Codiaeum variegatum).
Dusty Miller (Jacobaea maritima)
Zones: 7 through 10
Dusty miller is a silvery plant with foliage so light it’s practically white. The leaves also have an interesting shape somewhat similar to oak leaves, but longer and with more lobes. The foliage is covered with tiny hairs that give the plant a fuzzy or wooly look. Dusty miller is known for being a hearty, low maintenance plant just as much as it’s known for its unusual foliage. Starting in its second summer, this plant will also produce yellow flowers. Grow dusty miller in full sun (at least six hours of direct sunlight each day). It isn’t picky about soil types and will even grow in poor soil. Find out more with our article How to Grow Dusty Miller.
Elephant Ears (Colocasia esculenta)
Zones: 9 through 11
When you think of stunning foliage, elephant ears are probably one of the first plants that come to mind. There are so many different varieties to choose from, some with bright green leaves and others silver or almost black. They can grow to reach three to six feet tall, with the same spread. These plants are sometimes called taro or coco yam. Plant in full sun to part shade, with moist soil that has an acidic pH balance (from 5.5 to 7.0). Elephant ears rarely flower, but when they do, they produce yellowish white blossoms between the end of spring and the beginning of fall. Find out more with our article How to Grow Elephant Ear Plants and Care for Them.
Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum)
Zones: 8 through 11
There are a few different varieties of fountain grass to choose from, but the brightest foliage comes from the “Fireworks” variety. The narrow blades of grass are a vibrant magenta. All types of fountain grass produce the fuzzy “flowers” that look like bottle brushes and add delicate interest to the plant while they bloom between midsummer and autumn. Plant in a spot that gets full sun and has loamy or sandy soil that gets plenty of drainage. The soil can be acidic, alkaline, or neutral. Find out more with our article How to Grow Fountain Grass.
Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata)
Zones: 6 through 10
Giant rhubarb also goes by the names Chilean rhubarb or prickly rhubarb. This is a seriously enormous plant with round to kidney-shaped green leaves that have a hairy texture and can reach from four to five feet across. The plant as a whole can grow to six to 10 feet tall, with a spread of eight to 14 feet. To make things even more interesting, those giant green leaves emerge from pinkish stems. This is a plant that will thrive in areas with poorly draining soil—giant rhubarb is a thirsty plant that needs all the moisture it can get. It does well in clay or loamy soil that’s acidic, alkaline, or neutral. Plant in full sun or partial sun.
Zones: 2 through 10
Hostas love shade and are one of a few plants with striking foliage that will really thrive in partial or full shade. Their leaves come in shades of green from spring green to blue-green, with some variegated or patterned varieties available, too. Depending on the variety you choose to grow, a hosta’s mature size can run from four inches tall to four feet tall. In summertime, hostas will also produce blooms in pink, lavender, or white. Plant in soil that offers plenty of drainage. Find out more with our article How to Grow, Plant, and Care for Hostas.
Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum)
Zones: 4 through 8
Japanese painted fern is another shade-loving plant. The ferny fronds can reach about two feet long. Each leaf has a silvery center. This plant’s foliage is constantly changing, making it a pleasure to grow and observe. The silver is at its height in springtime, and by the middle of the summer the silver will give way to green with maroon midribs. Check into the different varieties available so you see all the coloration options. Japanese painted fern is easy to care for. Plant in full or partial shade. This plant can’t tolerate full sun, though it does need a bit of sunshine to maintain its pretty colors. For best results, grow in soil that’s rich in organic material and provides plenty of drainage.
Joseph’s Coat (Amaranthus tricolor)
Zones: 2 through 11
Who needs flowers with foliage this bright? The leaves of Amaranthus tricolor can be green, purple, copper, pink, red, yellow, or a combination. There are small flowers in green and red, but they don’t hold a candle to the vivid display of the leaves. This plant grows best in full sun, but in hot areas will benefit from the respite of some shade during the afternoon. Find Joseph’s coat a spot in the garden with moderately fertile, moist soil that is rich in organic material and drains well. This is a very easy plant to care for, standing up to drought and normally being free of disease. The only trouble you’re likely to run into is infestation by aphids.
Zones: 3 through 7
Ninebark is prized for its standard deep burgundy foliage, although some varieties offer colors like yellow-green, yellow, purple, or red. The midsummer clusters of pink and white flowers are quite pretty, but the foliage provides year-round visual interest. This is a low-maintenance plant that can survive heat, drought, and winter cold, and it’s also rare that a ninebark plant will have trouble with pests or diseases. Ninebark plants can reach up to eight feet tall. Grow in a spot that gets full sun (at least six hours of direct sunlight each day). Ninebark isn’t picky about soil type. Find out more with our article How to Grow Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius).
Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus)
Zones: 7 through 11, depending on variety
Papyrus has a very unique look, with tall, thick stems topped with a cascade of bushy, narrow blade-shaped leaves. The dwarf variety can reach a height of three feet tall, while other papyrus plants can get up to 12 feet tall. This is another plant that actually thrives in soil that has poor drainage, so consider it for the wet spots in your garden that other plants dislike. Papyrus can even grow in standing water up to six inches deep. Papyrus plants will do best in full sun to partial shade. This easygoing plant is practically exempt from concerns about pests or diseases.
Persian Shield (Strobilanthes auriculatus var. dyeriana)
Zones: 8 through 11
Persian shield has some of the truest purple color you’ll find on foliage. The handsome ridged leaves combine that purple with deep green for interesting patterns. This plant can get up to two feet tall. It does best in full or partial sun and moist soil rich in organic material that’s acidic or neutral. For more information, see our article How to Grow Purple Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyeriana).
Zones: 3 through 9
Talk about unique foliage! The rush plant features grass-like leaves that twist and spiral around on themselves for a really unusual silhouette and shape. You’ll sometimes see this plant called corkscrew rush in addition to just “rush.” Plant in sun to partial shade, in a wet spot in your garden. This is another plant that likes those super-moist areas that other plants turn their noses up at.
Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)
Zones: 3 through 7
Look for variegated Siberian bugloss for pale, silvery-white leaves veined and edged in green. In springtime, Siberian bugloss blossoms, with small blue flowers that resemble forget-me-nots. Depending on the variety you choose to grow, the leaves can get up to the size of dinner plates. Siberian bugloss can grow up to two feet tall with a spread of up to three feet. Plant in a spot that gets shade or partial sun, with rich, moist soil that provides good drainage. Don’t plant Siberian bugloss in dry areas.
Silver Sabre Variegated Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Zones: 5 through 10
This sage variety has foliage with green and white patches, which in cooler weather starts to become tinged with bright pink. Grow anywhere in the garden that gets good drainage. You can cultivate this plant as a low-growing shrub. Its mature size is around half a foot tall with a two-foot spread. Like other sage varieties, this one has the pebbled texture and aromatic scent that will make it a star of the garden. (Of course, you can harvest this variety of sage and use it in cooking, too.)
Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria)
Zones: 5 through 8
The purple or bluish green foliage of the smoke tree transforms in fall to shades of red, orange, or yellow, just like the beautiful foliage of autumn trees. Your smoke tree will flourish in any soil that gets good drainage, even being tolerant of different pH levels and dry conditions. Do find it a spot in the garden that gets full sun (at least six hours of sunshine each day). This tall plant can reach a height of between 10 and 15 feet tall, with a spread of around 12 feet. Make sure to leave the plant enough room to grow into its mature size when you plant it.
Spotted Laurel (Aucuba japonica)
Zones: 6 through 10
What makes spotted laurel special is the coloration of its leaves: yellow splatters and speckles decorate a bright green background. The leaves are evergreen and can reach up to eight inches long, while the entire plant has a mature size of six to 10 feet tall, with a five-foot to 9-foot spread. In addition to the lovely foliage, you’ll see small purple blooms emerge at the beginning of spring. The pollinated blossoms give way to glossy red berries in the fall that can stay on the bush until next spring. Plant in chalky, loamy, or sandy soil that is moist but gets good drainage. Find this plant a spot in the garden that gets partial sun or shade.
Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas)
Zones: 9 through 11
Sweet potato vine is a quickly growing low maintenance plant with long creeping vines that look good cascading from a hanging basket or trailing along the ground. Choose between chartreuse, green, bronze, or purple varieties. Make sure to plant sweet potato vine somewhere in your garden where it will get full sun (at least six hours of sunlight per day). Consistently moist soil that offers good drainage is best for sweet potato vines. These vines rarely flower but can produce springtime blossoms in pink or purple.
Ti Plant (Cordyline)
Zones: 9 through 12
The ti plant has some of the most vibrant foliage out there. Some of the most popular varieties include “Hawaiian Boy” in deep red and purple, “Florida Red” with red and touches of pink, and “Candy Cane,” with green leaves striped in pink and white. These are sun-loving plants, and if they aren’t getting the sunshine they need, their colors will lose some brightness and fade a bit. Some varieties produce sweet-smelling pink, lavender, or white flowers and small berries after the flowers fade. Be aware that the ti plant is poisonous to dogs and cats, so don’t grow it where pets play unsupervised.
Velvety Anthurium (Anthurium magnificum)
Zones: 9 through 11
The huge leaves of velvety anthurium can measure from 10 to 14 inches long. The entire plant can reach between two and five feet high. The velvety foliage is made even prettier by the deep pale veins that provide contrast to the dark green of the leaves. Find your velvety anthurium a spot in the garden that gets bright indirect light and well draining soil.
With all these options to choose from, you may have found more than just one plant to add to your collection. Whichever (and however many) you choose, as long as you give the plant what it needs as far as sun and soil, you’ll soon be admiring the foliage on your new outdoor plants.
Learn More About Best Outdoor Foliage Plants to Grow
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