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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

Plant Life
Ever Green, Gold or Silver
Try this bunch for light and life through winter's drear

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Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' is a small, sturdy evergreen with bright gold variegation spattered on its leaves. It is also called false holly for its toothed leaf shape that so closely resembles real holly leaves.
THE TRICK to enjoying the winter garden lies in how closely we're willing to look. Its muted splendors are not revealed to the casual eye. A cinnamon-colored curl of peeling bark, the line of a bare branch or the glint of a brilliant berry doesn't shout its glories, but the glories are there to be found nonetheless. Like with green tea, classic novels and lasting friendships, it takes perseverance to appreciate the subtleties that offer the greatest rewards. As a suspect in Martha Grimes' "The Grave Maurice" says of her dissolute Welsh garden on a drizzly December morning, "I like it better now — it's more what it really is."

We can, however, brighten the garden with our choices of evergreen, ever-gold and ever-silver plants. Leaves and needles in these tones form the backdrop to show off more subtle winter beauties, and their foliage is perfect for wreaths and arrangements. Gold enlivens a dull day, silver reflects any available light, and green is the depth of field. Pay even more attention to texture than to color, for the most effective plants are so tactile you long to touch them. Are the leaves shiny, translucent, ribbed? The essential quality of each leaf or needle is similar to the "hand" of a fabric, which refers to how it feels and how it drapes, its resilience and body. Think of the difference between a flat green rhododendron leaf and the serrated fluff of an autumn fern frond, and you'll see what I mean.

Here are a few plants that keep their colors, enhanced by luminous or otherwise intriguing textures, clear through until spring.
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Illustration Now In Bloom
If the weather cooperates and forgoes a hard freeze for the holiday, Camellia sasanqua 'Crimson King' will be covered with vivid red flowers just in time to cut a branch for the Christmas table. 'Crimson King' is especially showy, with wiry branches and smaller leaves than the more familiar Camellia japonica that blooms in March. Sasanqua camellias are ideal to grow near the front porch. They take well to espalier or sprawling against a wall, where their glossy leaves and bright blossoms persist through the darkest days of the year.
• Evergreen magnolias, such as M. grandiflora 'Victoria,' are high on the list for the contrast of their shiny smooth greenness with the fuzzy brown, suede-like undersides of each leaf. Stick a bunch of magnolia leaves, twisted about to show both sides, in a copper bowl and you have a centerpiece.

• Boxwood is essential in winter, when the crisp, efficient look of its little leaves is especially welcome edging beds or displayed in an urn, clipped into simple, elegant cone or ball shapes.

Sarcococca ruscifolia is a small, tidy plant with glossy green leaves, enhanced by fragrant little white flowers during the darkest months of the year.

• Nearly any conifer, with its burst of needles like a schnauzer in need of a trim, livens up the landscape. For added interest and gleam, look for green conifers tipped in white, like the little hemlock Tsuga canadensis 'Gentsch's White' or the bristlecone pine (P. aristata).

• Conifers also come in surprisingly vivid shades of gold, such as the pillar-like Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa 'Lutea') and the thread-branch cypress Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Sungold.' Even Western red cedar (Thuja plicata 'Canadian Gold') comes in King Midas' favorite color, as does the columnar Japanese yew Taxus cuspidata 'Dwarf Bright Gold.'

• Some of the most striking winter plants, for indoors or out, are the little-leaf Hedera helix 'Gold Ingot,' which is the American Ivy Society's ivy of the year for 2003 (and is not too aggressive), as well as the more familiar 'Gold Heart' and 'Gold Dust.'

• I keep holly-leaf osmanthus (O. heterophyllus 'Goshiki') in a pot, moving it to the front porch for the holidays. Strung with little white lights, the shiny green leaves splashed with sprinkles of gold glow despite winter's gloom.

• Silver foliage is easier to come by in warmer seasons, but several dependable winter plants appear gilded even on frost-free days. Senecio greyi has pale-gray leaves trimmed in white. The lustrous, woolly foliage of lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus), the low, mat-forming Hebe pinguifolia and the shimmery blades of the ornamental grass Carex comens 'Frosty Curls' are all as silvery as the moon on a cold mid-winter's night.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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