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White Spots & Polka Dots

– A Gardener’s Guide to Speckled Foliage
by Donna Balzer
by Donna Balzer


If you somehow missed her on the award winning garden show Bugs & Blooms (now in re-runs on HGTV and around the world), you can catch her in the summer answering listener questions on CBC. Failing that, open the Calgary Herald and you’ll find her on-going gardening column. There’s also a good chance you’ll see her work in either “Garden Life Magazine” or “Canadian Gardening”

Donna’s work has also been recognized through several awards. Her first book “Gardening for Goofs is a Canadian best seller and her second book “The Prairie Rock Garden” received the Carlton R. Worth award for writing. In 2003 Donna received “The Distinguished Agrologist Award” from her peers in Agrology. HGTV’s hit internationally broadcast gardening show “Bugs & Blooms” won Donna and her Co-Host Todd Reichardt the Garden Globe Award for best talent in electronic media in 2002.

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May 20, 2001

I used to stay away from plants with speckled foliage. It was too ready a reminder of all the disease symptoms and "sucking mouth part" damage I had seen as a student and I wanted clean - healthy looking shiny green leaves - thank-you very much - not some reminder of things gone wrong.
As I gradually tested and tried every green plant of interest to me I began to be drawn into the world of spots. White spots and polka dots covering leaves all season long suddenly had more interest to me than the pretty single flowers on fragile stems that were as fickle as the next big wind. Spots are there forever - or for at least as long as summer lasts - while flowers are fleeting.
So I turned the corner and allowed plants with all kinds of variegations, stripes, spots, and colored hairs into my yard. They haven't all been successful - Ribbon grass looked innocent enough but it quickly claimed half the back yard and had to be religiously routed out.
Goutweed is known to be greedy for space and invasive so it hasn't been brought in to my yard or recommended to any of my client's although it is definitely out there - with its attractive creamy - edged leaves and indestructible constitution. Judging from the listings in catalogues it is still being bought and sold by innocent people hoping for a colorful leaf and interest for a dark, dry, wet, hot , cold or clay site. 
From what I have grown and observed it seems the best looking and well behaved spotted leaves come from members of the Pulmonaria genus. These clump-forming hardy perennials thrive in moist soils in low light and give a spring bonus with their pink and blue flowers. Raspberry Splash (pictured on Page 1) has heavy hairy slugproof leaves. According to Diane Schneider, owner-grower at Cougar Mountain greenhouse near Millerville, Pulmonarias are also deer and elk proof which probably explains why Diane, in the heart of deer country - is sold out of pulmonarias already this year.
Unlike Hosta, the leaves of pulmonaria are often spotted, not striped, and the plants have an early sprint out of the ground in spring not delayed like the hosta which is more likely to emerge sometime in late May when the tulips are in full bloom. Many perennials lose their zest once their blooms are finished but Raspberry Splash Pulmonaria seems to be getting better and stronger as the season progresses.
Majesty Pulmonaria has spotted leaves in spring when its blue flowers appear but gradually over the summer the spots mesh and by mid-summer the leaves are almost pure silver. Another good pulmonaria, Victorian Brooch, has a pretty coral flower and wide polka dot spots on the leaves.
Plants with stripes instead of spots include the 45 cm tall Variegated Bulbous Oat grass that appears to look a lot like ribbon grass initially but does not spread or ever become invasive. It stays neatly in its clump and provides vertical interest in a dim to fairly bright corner with its bright white edges. Variegated Iris do the same job and have the added bonus of periwinkle blue blossoms in May.
Schneider, who sells her unusual perennials at the Millerville Market on Saturday mornings, suggested a few combinations of plants with spots, stripes and variegations. She points to 'Herman's Pride' lamiastrum, which is a groundcover with a sliver-checkered pattern usually sold in spring as an annual. According to Schneider, Herman's Pride looks great with June Hosta because the small yellow flowers on the lamiastrum repeat the colour of the bright yellow centered Hosta. The blue edge of this hosta also works with the silver patterned foliage of Herman's Pride so the two plants really play off one another.
Also good in the shade or into full sun is 'Twilight' Hosta with its big green leaves and yellow edge. "This is one of the few hostas that can tolerate full sun" says Schneider" and it looks wonderful in combination with Lamium 'Aureum' and Astilbe 'Vision'". The lamium is a pale yellow perennial groundcover with a thin white line on the leaves and purple flowers while the astilbe has fern-like cut leaves and soft raspberry colored flowers in mid-summer.
If the boldness of speckled, spotted or striped leaves is too much for the space being developed, gardeners should at least consider plants with colored hairs. The softly white-downy hairs on the polar bear willow give a very touchable brightness to a garden as do the hairs on Lamb's ears and pussy toes. Gardeners beware: it is only a short leap of faith from silver hairs to silver 

Donna Balzer is a Calgary based horticulture consultant and garden writer. She is the author of Gardening for Goofs and The Prairie Rock Garden and may be reached for consultations at 403-233-8999 or via her web page at

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