Foliage Arrangements

The appreciation of foliage seems to depend very much on two things, first the value of green as a colour (the consideration of the various tones and shades which are possible within this colour), and secondly on the importance of design.

In the past the Western demand for colour has often been interpreted by something vivid and bright and even garish. We have chosen bright flowers for our gardens-beds of Siberian wallflowers, lobelia, slipper flowers ( Calceolaria) and marigolds, and arranged our flowers to give a massed and colourful effect. The design of the garden generally or the line of the flower arrangement have often come as an afterthought.

The Victorians dallied with the idea of using green, but only as something subsidiary to an arrangement. ‘Green is essential in all bouquets’, writes a gardening editor of the period. ‘Feathery and plumy green adds grace to all arrangements of flowers, and variegated foliage is exceedingly pretty for bordering baskets and flat dishes’. This attitude suggests some, though rather limited, appreciation of leaves and ferns for use with flowers, but does not give any hint that they might aspire to being the main decorative feature.Foliage Arrangements

In complete contrast are books on Japanese flower-work, where much space is devoted to illustrations of camellia leaves, bamboo canes, and branches of maple, cedar, pine, and willow. As Josiah Conder says in his The Theory of Japanese Flower Arrangement The foliage of flowers and evergreens and other trees is much used in floral composition, the arrangement often being without a single blossom’. Mary Averill goes still further in her book Japanese Flower Arrangement and says: ‘Branches are much used . . . . they consider them as flowers and use them for their most important arrangements’.

Writing at the turn of the century, William Robinson remarks on lessons already learnt from the Japanese in appreciation of form and line ‘in a single twig or branch, with its natural habit shown, apart from any beauty and form or colour of its flowers’. This coincides with the ideas of Gertrude Jekyll at the time, but then they were both pioneers in simplicity and the appreciation of the truth of natural things—ahead of their own time and, it seems, in many ways of ours too. The final word must rest with Jason Hill, who, in The Contemplative Gardener says there is a great deal of beauty . . .. if only we do not insist upon flowers and if we are willing to regard green and brown as colours’.

The possibilities of using foliage in this country are only now being discovered, and exploring them extends the field of floral decoration.

The two most important factors in the use of foliage are the development of line arrangements, and the contrasts possible between the different shapes, textures and colours of leaves. In the latter case it is as though one type of leaf takes the place of the flower in the group, and the other acts as a background or as a setting for it by virtue of its distinctive shape or colour. The development of line in connection with branches is obvious, and striking silhouette effects can be obtained.

Many branches are, in themselves, dramatic and graceful in shape and line. If they are arranged as far as possible in their natural position (the way in which they were growing) they will be shown off to their best advantage. It is usually quite unnecessary to bend or twist them or to try to improve in any way on their normal growth. There are two exceptions where one may be forgiven for using the leaves back to front. The beautiful tan coloured backs of magnolia leaves look very effective if arranged against their own dark green fronts, and the soft silver grey of rosemary branches can only be seen effectively when used the wrong way round.Foliage Arrangements 3

It is most important that leaves should have a clean, shining appearance, and this is possible even if they are cut from a town garden, as they can actually be washed. They should also be in very good condition, not having been eaten or broken in any way, as they depend so much on their shape for effect. All woody stems should be crushed or split up well to allow for a greater intake of water.

On branches where there are many leaves, it is sometimes advisable to remove a few of them, as this may give the branch itself a longer life; but it has to be done judiciously as the whole shape can very quickly be spoilt. The weight of heavy branches often makes them difficult to secure, and it is important to be quite sure that they are firm and immobile and in position before anything else is added to the arrangement.

The actual container used is a matter for personal selection, but tall, thin, branches show off well in a narrow necked vase or jug and are much easier to arrange in something which has height. It is imperative to remember that most foliage likes a large amount of water to drink, and if the container is kept filled to the brim, time and patience will be well repaid. Some ideas for foliage arrangements include: Branches of silver grey sea buckthorn with two or three giant horseradish leaves, arranged in a baking tin.

  • Branches of cotoneaster forming a pattern as if they were growing, with the flat, shiny leaves of laurel, in a cooking dish.
  • Branches of Chilean gum box (Escallonia) spreading sidewards in feathery sweeps, with bold stems of large leafed ivy interlaced through the centre and coming down to the front of the bowl.
  • The leaves of the globe artichoke, (with enough size and shape to lend distinction to any group) a sprig of ling heather, branches of St. John’s Wort, and a cluster of acorns.
  • Broom arranged with leaves of summer jasmine. Pine used alone in a line arrangement.
  • Globe artichoke leaves, golden privet, variegated periwinkle, and one pale sprig of a climbing rose foliage to make a green and yellow colour scheme. A collection of autumn foliage, including almost everything that is available at this time of the year.

It is difficult to know where to begin to enumerate the different leaves and branches particularly suitable for decoration. Perhaps it would be as well to go through the seasons of the year.

In winter there are long sprays of periwinkle—dark and shiny or variegated—branches of holm oak, sweet bay, Portugal laurel, camellia, grevillea, variegated holly, eucalyptus, deep red branches of dogwood, holly, ivy, clusters of ‘pale green, fairy mistletoe’, and bergenia.

In the spring all the fruit tree branches are coming into bud and a particularly beautiful one, if it can be spared, is a branch of quince. There are wild arum leaves, berberis in fresh green shoots, flowering currant, budding viburnum, pussy willow and catkins, alder catkins, larch, silver shoots of whitebeam, Corsican hellebore and the dark fan like clusters of Pieris japonica foliage. A branch of budding chestnut is, of course, one of the most dramatic additions to an arrangement that it is possible to find. Purple sprouting broccoli and the rather knobbly, brown branches of sea buckthorn before it comes into leaf make an exciting contrast.

Summer time is overflowing with suggestions, and one can only mention a few possibilities. Lamb’s ear ( Stachys lanata), garden ragwort, giant cow-parsnip, globe artichoke, Hostas, privet, fennel, hart’s-tongue fern, vine, everlasting pea, summer jasmine, lungwort, horseradish and iris; these all come to mind amongst many others. (This list is given, of course, only with reference to the foliage and not to the flowers.)

In the autumn there is a surprising selection Forsythia and azalea both achieve very beautiful autumn colourings. Leucothoe axillaris is well known and there are also scarlet oaks, varied bergenia, clematis, fig, Garrya elliptica with its grey green catkins, polypody fern, broom and golden privet, tradescantia, magnolia and ivy, rosemary and deep-toned berberis. Having listed various leaves in their seasons, I suggest taking one from each, (e.g. winter — holly,) in some detail.

EUCALYPTUS: one of the most attractive, long lasting and unusual of foliage-plants or trees to grow for arrangement. Coming as it does from Australia, it has settled down in certain parts of England as though it really belonged here. It must be admitted that it may also be capricious, and that even, having once got it going it may die back again. If one has had a young tree for two or three years and it seems to be going well ahead and then to die back do not despair. It is possible that before long young shoots may appear round the base of the stem, just above the soil level. If this happens, cut out the dead wood above, keep the young leaves supplied with water, as their roots may be short, and wait patiently. In time, the eucalyptus may get going happily again, providing a useful supply of its blue-green-grey leaves for indoor decoration throughout the year. It is surprising, in some ways, that there are extensive plantations of the eucalyptus in parts of Scotland, but these are, of course, in Western Scotland. However, I have known it to thrive in exposed parts of the east of England with little or no protection.

WILD ARUM LEAVES: the plant of the wild, arum as a whole is not an attractive one. The flower is greedy and sucks in insects and the bright orange-red berries, coming later in the summer, have rather a sinister quality about them. But the leaves are fresh and green, charming in shape, coming early in the spring when there are few others out. (They are like miniatures of the large arum leaf, but are still bigger than most leaves of wild flowers.) They may be found in hedgerows or ditches, some of them growing in small clusters with each leaf about three to four inches from tip to base, while others belonging to much larger plants have individual leaves which may be from eight to ten inches in size. The value of these leaves, in early spring, cannot be over estimated. They are such a fresh green and last so well and are so attractive with many different types of flowers, e.g. anemones, scillas, grape hyacinths, wallflowers, certain daffodils and narcissi, and are especially useful with the pink and blue flowers of ‘soldiers and sailors’ or lungwort, which appear before their own leaves are fully developed.

PRIVET: this is a shrub which I have often championed. It is despised as being ‘ordinary’ and only useful for hedging, where it is kept tightly trimmed with no opportunity for developing its long, decorative branches and its panicles of creamy-white flowers. However, for flower arrangement it must be grown freely and allowed to achieve its natural height and its natural shrubbiness. It flowers usually in mid-summer, at a time when there are not always many long-stemmed plants for cutting. I have personally found it invaluable. This is not its only attraction: its leaves are a good shape, (a point which is often overlooked), and not unlike those of the myrtle, its berries are first green and later a deep purple-black, both these colours are useful for foliage arrangements. (When they are green they combine well with the blue-grey of poppy leaves, certain hellebore foliage, variegated hosta and garden ragwort, showing the darker side of its leaf.) When the berries are black, they come at about the same time as honesty seedpods are turning to silver, and they look most dramatic arranged together.

Variegated privet which, although not an evergreen, does keep some of its leaves throughout the winter.

FORSYTHIA: this is best known for its wonderful splash of golden yellow in the spring, but the foliage can be of great value and have a charm of colouring which is almost unexpected, in the autumn. It usually has, in its growth, some lovely curving branches, and it is the leaves on these which may turn anything from a pale, rather faded yellow, to a deep wine. Sometimes the leaf is variegated in effect, having both colours at one time. For arrangements of any size, these curving branches with exotic autumn tones and shades, are a gift. (They will last quite well, but, of course, should be cut before they are beginning to drop, like any other autumn foliage.)

There must be many more, and as I write I think all the time of yet another addition ; but quite half the delight and enjoyment is to discover interesting and exciting shapes and colours of leaves for oneself, and so I will be content with an incomplete list.

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