Idea File: Large leaves for big impact

The bold, blue leaves of sea kale (Crambe maritima) anchor a collection of planters – and sea kale is actually edible. Sea kale also produces clusters of white flowers. With less-attractive large leaves, its cousin colewort (Crambe cordifolia) outdoes sea kale with its billowing clouds of small, white flowers.

Sometimes you need to sweat the big stuff – and, in a garden, that can mean using the contrast, drama and visual weight of large leaves to create focal points and add some ballast to your planting design. Don’t shy away from big leaves in a small garden, either. Remember that “big” is a relative term – look for big leaves that fit into your smaller space. I once saw a postage-stamp garden composed around an enormous Hosta ‘Empress Wu’, one of the biggest hostas on the market. It worked.

This week’s Idea File – which at this busy time of the year has fast become a weekly rather than a Friday meme – highlights a few plants with big, sometimes really big, leaves. I’m counting on you to add your own suggestions, or to tell us about your experience with any of the biggies you see here.

Astilboides tabularis has great large, shield-shaped (or peltate) leaves, sort of like nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) on steroids. The white flowers which look like a quiet version of astilbe – hence the name – are not the main feature.
Bergenia, for which one of the adorable common names is pigsqueak, has rounded leaves in various degrees of large. One of the largest is Bergenia crassifolia, which I believe is pictured here. To get to know them all, the website Dave’s Garden has this excellent article on bergenias by Todd Boland. Some of the newer ones even feature variegation.
For a moist, but well-drained, spot in sun to part-shade, you might try Rogersia pinnata. Not only are these leaves large, they’re fingered (palmate) and rugose (wrinkled), adding a strong, coarse texture to your plant palette. I’m guessing that the species name “pinnata” refers to the feather-like (pinnate) texture of the leaflets. Don’t they remind you of feathers?
Not only are these leaves huge, they’re followed by tall cathedral spires of flowers. This is Vatican clary sage (Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica), a true giant. It’s said to be stinky, but my usually receptive olfactory nerves didn’t detect anything unpleasant from this one in the Biltmore Estate garden in Asheville, NC.
And how about plain old rhubarb (Rheum officinale)? I even find the flowers attractive, and once won a blue ribbon using them in a floral design. Its even more statuesque, ornamental cousin is Rheum palmatum (sorry, best reference I could find).
Among the native plants with imposing leaves is the mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum – with reference link to Walter Muma’s excellent Ontario Wildflowers site). Mayapple makes a tiny fruit (wait till it’s quite ripe before eating, or suffer unpleasant consequences), and can colonize a large area in woodland conditions. As a spring ephemeral, though, it disappears by midsummer. Still, gardening is all about finding beauty in transitions, isn’t it?
Another colonizer, but one you might have to watch, is the non-native butterbur (Petasites spp. – in this case, P. hybridus.) Still, you can’t argue with the strong impact of that mound of large foliage.
And, of course, there are hostas, including these from our Through the Garden Gate preview last week. Have a look at this popularity poll from the American Hosta Society for picks large – and small. Because you can sweat the small stuff, too.



  1. I like that Butterbur! I just planted some Mayapple. Also, I like Cup Plant for the big leaves, but it is more of a vertical plant.

  2. Thank you for showing Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica. I started some from seed from ORG HPS. 6 sprouted and are doing fine. I did not realize the plant was so big, but I am very pleased to learn it is.

  3. I found some Mayapple at Valleyview Gardens but no luck with the Rogersia or Sea kale. Anyone know where I can find them? Liguralia have large leaves, too, though maybe not quite as grand in scale as the others listed here.

    I, too, am a sucker for large leaves because they have so much more impact from the curb, especially when your garden plot is set a bit back from the street. Plus the more ground they cover, the less plants I have to buy! 🙂

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