The Spring Garden Pops with Chartreuse

We can thank the Shrek movie franchise of twenty years ago for popularizing the color ‘chartreuse’ in our culture. The gentle giant’s skin color made its way into the fashion industry and office décor, along with other yellow-green shades. 

I don’t know whether Shrek boosted its vogue in the available palette of garden colors, but I’m grateful for the number of small trees, shrubs, and perennials that sport chartreuse leaves. Hybridizers seem to develop new yellow-green varieties across the plant world constantly.

The color’s name comes from its likeness to the French liqueur of the same designation, first created by French monks in the mid-eighteenth century. I haven’t tasted the alcoholic version, but I’m thrilled with the chartreuse plants scattered throughout my Lewes, Delaware garden. 

You might think their striking shade would make them a challenge to pair with other plants; on the contrary, they complement any of their neighbors perfectly. The bright, cheerful color provides a brilliant counterpoint among the range of green foliage that forms the well-drained garden’s backdrop.

Six different species of chartreuse plants glow in the garden right now: a small tree, a shrub, two perennials, and two ground covers. Altogether, they make the garden pop. Each one attracts the visitor’s attention to admire its form, distinctive leaves, and in some cases, dramatic flowers. They brighten spaces, and by their presence, highlight their more subtle plant neighbors.

Creeping St. John’s wort sets off black pine’s dark foliage.

My Spring Garden Explodes with Six Chartreuse Plants

Standing ten-feet tall and four-foot wide, ‘Golden Spirit’ smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) is the garden’s beacon. I can spy its chartreuse radiance from several houses away driving up Rodney Avenue. ‘Golden Spirit’ sits in full sun for about six hours a day. Fall weather sees its round, yellow leaves turn amber and crimson. Its more common cousin, purple smokebush, gets all the attention for its profusion of hazy purple cotton candy flowers. So far, ‘Golden Spirit’ produces modest pinkish blooms, but I’m crazy about the plant’s bright, cheerful demeanor.

The tiny leaves of ‘Goldmound’ spirea (Spirea japonica) give the two-to-three foot tall shrub a fine, well-groomed texture. Two plants command attention at the front of a mixed shrub border edge, next to a five-foot bluish-leaved St. John’s wort (Hypericum). With its four hours of full sun, it produces pink flowers, an unusual, yet striking combination.

‘All Gold’ Japanese forest grass leads visitors down the boardwalk path.

For the most astounding leaf/flower color partnership, ‘Sweet Kate’ spiderwort (Tradescantia) displays outrageously dark violet blooms atop its chartreuse lance-shaped leaves on upright stems reaching 12 to 18 inches. Right now, one plant holds court in full sun next to yucca’s bluish-gray strapped leaves, but I’ll move the plant soon to a shadier spot to prevent the leaves from being scorched by the sun. (And I’ll add some sister plants to expand its impact.)

Several clumps of ‘All gold’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) provide brilliant waterfalls of chartreuse on either side of the boardwalk path that leads away from the sun garden into the darker, cool “woodland” of junipers, viburnum, chokeberry, and hydrangeas. Forest grass likes the shade, its tender leaves burned by the sun as I found out when I first planted it. ‘All Gold’ produces airy flower clusters in late summer, adding another interesting feature to its resumé.

Top center, ‘Golden Spire’ smokebush sits over creeping St. John’s wort. Two ‘Goldmound’ spirea shrubs occupy lower right corner.
‘Sweet Kate’ spiderwort displays striking deep violet blooms.

For a hot, sunny, dry location like a rockery or slope, I can’t find a better ground cover than ‘Angelina’ stonecrop (Sedum rupestre) to cover difficult areas while maintaining the bright yellowish color of its needle-like foliage all year long. And it’s easy to pull out if it wanders into forbidden spaces. Hugging the ground, the three-inch high plants send up stalks of showy yellow flowers early summer. I leave most of the watering duties to the friendly skies; only occasionally do I give this yellow carpet a soaking.

Need a colorful ground cover for an area that allows for its spreading growth habit? Evergreen creeping St. John’s wort (Hypericum calycinum) is an assertive favorite in my garden for its spring bronzy-chartreuse color in full sun, fading to mostly green by summer’s end. Along the way, it also produces bright yellow flowers in early summer. Creeping St. John’s wort comes with a warning, however. Hosting this plant in my garden requires vigilance, and I commit to several hours every spring to dig up underground roots as it wantonly spreads. But what a vibrant carpet it displays, and it’s worth the maintenance effort to flood the area with its light during the growing season.

‘Angelina’ stonecrop blankets the dry garden corner.

If you have a spot in your garden that needs to be zhuzhed up or a specimen that will provide interest throughout the growing season, try a plant with chartreuse leaves that fits your light, moisture, and exposure conditions. I bet you’ll enjoy the results when you add a little Shrek to your landscape.

Get the Monthly Newsletter

That's right, just one email per month.
The latest travel stories, photos, and destination inspiration, straight to your inbox.