Gold & Raspberry: 'Whoa Nellie' Holly & 'Sicilian Sunshine' Sweet Bay for Starters

Laurus nobilis Sicilian Sunshine Ilex Nellie R. Stevens fingers 051516 640


Many plants display new foliage that's gold. Here are two that I'm growing in containers. On the left, a newish cultivar of sweet bay, Sicilian Sunshine. On the right, Whoa Nelly holly. Leaves of both mature to green, for a marvelous contrast with gold leaves that are still emerging.


Young leaves of Sicilian Sunshine take the contrast even further: Their petioles and stems are bright raspberry. 


Laurus nobilis Sicilian Sunshine Ilex Nellie R. Stevens fingers 051516 closer 640


Petioles and the tips of new stems of Whoa Nellie are gold, too—but when young stems become just a bit older they turn raspberry.


Ilex Whoa Nellie hand 051516 640


Is this two-fold coloring the result of a different mutation in each plant for each color? That sounds less likely than if the same mutation that encourages display of gold pigment also encourages display of raspberry. The bright colors of Fall foliage may provide a clue. At least in smaller amounts, such pigments are present in the foliage all season long, but aren't revealed until the dominant green from chlorophyll fades away as the leaf experiences cooler temperatures. In some cases, the amounts of these foliage pigments can also increase as the plants complete their cool-season transitions to Winter.


In Spring, perhaps the progression of the coloring of the portions of plants that are gold and raspberry works in reverse: If chlorophyll were slower to form than the yellow and raspberry pigments, there would be an interval of colorful display before everything turns green. Let's call this trait Slow Chorophyll.  


The greater the number of plants with such underlying gold-and-raspberry coloring, the more likely that the cause of this display in Spring or Fall is a comparatively simple process, not a combination of factors or outright mutations that, just by happenstance, have all become present at once—let alone must then activate in a particular sequence. Judging from my garden, the combination of gold and raspberry in plants with colorful foliage is so prevalent it could even be thought of as the norm. Below, gold-leaved alpine currant, Ribes alpinum 'Aureum'. Its coloring follows that of Whoa Nellie: yellow leaves and petioles but raspberry stems.  


Ribes alpinum Aureum fingers 051916 640


Here's new growth of weeping beech, Fagus sylvatica 'Aurea Pendula', whose pattern of coloring is similar to that of Sicilian Sunshine: gold leaves with raspberry petioles and stems. 


Fagus sylvatica Aurea pendula fingers 051916 640


Below, a new cane of gold-leaved ghost bramble, Rubus cockburnianus 'Aureus'. There isn't a hint of raspberry in either the petioles or the stems—although there's a blush of it around the edges of the youngest foliage. 


Rubus cockburnianus Aureus 051916 640 


Gold leaves and raspberry flowers of Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum' continue this "bicolorful" theme. So does the pink new foliage of yellow-and-green variegated Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki', and the gold leaves and pink bud scales of Corylopsis spicata 'Aurea'.


What about Ulmus glabra 'Aurea'? It flowers in early Spring as new foliage is emerging. I've always grown mine as a pollard that I prune in late Winter, so I've never yet seen the flowers. I'm suspending this annual pruning for a few years so that blooms will at last be formed. Last year's new growth didn't flower this Spring so, presumably, a second year of vegetative growth is necessary for the wood to mature enough to produce flowers next Spring. Stay tuned for that update. 


Gold and raspberry certainly does occur with some frequency in plants with colorful foliage. While it's plausible that the cause of the display—the single trait I've called Slow Chlorophyll—is simple, there's still plenty of complexity in the coloring of any given part of each plant. Are the leaves gold but the petioles raspberry? Stems gold, too—until they turn raspberry in a few months? Brand-new leaves raspberry and slightly older leaves gold? Leaves and stems gold but the flowers raspberry? Everything gold except a raspberry blush at the edges of the leaves?


One of the sustaining pleasures of horticulture is just such a balance of seeming certainty—Slow Chlorophyll—with limitless special cases and still-present unknowns. We understand plenty about our plants and our gardens (or think we do), but that understanding also reveals just how much more we don't have a clue about. No matter how wise we become, tantalizing mysteries are just beyond these ever-expanding boundaries of knowledge and, even, seem only to increase. There will always more to marvel at.



Here's how to grow Ilex 'Nellie R. Stevens', of which 'Whoa Nellie' is a sport. Its handling and hardiness are the same.


I'll profile Laurus nobilis 'Sicilian Sunshine' soon. 


Here's how to grow Ribes alpinum 'Aureum'.


Here's how to grow Rubus cockburnianus 'Aureus'.


Here's how to grow Fagus sylvatica 'Aurea Pendula'.


Here's how to grow another gold-leaved shrub whose stems are red or pink, Cornus alba 'Aurea', but on a different timeline altogether. This shrub is deciduous, so holds its colorful foliage only during the warmer months. Further, the bright coloring of the stems doesn't reveal until the cold months, and disappears with Summer heat. In Spring, temperatures are still cool—but also frost-free—allowing the gold foliage to emerge while the stems still hold their cool-season red.

FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!


Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:


* indicates required