Daily Flower Candy: Thymus pulegioides ‘Foxley’

Thymus pulegioides: broad-leaved thyme, lemon thyme

Variegation in plants is a trait I can take or leave. I blame spireas – a shrub I find especially hideous when variegated – for my aversion, having encountered them one too many times in situations where they’ve looked truly despicable. Yet occasionally, as in hostas, variegation is one of the features that makes a plant interesting enough to build up a cult following. Defined as the appearance of different coloured zones in the leaves, stems or fruits of a plant, variegation arises for a variety of genetic reasons. Natural variegation has largely been preserved and enhanced by gardeners and nurserymen who value the ornamental and ‘lightening’ effect of paler patches, splashes and fringes on a plant’s leaves. Used judiciously, variegated plants can be a godsend, used wantonly they can give one a headache.

Thymus pulegioides 'Foxley', The Watch House, February 2016

As I look around my gardens I find I have almost no variegated plants. Perhaps this is a mistake, as at this time of year there are few flowers to punctuate the sea of green. Whilst lovely, it is, admittedly, a tad monotonous out there. So off I traipse to Broadstairs Garden Centre to see what they have to sprinkle on my green custard. My kind of plants are not generally stocked at our local nursery, but they are a great source of ‘fillers’, herbs, composts and bedding which I rely heavily throughout the season. The first plant to catch my eye was not a variegated plant, but Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’, the purple-leaved wood spurge. “That would look great behind a pot of yellow daffodils” I thought, “what could I buy to go with it?”. My gaze immediately alighted on a shelf populated by seven varieties of thyme, an impressive selection for a small garden centre at this time of year. One stood out from the crowd, Thymus pulegioides ‘Foxley’, possessed of tiny leaves variously dark green, cream and white, and ivory flushed with rose-pink. The scent from the crushed foliage packed a punch even on a cold, windy winter’s day and I was immediately convinced enough to buy two plants; one for London and one for Broadstairs. They will live in pots, in full sunshine, and I shall take cuttings in due course to guarantee I am never without this pretty, ground-hugging herb.

Thymus pulegioides 'Foxley', The Watch House, February 2016

Meanwhile I am considering whether I might track down a variegated ginger, or the beautiful cream-edged Echium candicans ‘Star of Madeira’ for Broadstairs. Maybe Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ would light up a dark corner in our London garden? I start to wonder if the evil spirea’s spell has finally been broken…..

I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on variegated plants and which ones you’d recommend to other gardeners who, like me, have resisted their charms in the past.

Thymus pulegioides 'Foxley', The Watch House, February 2016

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37 thoughts on “Daily Flower Candy: Thymus pulegioides ‘Foxley’

  1. What a lovely collection of plants you have there. I’m thinking about putting in some evergreen variegated plants in the front garden. Funnily enough I would never have normally considered them BUT I think one or two would go marvelously well with a silver birch (‘Grayswood Ghost’, hopefully) I would like to plant. Euonymus japonicus ‘Kathy’ was one plant I would normally have snuffed at but I thought it would go really well and I liked its large glossy leaves. Another one was Euphorbia ‘Silver Swan’ (though I would not plant both). I am a sucker for grasses and I saw Cortaderia selloana ‘Aureolineata’ – a pampus grass it may be but I loved it!

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    1. Yes, I agree that a little white variegation probably wouldn’t go amiss beneath that beautiful tree, as would really dark glossy foliage. I neglected to mention that I have recently planted 4 x Euphorbia × martini ‘Ascot Rainbow’ as an experiment down the pathway to the new part of our house. They are still very small so I have not been able to judge them properly yet. E. ‘Silver Swan’ looks like a really pretty plant, so if you have the right conditions it would be great to give that a go.

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  2. I agree, I don’t usually go for variegated plants. But thinking more carefully, the three I do have I like enormously. They are: Phalaris arundinacea, or Gardener’s Garter, for sentimental reasons, Pittosporum, Silver Queen, which brightens a winter border on the darker side of the garden and Phormium, Maori in two large planters at the front of the house. It’s extraordinarily hardy and provides perennial colour. Now the latter is taking off, it is rather squeezing out some toning tulips.

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    1. The pittosporum, I will grant you, is lovely, especially from a distance when the variegation gives it a wonderful misty, ice green appearance. I like the choicer phormiums too, and was wondering about having one in our new patch of garden when it is finished. I think phormiums would do well in our windy, exposed location. Hope your tulips survive the take-over bid 🙂

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  3. I am not big on variegated plants either,to many are definetly a distraction to me. I do however have a variegated Pieris Japonica and it is stunning ,slow growing and looks amazing in every season. I do like hostas so when they are up I make sure they look great with there neighbors. I have always been a foliage girl and I rely on texture leave size and movement in the wind. I love your blog,thank you so much for your wonderful snippets of information and your wonderful writing style.

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    1. Thank you Glenda, lovely to hear from you. My grandmother could grow Pieris really well on her acid soil and she loved them. They are amazing shrubs when grown well, variegated or otherwise. I saw Pieris growing wild in Bhutan three years ago, which was a real treat.

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  4. I’m not a great fan of variegated leaf plants with the exception of some begonias and similarly broad-leafed plants that have colourful variegation like Coleus, and I know what you mean about spirea even though I like the flowers. However, I do love the scent of Lemon thyme and we have a non-variagated variety in our garden that I couldn’t live without because of its scent. Not only that, but I gather its leaves and make tea from them.

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    1. Hello Stephen. In the group shot it’s Eurphorbia amydaloides ‘Purpurea’ at the back, Thymus pulegioides ‘Foxley’ to the left and Thymus x citriodorus ‘Archers Gold’ to the right, with Crocus ‘Advance’ in the middle and Polyanthus ‘Gold Lace’ at the front.

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  5. I’m not keen on variegation either, but I do have a couple of variegated dogwoods I like on the north side of the house. One has silver edging, the other gold. They were already residents when we arrived, so I can only guess what they are

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  6. Enjoyed your post and information on this Thyme. Shall keep an eye out for it… Very much agree with your views on variegation…often less is definitely more : ) Using variegated foliage in a low light situation however, as you say, can really perk up an area. Some favourites might be some of the grasses Molina caerula ‘Variegata’, with very fresh upright foliage, or Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, and also a few of the dogwoods. C. alba ‘Elegantissima’, a small tree/large shrub has lovely grey-green leaves with a cream margin, very soft and muted. It can be pollarded for winter stem colour. Others that I love are C. controversa and C. alternifolia ‘Argentea’. Both have a tiered habit, flowers in summer and of course fall colour. There are also a couple of lovely variegated Mock Oranges, ie P. coronarius ‘Variegatus’ (AGM).

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    1. Thank you Jo. The cornuses are getting a lot of votes when it comes to variegation, and in the case of C. controversa I can’t imagine this tree would look half as pretty without its natural highlights. A lovely selection of suggestions and a reminder that variegation can be a good thing.

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  7. Loved that thyme!
    I am a variegated lover and have a few, as much as the climate where I live allows which has long scorching hot summers and even if for a few nights below 5 C’s winters.

    The best I can suggest for you is variegated leaved “sambucus”; it is a great filler and adds light to a garden plus a lovely scent. Another great & favourite variegated is “brugmensia” but I am not sure if it will survive your climate, unless you take it indoors in the winter. “Dianella variegated flax” is quite hardy to various climate, soil and neglect conditions. Last but not least is variegated “aspidistra”. those are some of my favourites.. which I hope will inspire you to further explore the beauty of variegated leaved plants.

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    1. Hi Ceylan. I am guessing you live somewhere a little warmer than I do! However, all of those plants are possible contenders for our seaside garden where we experience very little frost. I have been toying with buying a brugmansia for a couple of years, and might take the plunge this year. My priority is one with white flowers. Dianella grows well for me so I’ll look out for the variegated form. I have never seen the aspidistra before but I like it, very much.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and for sharing your wisdom. Dan

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  8. Personally, I think variegation can be a good thing – both white/silver and yellow. As you said, it can liven up a rather dull, shady corner or make what would otherwise be a boring sea of samey greens more interesting. You once wrote about Hosta ‘Patriot’ which is one of my favourites, too, and the variegation there is what makes this plant so special.
    For me the important thing is that there is some recognisable “pattern” to the variegation and that green still dominates (unless it is an entirely golden coloured plant, as in Choisya ternate “Sundance”) – if the variegation takes over, the plant tends to look not just unnatural but, worse, sickly. (I suspect your spireas are guilty on both counts.) Also, several (different) variegated plants together create an unrestful, “nervous” sight I believe.

    Overall though I have much more of an aversion against what is so often called “red-leafed” plants: most of them look rather depressing (especially at this time of year) and really remind me of dog poo. There are exceptions, of course: Heucheras, for instance, or one fully grown copper beech in a parkland setting. But those are far and few between.

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    1. Yes Stephanie, I do adore Hosta ‘Patriot’, mainly because it seems to adore me and the snails ignore it. I am looking forward to those violet-purple pushing up through the ground soon.

      I quite agree that too much variegation can have an unsettling effect – the term ‘nervous’ amused me, but is spot-on. I cannot grow red-leaved plants in our London garden because, as you describe so vividly, they blend in with the soil and are virtually invisible in our shady garden. However I have a soft spot for Astelia nervosa ‘Westland’ which combines green and silver with a deep red flush.

      I have a great fondness for copper beeches because there were many in the parkland where my grandparents lived, but they are best grown as magnificent specimens and not planted alternately with green beech as a hedge. Just the thought is giving me a migraine!!

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      1. Am trying to picture that last one and guess it would either look fun or, more likely, make my hair stand on end…
        By the by: wanted to say thank you since due to your RHS Spring Flower Show post I actually managed to go to the Botanical Art Exhibition last Friday – rather than find a week later that I missed it (again). So thanks for the reminder! 🙂 .

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  9. The Thyme is gorgeous and will go on my ‘wants’ list. My favourite variegated plants are Myrtus communis subsp. tarentina ‘Variegata’, the dainty and slightly fragrant white flowers enhance the small leaves beautifully. Mine is residing in the greenhouse as it does not like cold winds. And Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’ which I originally got from Rosemary Verey in person many years ago and now a cutting from that plant is finally getting going.

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    1. A celebrity plant indeed Tina! How lucky you were to meet Rosemary Verey. I have to admit I never properly appreciated her garden when she was alive. I must have visited at all the wrong times. Meanwhile I can smell those myrtle flowers from here. Delicious!!

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  10. That euphorbia is a beauty – I just love your whole collection pictured, even down to the matching crocus!! May I suggest a small neat climber – Lonicera japonics ‘aureoreticulata’ -sweetly fragrant smalll flowers are sparse unless one gets a long hot summer. Grown really for its variegated foliage. If it was cut down by a nasty cold cold winter, it’ll sprout again from ground level. I always cut mine back in early Spring as pruning that time gives the best display of foliage. I must get my hands on the Hosta ‘patriot’ – looks gorgeous!!!

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  11. I will admit to loving variegated plants but have seen many that are a bit freakish. As for your thyme, I love it but wonder if the variegation will change when the temperatures rise. I have a similar thyme that has thrown out a chunk of beautifully edged pink and cream leaves while the rest of the clump remains stubbornly green. I have no idea if this battle will continue all summer but I’m cheering for the variegation.

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