All these golden, shade-loving plants enjoy humus-rich soil that is not sucked dry by thirsty, shallow-rooted trees. But moisture-loving sweet flag (Acorus spp.) takes it one step further: it absolutely demands wet or boggy conditions and will grow directly in shallow water. Grassy in appearance (but not a true grass), variegated sweet flag (A. calamus ‘Variegatus', Zone 4), grows up to 90 centimetres and slowly expands to form a sizable clump of narrow, arching leaves striped with green and creamy yellow. The effect is fresh and graceful when planted at the edge of a shaded pond or garden pool. In a moist, shady setting, the pleasantly named golden-leafed meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria ‘Aurea', 60 to 90 centimetres high, Zone 3), grows a mass of aromatic, yellow-green foliage with wands of small, cream-coloured flowers.
Stepping out from the shade and into the sun, we find the appealing fountains of yellow-and-green-striped moor grass (Molinia caerulea ‘Variegata', 60 centimetres high, Zone 5). Widening slowly into clumps, and best grouped 30 centimetres apart, this no-care grass lives in the same spot for many years. Gold and green bands on the sword-shaped leaves of Iris pallida ‘Aurea Variegata' (Zone 4) make for a handsome clump even in the absence of grape-scented, light lavender flowers; this sun-loving, old-fashioned, farm flower has recently made a comeback.
A trio of low-growing herbs adds more gold to the garden. Golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum', 30 to 90 centimetres high, Zone 5), may not be the best for cooking, but its mass of small, rounded, sunny yellow leaves is striking spilling over the edge of a herb or flower bed; dry, sandy, even stony soil suits it fine. The same holds true for golden creeping thyme (Thymus pulegioides ‘Elliott's Gold', 10 centimetres high, Zone 5), a long-lived edger that may be sheared to keep it contained and compact. My favorite thyme is the ‘Doone Valley' cultivar (10 centimetres high by 30 centimetres wide, Zone 4): small, shiny, dark green leaves edged and blotched with bright yellow, cream and occasionally red. Few leaf scents are as delicious as the citrusy sweetness of a crushed sprig of this excellent culinary herb.
From low down to high up, three shrubs round out the collection of hardy golds. The elderberry is an easygoing, deciduous, woodland shrub, growing up to four metres; its May display of lacy, cream flowers is followed by edible (but sour) wine-red fruit—unpalatable, even toxic when raw but edible when cooked. Several golden elderberry cultivars give an overall light yellow-green effect, such as Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold' and S. r. ‘Plumosa Aurea' (three metres high, Zone 3).
Any plant with a version of aurea in its botanical name is likely to be golden (like the Spanish oro). The scented white blossoms of the golden mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus', 2.5 by 1.5 metres, Zone 5) are in pleasant harmony with its pale gold leaves. Both shrubs do well—and hold their leaf colour better—in light shade; too much sun prompts the production of chlorophyll, resulting in greener tones. Last comes the foolproof gold-leafed Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica ‘Goldmound', Zone 4)—drought-tolerant and not too tall at about one metre. With pale yellow leaves and dull pink flowers, this is no stunner, but not everything in the garden need stand out; there is always a place for the useful, unassuming plant—golden or otherwise.