Feature Plants for Garden Impact
Plants to make a feature
Even the smallest garden needs the occasional striking plant with bold structure, if only to accentuate the difference between it and all the other plants that surrounds it. The stars of your garden picture will have all the more impact if they are not crowded out with other plants that have ideas of stealing the scene. To form a backdrop, there is a vast range of plants that will melt into the background, quietly going about their business of growing, flowering and setting seed. Some of the most striking architectural, or feature plants, to make a dramatic impact are described here.
Onopordum acanthium (scotch thistle,) is a giant silvery thistle, highly decorative and extremely prickly. Gloves are needed for weeding anywhere near it. It makes a spectacular silhouette of silver in a border in full sun. A biennial, in the first year it makes a spiny platinum rosette of leaves, and the following year a giant branching silver flower spike 2.5m (8ft) tall appears with pallid purple thistles on top: these duly scatter their seed, and the biennial cycle continues.
Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Variegatum’ (russian) is a real show-off of a plant with handsome leaves brilliantly splashed in cream and soft green. Mauve-blue and cream flowers appear in summer on 90cm (3ft) stems that are very pretty for a while, and when they start to look tired you should simply cut them down, along with any messy-looking leaves. In a few weeks the plant will be looking smart again. It is advisable to plant it in the right place the first time, because if it is moved, any portions of root that have been left behind will start to grow again, this time without the lovely variegation. It likes a rich diet and not too dry a position.
Ferula communis (giant), the noblest of umbellifers, is a stupendous sight once it has built up the strength to send up its flowering stems 3m (10ft) high and more from a mound of finely cut leaves. Umbels of yellowish-green flowers, like giant queen anne’s lace (Anthriscus sylvestris), tower above surrounding plants. Native to the Mediterranean region, it likes plenty of sunshine. More suitable for the smaller garden is another umbellifer, archangelica, a handsome biennial with similar cow flowers on 1.8m (6ft) stems. An architectural plant that likes rich soil, the flowers, stems and leaves are a symphony of green for a shady corner.
is a feature plant par excellence but you do rather need a lake to go with it. It has enormous umbrella leaves and stems covered with prickles and minute greenish flowers in dense panicles. It needs rich, damp soil. It is one of the few plants equipped with its own winter protection — in autumn you can use its old umbrellas to wrap up the heart of the plant against frost.
Rheum palmatam ‘Atrosanguineum’ has large, deeply-cut leaves like all the giant rhubarbs, and these could present a dramatic effect in the smaller garden. As the rich crimson-purple crumpled new leaves unfurl in spring, it is a highly exciting plant, all the more so as the flower spike begins to emerge. Panicles of soft crimson flowers atop the 1.8m (6ft) stem appear in early summer. Even after the flowers have faded the handsome seedheads remain attractive till autumn.
Cynara cardunculus (cardoon) must be the queen of the silver plants, with its large, much divided, shining leaves, like the plumage of a giant silver bird. Luminous grey stems 1.8m (6ft) tall bear large blue thistle flowers in summer. You can get a similar, but less silvery, effect from the globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus). To keep the latter looking smart, keep pulling off any tired leaves. Both these plants need sun and well-drained soil. On a small, but highly exclusive, scale there is a rare little artichoke from Morocco, Cynara histrix, only 60cm (2ft) high with grey leaves and baby artichokes flushed with shocking pink. Its requirements are the hottest position you can find and a pane of glass to protect it from winter rain.
Beschorneria yuccoides creates an exotic effect in the mildest gardens. It has beautiful long blue-grey spiky leaves and an incredible salmon-pink arching flower stem 2.2m (7ft) long, from which are suspended tubular green bells in early summer. If you do not deadhead it after the flowers fade, the old stems will remain decorative by retaining their lovely pink colouring for the rest of the season.
Veratrum is utterly hardy, with great personality moth of leaf and flower, despite being very poisonous. Veratrums are so slow to establish you will have got to know them well by the time they have built up into large clumps, but they are well worth the wait. Their beautifully pleated leaves are neatly folded up like a fan as they emerge, a fresh and immaculate green, in spring. From then on, for the rest of the season, it is a battle with the slugs to keep them that way. Veratrum nigrum has tiny, purple-black flowers densely clustered on the flower spike; Veratrum viride has racemes of bright green flowers; and Veratrum album is washed with pale green. Veratrums do not need dividing very often and, as they like a rich diet, should work in generous handfuls of bonemeal and compost or well-rotted manure round the plants occasionally, rather than move them.
Plants for small beds
For a smallthe very same rules apply: try adding a small, bright gold Hosta like ‘Golden Tiara’, or a group of Celmisia with spiky platinum leaves. The handsome, rounded leaves of Darmera peltata would do in a damp place if you do not have room for a Gunnera. Even the ordinary culinary fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) will become a star of the small screen if given an isolated position, surrounded by prostrate carpeting plants. In the magical light as the sun shines after a shower, when raindrops are caught in the fine silky foliage of the fennel, you may see a star being born.
Two eye-catching smaller plants with spiky leaves arepallida ‘Argentea Variegata’ (blue flowers in early summer) and Phaiophleps nigricans ‘Aunt May’ (formerly Sisyrinchium). This latter has pale cream striped leaves and spires of creamy-yellow flowers, forming a nice upright feature even in seed (to keep it looking smart you need to regularly trim away the dying leaves).