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Using Large Plants as Focal Point in Your Garden Design

Drama Queen Plants

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Every garden needs a focal point and large, dramatic plants fit the bill nicely, getting better every year. These drama queen plants will take center stage in any garden. You only need one to make an impact, or use several as an eye-catching hedge.

Focal point plants are often described as architectural, because they add structure along with impact. That's why you don't want too many drama queens in your garden design, competing for attention. One well-chosen focal point plant sets the tone for the whole garden.

Aruncus dioicus - Goat's Beard

Aruncus - Goat's Beard
Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.
Growing 4-6' in either direction, Goat's Beard looks more like a shrub than a perennial. The leaves are deeply cut and almost fern like. They're topped by feathery plumes starting in early summer and continuing for at least a month. All this and it grows in partial shade too. (USDA Zones 2 - 9)

Cimicifuga racemosa syn. Actaea - Cohosh, Bugbane, Black Snakeroot

Cimicifuga syn. Actaea racemosa - Bugbane, Cohash
Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.
Again, perennial or shrub? It's hard to say. Cimicifuga has large, lacy leaves that get more and more lush as the season goes on, with the plant growing 6-8' tall and about 4' wide. Toward the end of summer, Cimicifuga surprises you with bottle-brush flower spikes that can get 3 or more feet long and last well over a month. (USDA Zones 3 - 9)

Colocasia esculenta - Elephant Ear

Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic', Elephant Ear, Taro
Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.
Elephant ears aren't hardy perennials in cooler climates, but since they're grown from bulbs, they're easy enough to over winter. The green varieties make a decent impact, with their over-sized, elephant ear leaves, but the dark varieties, like this 'Black Magic', are riveting. They make a particularly nice contract with feathery foliage and airy spikes, like the grass in from of this one. Depending on your climate, Elephant ears can grow between 48' tall. (USDA Zones 7b - 11)

Eupatorium purpureum - Joe Pye Weed

Eupatorium purpureum - Joe Pye Weed
Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.
Joe Pye Weed is one of those native plants that doesn't get much respect until you see someone use it to perfection in their garden design. Could this be the same plant you see growing along roadsides? Yes and no. The cultivated Joe pyes are a lot easier to control in a garden setting. And they're worth it, when you see those mop heads of mauve develop in mid- to late summer. They're such a great color to set of the other shades in a fall garden. Depending on the variety, Joe Pye will grow between 4-6' tall. (USDA Zones 5 - 10)

Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine' - Tall Switch Grass

Panicum 'Cloud Nine' - Switch Grass
Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.
Pretty much any tall growing ornamental grass can be used as a focal point. Variegated Miscanthus, Pampas grass and Indian grass would all make excellent choice. The grass I've picked for this list is just so uniquely eye-catching, you can't help but touch it. Granted, it starts the season like any other ornamental grass that's been cut down to next to nothing. But by mid-Summer it truly is a cloud of inflorescence. The ruby color and the soft, floating flowers give it an impressionistic look. And it's deer resistant. 'Cloud Nine' grows to about 6-8'. (USDA Zones 4 - 9)

Persicaria polymorpha - Giant Fleece Flower

Persicaria polymorpha - Fleece Flower
Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.
For years I saw this plant in gardens and thought it was Goat's Beard. That's what happens when you start to take plants for granted. Giant Fleece Flower actually has a very different growing habit than Goat's Beard, not to mention different leaves and flower heads. They both grow to stately heights in a single season and have white plumes, but Persicaria polymorpha has long, narrow, pointed leaves and the flower heads, large, fluffy panicles, top the plant, rather than shooting up out of it. Giant Fleece Flower blooms a bit earlier than Goat's Beard and remains in bloom most of the summer. (USDA Zones 5 - 9)

Petasites - Butterbur

Petasites - Butterbur
Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.
I mention Petasites with a bit of hesitation. Given ideal growing conditions, petasites can take off running. But if you're the type of gardener to keep your garden in check, butterbur is dertainly a double take plant. The leaves are huge and they seem to get larger as the plant gets wider. It's hard to believe Petasites is in the same family as the daisy. But Petasides is rown for its large, fan-like leaves that can easily reach 3' across. Petasites japonicus and Petasites hybridus are both popular with gardeners who have a damp or poorly draining area of the garden that they want to punch up. (USDA Zones 5 - 9)
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