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Garden Tips

By: Bob Beyer, Travis County Master Gardener

Specimen plant? What’s that?  It is any plant that is really different, enough so it catches the eye and draws attention to its uniqueness.  It’s one that stands out as if to tell the visitor to your garden, “bet you haven’t seen me before!”  Now why would you want to plant that?  Simply to add interest to your garden just as you might do if you had something whimsical or a unique piece of natural or man-made hardscaping.

There are so many possibilities for finding that unique or rare specimen plant but these criteria must first be met. It must be a native or adaptive plant that will survive and grow well in our unique growing region.  Often such a plant is a cultivar of a species that falls into the native and adaptive category.  Secondly, you must know in advance where this “eye catcher” will be located in your garden so as to compliment, not detract, from the overall landscape composition. Often such plants will be on the expensive side as they are not commonly grown for the nursery trade.

Some hardy specimen plants I have had success with in my Austin garden over the past 5 years and recommend include the following:

Thuja occidentalis ‘filaformis’: This is a cultivar of Arborvitae with long drooping string-like foliage up to 12 inches long – definitely a weeper.  The foliage acquires different winter coloration during cold weather. It is the focal point of our front yard landscape, which also features weeping yaupon holly. Arborvitae is adaptable to our area and is evergreen.

Ilex vomitoria ‘pendula:  A weeping form of yaupon holly that actually grows to small tree proportion.  This female cultivar produces abundance of red berries to compliment its unique weeping growth habit but needs space.  

Ilex vomitoria ‘Will Fleming' (male) and ‘Scarlet’s Peak’ (female) upright yaupon hollies:  These cultivars are fastigiated and excellent for small garden space or corner areas, taking up less than 4 sq. ft. Scarlet’s Peak is a relatively new introduction which produces red berries in winter, whereas Will Fleming is a pollinator.

Sophora secundifolia ‘silver peso’: Would you believe a Texas Mountain Laurel with grey/silver pubescent foliage which produces the same grape-scented blooms we love in spring?  This plant may be hard to find but well worth the effort as it provides a silver-leafed alternative to the common Texas Mountain Laurel. It would be a feature specimen plant in any southwest garden.

Cycas panzhihuaensis: This cycad was a recent 20th century find in China and is totally cold hardy in Central Texas.  It has bluish green fronds that emanate from the base and produces an attractive evergreen rosette.  Give it space as the fronds get to 3-4’ long.  

Raphypidophyllum histrix:  Known as the needle palm since it produces black needle-like structures from the base, this evergreen palm is the most cold hardy in the world.  It gets to around 4’ tall maximum with a nice rosette spread. Fan leafed palms make great specimen plants as they show well as the feature plant in any garden.

Silver-leafed Hardy Palms:  This is a category of plants that would include all silver leafed forms of cold hardy palms such as Nannorrhops ritchiana, Serenoa repens, Brahea armata, Trithrynax  compestris, and Chamerops humilis var. cerifera, all of which offer a different eye catching look as a specimen plant.

Hardy Palms

Morus australis ‘unryu” (tortuosa):  This is a fast growing tree with twists and turns that are amazing.  It’s contorted shape amaze all during winter and shows well when fully foliated with its large leaves.  Give this plenty of room.  As a vigorous grower, it may need some control pruning.

Some variegated plants that show off well as specimen plants include:

Hybiscus syriacus ‘American Irene Scott’:  The boldly white marginal variegated foliage will draw attention to this plant, especially when double pink blooms adorn it as well in summer.  Being deciduous, it will only “show off” spring to fall.

Eleagnus pungens ‘maculata’:  There are several cultivars of variegated Eleagnus but this cultivar is the most striking and adds bright contrasting color to your garden year-round.  It grow much slower than a non-variegated Eleagnus. 

Yucca aloifolia ‘marginata’:  This is a very colorful tall, slender, clumping Yucca known in the Southeast as “Spanish bayonet”  The streaked green to chartreuse to yellow variegation stands out.  Keep away from children play areas or walkways. 

Specimen Plants

Some examples of good specimen plants for large containers include:

Cornus drummondii: This native East Texas dogwood can only be grown well in a large container with soil to its liking, organic and slightly acidic, but makes a great specimen plant for a shady or part shady area.

Olea europea ‘Little Ollie’
: This is a dwarf Olive tree that is attractively shaped, evergreen and takes our dryness and heat well. Although it can be grown in-situ, it looks great as a container specimen plant.

Specimen Plants

These are only a few of many unusual or specimen plants that can be used in your garden or landscape, but a word of caution here.  A specimen plant should draw attention to the entire garden, not steal the show. It should add visual stimulus to your overall garden and be compatible with everything around it.

So look for that special spot and be thinking about how you can use specimen plants in addition to whimsical and hardscape items to add variety and stimulus to your garden’s overall appearance. 

That thread-leafed Arborvitae we have in the front has drawn so much attention to our overall front yard xeriscape. It has definitely done its job well!

The transition of Bob’s garden to an all xeriscaped garden will be featured on KLRU’s Central Texas Gardeners on-tour segment on Saturday, September 15, 2012. A photograph of his garden has been chosen by the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas to be part of a new exhibit in 2013 about how individuals are taking action to help conserve water and protect the environment.

©Zilker Botanical Garden,
Austin Area Garden Council