Shannon Pable is a certified arborist, an award-winning garden designer and owner of Shannon’s Garden Gallery (shannonpable.com), specializing in garden design, illustration and plant identification for natural areas.

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Focal-Point Plants
by Shannon Pable    


Take an ordinary plant and do something extraordinary with it to create a focal point.

Have you ever wondered why some gardens suck you in, transporting you to another dimension, your curiosity pulling you around every corner, while others have about as much interest as your sock drawer, leaving no lasting impression? What element is missing?  

A focal point is that element that is used to draw your eye into the garden. Your gaze will stop at this element. Then your eye will travel to adjacent plants and details that you may not have noticed otherwise. Having a series of focal points, each just visible from a distance, will help guide you through the garden, from one garden room to the next. 

What makes a plant a focal point? It could be form, color or texture, something that catches your eye that is unique from anything else surrounding it. It is large enough to stand on its own, but you must be mindful of scale. If it’s too small for the “garden room,” it will not be noticed. And if it’s too large, it will completely overpower the garden and be out of balance. You will want to select a plant that has year-round interest unless it’s used in a garden area that is only visited during a particular season, such as summer. 

Where should a focal point go? Tara Dillard’s book, Beautiful by Design, does a wonderful job explaining this and more about focal points. The placement of your focal point might be a view from your kitchen window or from the garden gate. It might be next to a garden bench or just barely visible, leading you down a winding path. 

Focal points can be static or dynamic. A statue is static; it’s not going to change unless you physically do something to it. Obviously, plants are dynamic — they are ever transitioning from season to season, usually changing in color and increasing in size. Using a plant as a focal point not only can change in appearance, it can also change in location: One plant might dominate over another during a specific season, thus moving your focal point.

A Few Pointers

  • To make your focal point pop, use a contrasting solid color backdrop, preferably evergreen if it’s plant material.
  • Be sure to select a focal point for more than just flowers. Flowers are beautiful but short term. Think about foliage and form too! 
  • In formal gardens, the placement of your focal-point plant might be in the center of a view with symmetrical plantings on each side. In an informal garden, it might be slightly off center, but balanced, and a bit more unpredictable.
  • Remember that if you prune a plant into a topiary, thus creating a unique shape, you have created an interesting focal point. So use your imagination and turn the plain and ordinary into cool and unusual! 

The following list of focal-point plants include picks by a few great local designers followed by some of my own favorites. And I must admit, I’m very partial to conifers because of their four-season color and beautiful form. I also love the interesting branching structures of contorted and weeping deciduous trees.

Interesting Focal-Point Plant Picks from Local Designers

Danna Cain, ASLA, Owner of Home & Garden Design, Inc.


  • Verdon hinoki cypress
    Verdon hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’
    A very slow-growing upright, but compact and slightly contorted, conifer that has green on its inner leaves with a golden hue towards the foliage tips; 5 to 8 feet tall by 2 to 3 feet wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 8; evergreen.  
  • Cypress ‘Carolina Sapphire’, Cupressus arizonica ‘Carolina Sapphire’
    A fast-growing pyramidal (similar in shape to a Leyland cypress) conifer with bluish-gray foliage; 30 feet tall by 8 feet wide; full sun; Zones 7 to 10; evergreen.
  • Camellia x ‘Taylor’s Perfection’, cross of C. sasanqua and C. japonica
    A dark green shrub with large,  pink semi-double flowers in late Jan/Feb; 6 to 8 feet tall and wide; filtered sun; Zones 7 to 10; evergreen. 

Daryl Pulis, Owner of Mrs. Green Thumb 


  • Bark of a ‘Natchez’ crapemyrtle.
    ‘Natchez’ crapemyrtle, Lagerstroemia indica ‘Natchez’
    A fast-growing tree with beautiful cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark, white blooms in summer; 30 feet tall by 20 feet wide canopy; full sun; Zones 7 to 10; deciduous. 
  • Contorted mulberry, Morus alba ‘Contorta’ 
    An interesting shrublike tree with contorted branches, producing fruit in fall; 15 feet tall and wide; full to part sun; Zones 5 to 10; deciduous. 
  • Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum
    A beautiful and stately deciduous upright pyramidal (top flattens out with age) conifer; can reach up to 130+ feet tall with a 60-foot-wide canopy; sun to shade; Zones 5 to 10. 

My Favorite Focal-Point Plants 

Conifers:


  • Weeping blue Atlas cedar

    Weeping Alaskan cedar

    ‘Rasen-Sugi’ cryptomeria
    Weeping blue Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’
    Graceful weeping cedar with blue-gray foliage; 8 to 10 feet tall by 10 to 20 feet wide (size/shape greatly depends on how it is trained); full sun to part shade; Zones 6 to 9; very slow growing. 
  • Weeping Alaskan cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ 
    Deep emerald green, upright conifer with weeping foliage; 25 to 30 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 4 to 7; try the cultivar ‘Green Arrow’ for a very narrow specimen.
  • Deodar cedar, Cedrus deodara 
    A pyramidal tree with beautiful, airy, soft blue-gray foliage. For golden foliage, use ‘Aurea’. For a dwarf weeping form, ‘Crystal Falls’ grows 8 to 20 feet tall by 6 to 10 feet wide (depends on how it is trained), or ‘Feeling Blue’, 2 to 3 feet tall by 6 feet wide (more of a prostrate form).  
  • ‘Frosty’ Himalayan pine, Pinus wallichiana ‘Frosty’ 
    When I first saw this at Jody Karlin’s nursery, I said, “Wow!” Beautiful, silvery, long, airy needle-like foliage; pyramidal shape; 8 feet tall by 5 feet wide in 10 years; full sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 7. 
  • Weeping temple juniper, Juniperus rigida ‘Pendula’ 
    A gracefully weeping, upright juniper with grayish green foliage; 20 feet tall by 10 feet wide (size/shape depends on how it is trained); full sun; Zones 5 to 8. 
  • Weeping white pine, Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’ 
    I’m in love with this specimen! A graceful and soft medium-green, weeping white pine; 6 to 10 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide (depends on how it is trained); full sun to part shade; Zones 3 to 8.
  • ‘Wate’s Golden’ pine, Pinus virginiana ‘Wate’s Golden’ 
    Upright tree with dramatic golden yellow foliage in winter (yellow-green during warm months); 15 to 20 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide (very slow growing but can reach 40 feet tall, yet easily trained to remain dwarf); full sun (can take part shade but golden color in winter won’t be as intense); Zones 4 to 9.
  • Golden hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’ 
    A slow-growing pyramidal conifer that is green on the inner leaves and golden towards the foliage tips; 30 feet tall by 15 feet wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 8; evergreen.  
  • ‘Thunderhead’ dwarf Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’ 
    Deep emerald green, stiff needled, compact tree/shrub with a rounded form; 6 to 8 feet tall by 4 to 6 feet wide in 10 years (slow growing and easily trained); full sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 8. 
  • Weeping Canadian hemlock, Tsuga canadensis ‘Sargentii’ 
    Deep emerald green, small-needled weeping conifer; 6 to 8 feet tall by 6 to 10 feet wide in 10 years (slow growing and easily trained, basically as tall as it is staked); part to full shade; Zones 4 to 7.
  • Weeping Norway spruce, Picea abies ‘Pendula’ 
    Grayish green, small-needled weeping conifer; typically 3 to 6 feet tall by 2 to 6 feet wide in 10 years (slow growing, will grow to 3 feet tall then will crawl along the ground unless staked upright, which is typically the case); full sun to part shade; Zones 2 to 8. I wouldn’t have believed that they would do well here if it weren’t for my neighbor who has had two very healthy specimens for 10-plus years in her landscape. 
  • ‘Raywood’s Weeping’ Arizona cypress, Cupressus arizonica glabra ‘Raywood’s Weeping’ 
    Grayish blue foliage; tall narrow conifer with weeping branches; 20 to 25 feet tall by 2 to 3 feet wide; full sun; Zones 5 to 8.
  • ‘Rasen-Sugi’ Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Rasen-Sugi’ 
    Emerald green foliage, somewhat unusual asymmetrical shape with very unusual twisted, wiry-looking foliage; 12 to 15 feet tall by 6 to 10 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 6 to 9. 

Other evergreens:

  • Camellia (Camellia spp.)
    Beautiful deep green evergreen foliage. C. sasanqua bloom in the fall and C. japonica bloom in winter. One of my favorites is C. japonica ‘Black Magic’ — very glossy, holly-like, showy foliage with the deepest red, semi-double flowers that are shiny, almost waxy looking; 10 feet tall by 6 feet wide; part shade; Zones 6 to 9.

‘Emily Bruner’ holly.
  • Holly (Ilex spp.)
    There are so many hollies to choose from, but here are a few that I think stand out more than others:  

Weeping yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’ 
Deep green, small leaves; upright with arching/weeping branches; red berries in autumn; 10 to 15 feet tall by 6 to 10 feet wide (size depends on how it is trained); sun to part shade; Zones 7 to 10.  

‘Emily Bruner’ holly, Ilex ‘Emily Bruner’ 
Emerald green, shiny spiny leaves; upright pyramidal; large bright-red clusters of berries; 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 7 to 9. 

‘Goshiki’ false holly, Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ 
Variegated holly-like leaves with new growth pink to bronze; mounding form (easily shaped); 8 to 10 feet tall by 4 to 6 feet wide (slow growing, 4 to 6 feet tall in 10 years); full sun to shade; Zones (6)7 to 9 (in Zone 6 leaves might be frost damaged). 

  • Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
    This is an incredibly cold-hardy, native shrub palm; 6 feet tall by 10 feet wide; very slow growing; full shade to part shade; Zones 6 to 10.

Deciduous (woody plants):


  • The burgundy foliage of the Japanese maple brings your eye to the garden entrance.

    Very young Japanese maples can be placed in containers for better effect.

    ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud
    Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
    Japanese maples come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and forms. Any Japanese maple is a beautiful focal point year round because of its foliage and branching structure. Some of my favorites include:  

Coral bark maple, A. palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’ 
Beautiful chartreuse foliage turning bright yellow in fall with coral-colored bark (more intense color in winter and on new growth); a fast grower to 15 to 20 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 6 to 8.  

A. palmatum ‘Inaba Shidare’ 
A beautiful laceleaf, wide mounding tree with great leaf color (deep burgundy in spring, turning red then bronzy green in summer, then intense red in autumn); tolerates our heat and sun well; 5 to 7 feet tall by 8 to 12 feet wide; sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 9.  

  • Variegated redtwig dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’
    This multi-stemmed shrub yields vivid red branches on new growth in winter (usually pruned low to the ground to produce the new growth); 6 to 8 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide (usually pruned shorter); small fragrant white flowers in spring; variegated foliage during the warm seasons; full to part sun; Zones 2 to 8.
  • ‘Snow Queen’ oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’
    This is a more upright oakleaf hydrangea; blooms in May and persists through summer; beautiful red/burgundy fall foliage (depending on the cultivar, there’s quite a range of fall leaf color available) with leaves often hanging on through winter; cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark; 8 feet tall and wide; full to part shade; Zones 6 to 9. Another beautiful cultivar is ‘Harmony’ with incredible flowers.
  • Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii
    Small, slow-growing, typically multi-trunked native tree with tiny white flower clusters in spring turning to red berries in late summer/fall with exfoliating bark; 15 feet tall and wide; full sun to part shade; Zones (6)7 to 9. This lovely tree should be utilized more in the garden.
  • Lacebark elm (Chinese elm), Ulmus parvifolia
    A fast-growing, beautiful shade tree. Forms a very dense shade canopy, with beautiful exfoliating bark creating splendid winter interest; 40 feet tall and wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 9. For a denser, tighter mounding canopy, try the cultivar ‘Athena’. 
  • Weeping winged elm, Ulmus alata ‘Lace Parasol’
    Its graceful weeping and arching habit lends an Asian feel to the landscape. Its unusual winged, corky bark adds interest in winter; 6 to 10 feet tall by 10 to 12 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 6 to 9.
  •  Lavender Twist weeping redbud, Cercis canadensis ‘Covey’
    This weeping redbud is a cultivar of our native redbud and is a spectacular specimen for small spaces. Its shape and size are easily manipulated. Does not get much taller than it is staked at the nursery, typically 6 feet tall and wide; blooms in late winter followed by long thin seedpods in the summer. Naked branching structure in winter is spectacular; part to full sun (best blooms with more sun); Zones 5 to 9. For a purple-foliage specimen, try ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud, reaching about 15 to 20 feet tall and wide.
  • Weeping dwarf cherry, Prunus x ‘Snow Fountain’
    White blooms in early spring, and interesting branch structure in winter; 12 to 15 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 8. 
  • Dura Heat river birch, Betula nigra ‘BNMTF’
    This is the more heat-tolerant cultivar of our native river birch that will hold onto its leaves better in summer. This cultivar offers lustrous, dense, deep green foliage turning buttery yellow in the fall with creamy white, gray and cinnamon exfoliating bark; fast growing, 40+ feet tall x 25 feet wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 9. Prefers moist soil and can tolerate wet. For a smaller, more compact cultivar, try ‘Little King’ — 12 feet tall and wide. For a dwarf weeping form, try ‘Summer Cascade’ river birch — 6 to 8 feet tall by 8 to 10 feet wide (size depends on how it is trained). 
  • ‘Bonfire’ peach, Prunus persica ‘Bonfire’
    A dwarf patio peach with purple foliage, showy pink flowers in spring, a prolific fruiter; 4 to 5 feet tall by 5 to 6 feet wide; full sun; Zones 5 to 9. 
  • Contorted black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Lacy Lady’
    Very interesting, contorted branches; fragrant yellow spring blooms; 15 feet tall and wide; full sun; Zones 4 to 9.
  • Contorted filbert or Harry Lauder’s walkingstick, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’
    This is probably the most common of all contorted-growth specimens with a very cool branching structure and catkins in late winter; growth reaching 10 feet tall and wide; full sun to part shade; Zones 4 to 8; extremely slow growing. 
  • Possumhaw, Ilex decidua
    A nice wide, vase-shaped, small, multi-branched tree; 15-plus feet tall and wide, with brilliant red berries in winter; full sun to part shade; Zones 5 to 9. For a smaller but similar specimen, try winterberry, Ilex verticillata. Note: Hollies are dioecious — the female plant needs a male companion for pollination to produce berries. 
  • Weeping bald cypress, Taxodium distichum ‘Cascade Falls’
    A very interesting branching structure displayed in winter; typically 6 to 8-plus feet tall and wide (size and shape easily manipulated); sun to shade; Zones 5 to 10.

Specialty Nurseries to Visit: 

Maple Ridge Nursery 
Superb selection of Japanese maples and conifers. 
japanesemaplesandconifers.com

Wilkerson Mill 
One of the most extensive collections of hydrangeas and so much more. 
hydrangea.com

Specialty Ornamentals 
Great variety of conifers and other woody ornamentals. 
specialtyornamentals.com

Resources:  

Danna Cain, ASLA, Owner of Home & Garden Design, Inc. 
homegardendesign.com

Daryl Pulis, Owner of Mrs. Green Thumb
mrsgreenthumb.com

A version of this article appeared in Georgia Gardening Volume 9 Number 7.
Photography courtesy of Shannon Pable.

 

Posted: 10/04/18   RSS | Print

 

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