Appropriate plant selection for the landscape is important for many reasons. Matching the location in the landscape with the plant’s cultural requirements ensures the plant’s needs can be met. Understanding the plant’s height and width at maturity can be accommodated by the planting location, reducing the need for pruning or relocation. Plants may also be selected for their aesthetic value.
Specimen plants are those added to the landscape for the value they bring due to their unique features. This could be the bloom, leaf color or even the structure of the plant. These are incorporated into the landscape as accents rather than mass plantings. They should be used intentionally and should tie in with the rest of the plantings.
When selecting specimen plants, consider season of interest. The time frame the selected plants are putting on their best show will help determine their place in the landscape. Plants that bloom in spring can be partnered with others that have attractive foliage throughout the summer. Recognize even the branching habit for deciduous trees and shrubs and allow those to stand out during winter when others have gone dormant.
Forsythia (Forsythia sp.) is a deciduous, woody shrub that presents a brilliant yellow show in early spring. When the eye-catching flowers drop, the leaves that remain are nondescript showcasing the importance of incorporating other seasonal interest around this plant in the landscape.
There are several varieties of dogwood (Cornus sp.) in shrub to tree types which may provide an attractive backdrop of flowers in the spring. Even after the leaves drop in the fall the red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’) still provides interest in the landscape. As the name states, this deciduous shrub is treasured for its red stems that are most noticeable during the winter.
Flowering crabapple (Malus sp.) is a popular selection of specimen plants for all landscape types due to the variety of sizes available as well as the seasonal interest. From the abundant blooms in spring to vibrant summer leaves and the fall fruit that extends into a winter display, this tree provides plenty of appeal. With or without leaves, the interesting bark and intriguing stem growth habit draw attention.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a shrub with flowers in the spring and brightly colored berries on the female plants in the late summer and early fall. Male and female flowers grow on separate plants, so if you want to have the fruit you will need to plant both types.
Lenten Rose (Helleborus sp.) is a shade-loving, evergreen perennial. What is most unusual about this plant is the exotic blooms it sends up during the winter. Even with snow on the ground this plant will continue to perform making it a unique addition to the garden. Partnered with hostas (Hosta sp.) and ferns (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis, Polystichum acrostichoides, or others), your shade garden will have features year-round.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is a tree with attractive, fan-shaped leaves that turn a dramatic yellow in the fall before dropping. Another tree to consider, valued for its shape and leaf color, is the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). Native to Japan, finding a suitable location for this tree requires protection from wind and afternoon sun while providing an open view for the year-round appeal.
This brief compilation of specimen plants may start the brainstorming about ways to make your landscape stand out. Spending time each season looking for areas of the landscape that lack aesthetical value can inform where accents are needed. From there you can determine which specimen plants meet the needs of the location.
Cynthia Domenghini is an instructor and coordinator for K-State’s horticultural therapy online certificate program.