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GardenSMART :: Specimen Plants Are Your Landscape's Most Stylish Statement

Specimen Plants Are Your Landscape's Most Stylish Statement

By Stacey Hirvela for Proven Winners® ColorChoice®
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice®

Specimen plants are those landscape elements that, because of their structure, color, or sheer flower power (or maybe all three!), make a dramatic statement that accents your home's architecture. Specimen plants tend to be larger plants, usually 5' (1.5m) or taller, and are exceedingly showy at least once a year. Think of them as the plants that set your home apart from everyone else's.

The right specimen plant will make passersby stop in their tracks, but with so many options, how to pick the right one? As you look through your local garden center, think about where a specimen plant might be placed in your landscape that will accentuate features of your home's exterior, like space between windows, a fireplace, or the center of a large bed. Think too, of your home's color. Is there a specimen plant that would really set it off, either when it's in flower, or perhaps in fall, if it develops outstanding color? The important thing is to select plants that you love and can be proud of year after year.

Plants that make great garden specimens can include ornamental trees, flowering shrubs, or plants that simply have an interesting habit, or uniquely colored foliage such as dark purple, copper, or gold. A specimen can also be created with different kinds of evergreen pyramids, spheres, or topiary.

The graceful, arching branches and pyramidal clusters of showy blooms, which are the hallmarks of panicle hydrangeas, make excellent specimen plants. This type of hydrangea is one of the most cold-hardy species and flowers on new wood, meaning flower buds form after the plant leafs out in spring, and open a few months later in summer. As a result, these plants flower reliably each year, no matter how cold the winter. Their blooms make great cut flowers too!

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Fire Light® Hydrangea paniculata features upright panicles that are packed with florets that transform from pure white to rich pomegranate-pink as they age. Thick, sturdy stems hold up the beautiful flowers so they are prominently displayed as a garden showpiece. Hardy down to USDA zone 3, this hydrangea is on the larger side, reaching heights of 6-8' tall.

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A garden favorite with its distinctive lime-green blooms, 'Limelight' Hydrangea paniculata blooms in mid-summer and its flowers transform from green to pink, red, and then burgundy in autumn. Well-distributed blooms held up on very strong stems make a classic garden statement. Like Fire Light®, this hydrangea is hardy down to USDA zone 3, and reaches heights of 6-8' tall.

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Ornamental trees also make great specimen plants. To add elegant structure and color to your landscape, consider something like the pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). The unique horizontal branching pattern has a distinct tiered habit, often catching snow in the winter. Clusters of white flowers show up in spring, and its berries attract many birds. Happiest in filtered shade, this is a boon for such sites! The unique, variegated Golden Shadows® Cornus is hardy down to USDA zone 3 and will reach heights of 10-12'.

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Try balancing the horizontal presence of the pagoda dogwood with the soft-textured, upright habit of false cypress on the opposite side of your landscape. Pinpoint® Blue & Gold (USDA zones 5-7, 15-20') and Soft Serve® Gold (USDA zones 4-8, 6-10') false cypress will provide an interplay of golden tones that will provide visual unity year-round.

There are so many great specimen plants to choose from, and this article only scratches the surface of what you'll find when you start planning your landscape. Don't worry if you find yourself drawn to a few plants, you don't have to pick just one! A specimen plant is a focal point of a portion of your landscape, so there's room for multiple specimens within one yard. For maximum impact, look for plants that are at peak at different times of the year so the focus shifts through the season. And don't forget about the back and sides of your home – specimen plants aren't just for passersby. They can be a key part of your private retreat as well.


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