Anchoring Vignettes with Tropical Foliage

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Plants

For the past several weeks, I have been poring over photos of the Gardens at the Bank of Springfield, scrutinizing this season’s plant combinations and working on my spring planting plan. I’ve come to appreciate the large percentage of annuals and tropicals used on the site. They are essential to the success of this 55-mph (Zone 5) landscape. Annuals ensure consistent bloom and vibrant color. In addition, the use of annuals provides me an opportunity not typically afforded designers of commercial landscapes: I am able to evaluate, revise and improve upon my design each season.

You may recall that in my previous post Growth and Inspiration, I mentioned that with grand-scale designs, I create vignettes of plants which support adjacent vignettes, all working together to support a grander visual statement. I strive seasonally to create naturalistic displays with unexpected twists. The twists in my designs often come in the form of tropical foliage used to anchor the vignettes, as well as plenty of head-turning color.

In this post, I am including a few examples of what I consider to be “successful” combinations built around lush foliage plants. In the photo at the top, the seed heads of Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’ provide strong vertical interest. The cultivar’s burgundy foliage is a perfect foil for hot- and cool-color palettes. It’s shown here with reseeding Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’ and Helenium ‘Mardi Gras’ (foreground).


Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), shown in the above photo, is one of my favorite foliage plants. Its architectural presence is useful in large-scale displays. I enjoy contrasting cardoon’s bold, coarse leaves with dainty flowers such as Helenium amarum ‘Dakota Gold’. ‘Dakota Gold’ reseeded from the previous season and effortlessly worked its way between Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and Zinnia ‘Profusion White’. The ‘Profusion’ series of zinnia is a staple in my designs. Additionally, I have found Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ to be the perfect filler for use around echinaceas.

Canna cultivars act as colorful exclamation points in the garden. as shown in the photo above. I especially enjoy Canna ‘Striata’ with Cleome ‘Spirit Merlot’. A nearby grouping of Rudbeckia hirta ‘Prairie Sun’, perennial ‘Bristol Fairy’ baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata), and a few purple-flowering princess flower (Tibouchina) create a vibrant display.

I find the delicate foliage of bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Smokey Bronze’) works particularly well paired with the paddle-shaped leaves of Canna Tropicanna (‘Phaison’).

Additionally, elephant ear (Colocasia) cultivars, croton (Codiaeum variegatum), and coleus (Solenostemon) cultivars like ‘Big Red Judy’, ‘Glennis’, ‘Religious Radish’, and ‘Rustic Orange’ are colorful accents to canna foliage.


Another vibrant foliage plant I enjoy is variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet). Shown above, it repeats a gold/green variegated pattern found elsewhere in the beds with Canna ‘Striata’ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gold Bar’. I surrounded the ginger with intense color: ‘Easy Wave Blue’ petunia, ‘Fresh Look Red’ celosia, and ‘Zowie Yellow Flame’ zinnia. Perennial Kniphofia uvaria ‘Flamenco’ and volunteers Nicotiana sylvestris and Verbena bonariensis provide height in this vignette.

My foliage wish list for ’09 includes some new additions: Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Beauty’, ‘Elena’, ‘Pink China’, and ‘Violet Stem’; Cordyline ‘Red Star’; Dieffenbachia ‘Tropic Marianne’; Euphorbia cotinifolia ‘Burgundy Wine’; variegated tapioca (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’); Musa ‘Siam Ruby’; Phormium cultivars; and purple castor bean (Ricinus communis ‘New Zealand Purple’).

I intend to take a calculated risk and use palms in the garden next summer. I am researching several varieties for hot, windy sites, including foxtail palm (Wodyetia bifurcata), adonidia (Veitchia merrillii), Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis) and bismarck palm (Bismarckia nobilis).

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff

Adam Woodruff has practiced garden design since 1995. He trained as a Botanist at Eastern Illinois University. Woodruff attributes his unique design aesthetic, naturalism with a twist, to early college exposures to a diverse range of plants and environments (collecting trips in local prairies, field excursions to bogs in Canada and treks through forests of the Northeast). He also maintained the campus greenhouse, where he fell in love with tropicals. In recent years, influences on his designs include travels abroad to Europe, Asia and the Yucatan peninsula as well as observation of the work of great plantsmen such as Piet Oudolf and Roy Diblik. Woodruff’s designs often combine grasses, prairie natives and perennials with lush tropical foliage and seasonal blooms. This harmonious blending of plant material that is not conventionally grouped together is the ‘twist’ that makes his style unique.
Adam Woodruff

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3 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Louis Raymond January 3, 2009, 7:49 pm

Hi Adam: What a pleasure to see your choices for colorful and wind-proof height in the Summer garden.

I’ve found Euphorbia cotinifolia to be very enthusiastic, and it couldn’t care less how hot or steamy the weather is. If you have a greenhouse handy, you might want to keep it in a pot (sunk into the ground for the summer), so you can bring it in each Fall. It looses its leaves in a cool greenhouse, but pops right back when you plant it out in late May.

I’ve even seen them trained as standards. Amazing.

I too am eager to try variegated tapioca.

It’s a remarkable Summer garden you’ve created. Congratulations!

Hi Louis. I appreciate your advice on Euphorbia cotinifolia and share your enthusiasm for variegated tapioca. Thanks for taking the time to comment!
I have been enjoying your blog this morning.

VP January 7, 2009, 11:55 am

Hi Adam,

How vibrant your planting looks when compared to most public planting we have here in the UK. How much upkeep is required for your designs? I’m wondering if the reason why ours look so drab is because the brief is to produce a ‘zero maintenance’ planting as public amenity budgets are usually quite low.

Also are your examples for private sector clients (e.g. stores, banks etc.) rather than public sector (e.g. local government) who might be prepared to spend a bit more on something that enhances their company image rather than having to not spend from the public purse?

VP. Thanks for your questions/comments. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the chief considerations of the design process was to boldly impact the streetscape. The use of vibrant color in blossom and foliage seemed to be the best way to turn heads. Additionally, a grand scale garden was appropriate in this instance given the 3 acre site. This particular project requires several hundred hours of maintenance per year. Fortunately, the (private sector) client understands the necessity for this level of maintenance so the garden always looks its best.

I’ll have to get back to you concerning your second question. I don’t have a point of reference with regard to the public sector. However, recently I was approached about designing entry gardens for a new city park. This will be my first public commission and it is pro bono.


VP January 9, 2009, 6:02 am

Adam – thanks for getting back to me. Public planting here in the UK is one of my blogging rants and I’m planning to show the good, the bad and the ugly this year. It’s interesting to see the viewpoint here in GGW of not only a professional in the business, but how it works outside of the UK.

That’s why I was asking the questions if you were wondering!

VP. I’m be anxious to see your posts. I haven’t traveled to the UK yet. Traditionally I am overwhelmed with projects when it would be an appropriate time to tour gardens. I’d love to come to the Chelsea Flower Show!


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