Foliage: Unusual outdoor plants

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Updated Feb 27, 2024
Oriental paperbush Photo: Yoko Nekonomania/FlickrOriental paperbush
Photo: Yoko Nekonomania/Flickr

I’m a fan of mixing it up. Few things are more monotonous than driving through a neighborhood where each yard features the same plants only in different configurations. Nope. Not for me.

And if it’s not for you, either, then it’s time for the unusual. If you’d like to add a few new things to your clients’ landscape this coming season, this is your chance to diversify. Plant selection is a subjective topic. What may be “unusual” in my part of the country may be typical somewhere else. So I am, for the most part, deferring to some experts in various regions as to what constitutes unusual in their areas.

Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) is a perennial plant that features balloon-shaped blooms in purple, pink, and white. These plants are hardy and work in most of the continental United States (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4-9). It grows to be 12 inches and needs moderate water with good drainage.

Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana) is a flowering shrub that is often mistaken for a tree due to its large trunk. It grows 8 to 10 feet tall and can be just as wide. It’s hardy in Zones 4-8. While it features yellowish-brown blooms in early spring, it is admired primarily for its twisting shape.

Castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) is a striking addition to the landscape with large, bright, star-shaped leaves. It’s an annual plant that can grow up to 15 feet in temperate climates. However, its beans are poisonous, so don’t plant it in the landscapes of clients who have small children or pets.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) has yellow flowers that bloom in late winter to early spring and is hardy in Zones 7 to 10. It grows to 4-6 feet tall and thrives in full to partial shade.

Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) is an annual plant with an intriguing name. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall and enjoys full sun. It blooms in mid to late summer with thousands of tiny red blooms forming the shape of a pendulum.

Hebe ‘Silver Dollar‘ is a compact evergreen shrub that grows about a foot high. It has variegated gray-green leaves that feature a pink tint and a dense habit and small leaves, blooming with white flowers in late spring or early summer. It likes sun and is hardy in Zones 8-10.

Tibouchina grandiflora is a large shrub that likes the more tropical regions of the United States (with winter temperatures no less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit). It grows to about 7 feet and sports purple blooms in mid-summer.

Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Ace’ is a large shrub that grows up to 10 feet tall and is hardy in Zones 5-8. It likes full sun and blooms in spring to early summer. In the fall, it produces bright orange-red fruit, so it may require some cleanup.

Shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum) is another plant that’s really suited only for the warmer, tropical-type climates of the United States. But its blooms are so unique that it’s really an eye-catching addition to any landscape that can grow it. It is a tree that can reach a height of 70 feet under the right conditions (and in a frost-free environment). Or, you can grow it in a pot and keep it trimmed to a mere 3 feet (bringing it inside to avoid the frost). The blooms are a fiery pink, and the tree needs full to partial sun.

See something on this list that you’d like to try, but your local nursery doesn’t have it? You’re not alone. Nurseries, overall, have to appeal to the masses or they don’t make the money required to keep up the large supply of plants they do stock. (They may have a few “unique” plants, but a large part of what makes these unique, of course, is the fact that they are under-used!) Still, it never hurts to ask in an attempt to keep your dollars in the community. If they can’t get what you want or are unwilling to track down a special order for you, most online nurseries can ship plants to you the next day.

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