Food Drink & Gardening

Specimen plants that stand out from the crowd

Fill empty spaces in your garden with something weird and wonderful

Colleen Zacharias / Winnipeg Free Press

Need an umbrella for a rainy day? Roger’s Flower has enormous shield-like leaves that just might do the trick.

Linda Dietrick

Royal Purple smokebush provides the ideal backdrop for Wild Horses daylily’s yellow accents.

Becky Slater

Three Flowered Avens aka Prairie Smoke is planted alongside Saline Shooting Star in this Winnipeg garden.

Becky Slater

A most unusual woodland specimen, Jack-in-the-pulpit aka cobra lily is a conversation piece and easy to grow, too.

Doris McComb

Three varieties of Ligularia, Othello, The Rocket, Osiris Cafe Noir, create drama and intrigue in this part-shade border.

The unusual or unexpected attracts interest or attention in the garden. As much as any of us recognize the value of simplifying a colour palette, limiting the number of species and cultivars, and emphasizing plant groupings in specific blocks of colour, an empty space in our gardens can be motivation enough to try something completely different.

Harmony does not have to be sacrificed by incorporating one or a few individual specimen plants into your garden design. There is always an opportunity to draw on similarities in leaf and flower colour, shapes or textures. But also, garden design rules don’t preclude the sheer love of something for its own sake. Call the addition of a specimen plant to your garden a statement, a fresh approach or a focal point, if you will, but growing a plant that is weird and wonderful as well as winter hardy can be very satisfying. Local garden centres are ripe with opportunities as shipments of perennials and shrubs continue to arrive throughout the coming weeks.

I have found all the plants listed here at local garden centres but admittedly, it can be a bit of a treasure hunt.

I fell in love with Roger’s Flower (Astilboides tabularis) the first moment I set eyes on its distinctive form. Notable for its large shield-like leaves perched atop round, hairy stalks, Roger’s Flower is zone 3 hardy, suitable for damp shade, and grows to a mature height of 36 inches (90 cm). The cream-coloured, upright flower spikes resemble those of Astilbe. Watching the hairy stalks as they emerge from the ground and the leaves taking shape in the spring is immensely enjoyable. I do get a little worried when wind speeds become severe because tears sometimes develop in the enormous leaves which can measure more than 24 inches (60 cm) across. A protected part-shade site with moist soil is best. I protect the emerging stalks in spring with a wire ring to deter rabbits but once the plant grows, the ring is removed. I’ve transplanted Roger’s Flower a couple of times and it never protested.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is another strange but wonderful woodland plant for shady, moist locations and requires such minimal care I often forget it is growing in my garden until I spot the distinctive three-lobed leaves. Also known as the cobra plant, one might not say that jack-in-the pulpit with its hooded, striped flower known as a spathe is a pretty face in the usual sense but he is definitely a conversation piece. Mine grows in dappled shade in moist but well-drained soil with a generous amount of leafy mulch and has survived for many years. Minimal disturbance is recommended therefore this is one specimen that prefers to stay in one place.

Many garden plants exhibit interesting characteristics at different stages of their growth. Combining different cultivars of the same species also sparks interest. When Doris McComb redesigned her Winnipeg garden, I was struck by her skillful combination of three distinct ligularia cultivars – Othello, The Rocket, and Osiris Café Noir. Popular plants, each one of these varieties exhibit unique traits in both the flowers and handsome, diverse foliage. Richly black stems, dark green to deep purple leaves, and extraordinary orange-yellow, daisy-like flowers make ligularia ideal specimens for sites that are light to partial shade. I do find that The Rocket tends to wilt in the heat of the day but always recovers by evening.

Hands down, Othello is my favourite ligularia. The massive leaves are olive green with deep purple undersides but what’s truly fascinating are the new leaves which emerge heart-shaped, ultra-glossy and purple black. Then in August, prehistoric looking pouches on thick stalks open to reveal brilliant, long-lasting flowers. Ideally, Liguria deserves a moist location but mine are planted in a thirsty bed that borders two massive spruce trees. No complaints so far. Othello and The Rocket are eminently hardy to zone 3 but Osiris Café Noir, a much daintier ligularia (23 inches or 50 cm) with superb bronze-tinted, jagged-edged leaves, is hardy to zone 4. An extra layer of protective mulch in late fall along with good snow cover should help to see Osiris through the winter.

Cotinus coggygria Royal Purple smokebush is, I think, a misunderstood specimen plant. Plant tags at local garden centres inevitably identify it as zone 5. Occasionally the display of smokebush plants is accompanied by a sign that cautions consumers that it does not come with a one-year warranty. If you desire smokebush for your garden, don’t be deterred. It’s true, smokebush may die to the snowline or even the ground after a harsh winter but by June, it starts anew and quickly assumes or exceeds the previous year’s growth. An outstanding specimen shrub that asks for nothing more than a full sun location, average soil, and moisture as needed, Royal Purple smokebush features deep burgundy, rounded leaves and, if you are fortunate, puffs of pinkish-purple, smoke-like seed clusters that double as flowers. Mine has yet to produce seed clusters. Nevertheless, the first time I saw smokebush was in Linda Dietrick’s Winnipeg garden and knew this was an enviable plant worth emulating. Dietrick’s specimen is shown off to perfection as a stunning backdrop to Hemerocallis Wild Horses daylily. She grows it in an area where it receives plenty of snow cover and prunes the branches to 3 or 4 ft.

“It’s such a deep, saturated purple – really sets off anything yellow,” says Dietrick.

Three Flowered Avens (Geum triflorum) is a spring flowering native perennial that is also known as Old Man’s Whiskers or Prairie Smoke. Deer-resistant, it flowers May to June and is an excellent groundcover for sunny, dry areas. The pinkish stems grow to 15 inches or 40 cm tall. When I visited Marilyn Latta’s Winnipeg garden, I saw that she combined Three Flowered Avens with Saline Shooting Star (Dodecatheon pauciflorum). Interestingly, the leaves of Shooting Star, a perennial plant, do a disappearing act in August when the plant goes dormant but reliably reappear the following spring. Dodecatheon, the genus name for Shooting Star, is an ancient name signifying ‘Flower of the Twelve Gods’.

I asked Alyssa Rempel, a Winnipeg gardener who works at Shelmerdine Garden Centre, if she has a favourite unusual plant. She recommends Pussy Toes (Antennaria parvifolia), a very low, hardy perennial ground cover with silvery leaves. Pussy Toes is a food plant for American Painted Lady butterfly caterpillars. Rempel delights in watching the caterpillars cocoon.

There are so many unique plant to choose from. Consider the Amsonia Bluestar Storm Cloud. This hardy herbaceous perennial is truly lovely with an abundance of tiny star-like, periwinkle blue flowers borne in clusters. In my garden the other day, I observed that Amsonia’s flower clusters start out almost in the shape of tassles. The olive-green leaves are willow-like and transition to golden yellow in fall. Fascinating.

Colleen Zacharias is writing a monthly newsletter for the Free Press that is loaded with advice, ideas and tips to keep your outdoor and indoor plants growing. Sign up to have Winnipeg Gardener delivered conveniently to your own inbox at


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