Architectural Plants

Today’s blog is list of plants, shrubs and trees which can be used as architectural form plants to create an eye catching piece in your garden. By adding a couple of carefully chosen plants, trees and shrubs one can go far to increasing the appeal of your garden and adding interest and dimension. Turn dull uniform areas, into modern, jaw dropping show ‘pieces’.

Today’s blog is list of plants, shrubs and trees which can be used as architectural form plants to create an eye catching piece in your garden. By adding a couple of carefully chosen plants, trees and shrubs one can go far to increasing the appeal of your garden and adding interest and dimension. Turn dull uniform areas, into modern, jaw dropping show ‘pieces’.

Strappy and sword shaped leaf plants

Phormium tenax & other Phormiums – These strappy/sword leaf, clump forming plants come in many different colours and sizes. Depending on the type and size, can be used for mass planting, planting in small groups or specimen planting, as well as they make fantastic pot plants combined with groundcovers planted around to cascade out of pot. They are water-wise and low maintenance and prefer being planted in full sun or semi-shade.

Phormium tenax

Cordyline australis & other Cordylines – These are also strappy leafed plants that have a similar look to Phormiums but differ in the way that the leaves are a bit thinner, droopier and instead of being clump forming plants grow on a cane stem. Varieties like australis and banksii are more sun loving plants, where Cordyline terminalis is a broader leaf variety more appropriate for protected, shadier areas.

Sansevaria trifasciata, hyancinthoides & pearsonii – Sanservaria’s are all sword shaped succulent plants. They all being succulent are extremely water wise and pretty much hard to kill unless you manage to drown them. They will grow in sun, semi-shade or even very shady spots and indoors. They can be used for many different circumstances. Just keep one thing in mind and that is that they can be quite invasive sometimes, spreading via underground stems.

Yucca gigantea & other – Yuccas are large growing succulent shrubs with sword like grey/green leaves on top of thick cane like stems. At some stage of their lives they actually also get large heads of white flowers which believe it or not are actually edible. This shrub is extremely architectural and eye catching.

Dasylirion wheeleri & others – This succulent shrub is a plant that grows on a short stump and has symmetrical rosette packed spikey grey leaves with caramel brown split ends. This shrub is also very architectural and looks great combined with succulents and cacti as it originally comes from Mexico. This shrub is very water wise and likes to be planted in a sunny area.


Juniperus scopulus ‘Skyrocket’ – This conifer is pencil shaped and has a similar look to the ‘Stricta’ but it has more or a blue-grey colour. Quite amazingly it can reach a height of 6m but will only grow about 60cm wide.

Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’ – This conifer which grows wider is eye catching because of its bright green/ yellowish colour.

Cupressus sempervirens ‘Stricta’ – This pencil like thin dark green leafed conifer is fantastic as an architectural plant as although it grows very tall it doesn’t grow wide so it can be grown in smaller places and can be planted quite close to one another. These conifers remind me of Tuscan and Mediterranean gardens where they will be planted in long rows next to one another.

Large leaf plants

Alocasia – These large leaf tropical plants come in different types with different colour leaves. Some can be grown outdoors in shaded areas and others need to be grown indoors. Although they don’t appreciate full sunlight they are actually quite water wise.

Philodedrons various – These large leaf shrubs come in many different shapes and colours. They can be grown indoors and outdoors in shady/semi-shaded conditions. Two of my favourites are Philodendron xanadu with fissured dark green glossy leaves and Philodendron ‘Rojo Congo’ with maroon leaves.

Monstera deliciosa – This extremely large leafed plant has glossy dark green leaves with holes in them which have led to its other common name ‘Swiss cheese’ plant. It is a climbing plant which is naturally found growing up trees, so be careful as can become invasive. It can be grown indoors as well as outdoors and makes a fantastic pot plant. It does best grown in shady/semi-shaded areas. Plant in pots to control growth.

Strelitzia reginae & other Strelizia’s – These indigenous shrubs have spathe like rough grey green leaves and get bird like blooms on stiff leaf stems. The reginae gets orange and blue blooms. The Mandela’s gold has yellow and blue flowers and then you get juncea where the leaves never fully open. These water-wise plants do best and will flower best in sunny areas but can also be grown in half sun areas.

Heliconia’s – Heliconia’s have leaves which are similar to the Strelitzia and then gets extremely ornamental brightly coloured waxy bracts. Depending on the type these waxy bracts will either be on upright stems or there are varieties which hang down as well. These plants all belong in more tropical gardens and shouldn’t really be planted in sunny positions.

Unusually shaped leaf tropical plants

Gunnera manicata – The Brazilian giant rhubarb is a plant with giant leaves that are deeply lobed. This clump forming perennial usually grows best along streams and in damp areas and likes a well composted soil. It grows about 2,5m high and can reach almost 4m wide. It is more than often dormant in winter. This plant can be quite a difficulty to source.

Acanthus mollis – This clump forming evergreen perennial has interesting deeply cut bright green shiny leaves and boasts spikes of creamy white flowers with purple bracts. These spikes actually make really good cut flowers. This plant can either be planted in full sun or semi-shade.

Acanthus mollis

Aloes, Cactis and other succulent plants

Aloes (Aloidendrons new name) – All Aloes are extremely striking in plant and leaf shape as well as their eye catching flowers. This is a massive family and all are so different. The tree Aloe or Aloe barberae is a striking architectural large growing one, as well as Aloe ferox and thraskii are also very architectural and stand out making a garden more interesting. My recommendation is that if you really like these plants then purchase an Aloe book to figure out what you would really like and what’s appropriate for your garden.

Agave attenuata, geminiflora & other – These succulent like hardy plants are extremely tough and don’t need much looking after. The Agave attenuata is a softer grey/green leaf plant which is very used to be very popular in landscaping. For a while it wasn’t readily available as it experienced a disease but is slowly becoming more available again. Be aware that some Agave’s are invasive and shouldn’t be planted.

Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’ – This variegated succulent perennial forms a fountain of upright, long, sword-shaped leaves. The contrasting colours of bright green and creamy white are very eye catching. Between the plant and leaf shape as well as the colouring, this plant is one of the most architectural you can get. It is one of those plants that you cannot really kill and is extremely water wise.

Euphorbia ingens, tirucalli – Euphorbia ingens is an indigenous spiny, succulent medium to large tree which can reach a height of 6m eventually. Although this tree is extremely form like and attractive in its shape, please consider planting very carefully as the tree has a very poisonous latex and the thorns can be quite dangerous. Needs very little care and is very water wise. E.tirucalli is a large shrub or small tree with pencil/branch like stems. These stems can display bright yellow, peach and pink colours when grown in full sunlight. This plant does not have spines but it does have poisonous latex.

Cyathea’s and other ferns

Cyathea (Alsophila) brownii & dregei – Tree ferns have an old world feel to them and remind me of prehistoric times. The large fern leaves which spread out, sit on an unusual trunk. Keep in mind that tree ferns and ferns in general prefer certain conditions. Grow in a shaded, protected position where there is not too much sunshine or wind, in a good quality composted soil. Keep in mind that tree ferns need space to grow as they grow quite wide.


Beaucornia recurvata – This unusual looking form plant is commonly named Ponytail palm because of the leaf structure. This evergreen perennial has an expanded or swollen caudex (or bottom stem) for storing water. The thin, strappy green leaves cascade giving it that pony tail look. This plant can be grown indoors and outdoors and it is a very water wise plant.

Phoenix roebelenii – The pygmy date palm is a lovely small palm with a slender trunk topped with a dense crown of fine-textured, bright green fronds. This palm can be grown indoors and outdoors in full sun or part shade. This palm can either be single stemmed or sometimes will multi stem. Moderate to low water requirements.

Reeds & Restios

Elegia tectorum – This plant has an upright, symmetrical, tufted reed-like appearance with thin, dark green stems. These are topped with brown flowers. This indigenous plant actually does like to be watered and can be grown next to water streams etc

Elegia capensis – This indigenous plant has a drooping look to it, with its bamboo like stems and feathery needle like leaves. It belongs in wet areas along streams, next to ponds etc but can be grown in a sandy soil as long as it is getting enough water.

Cyperus papyrus – This perennial sedge native to Africa forms tall stands of reed-like swamp vegetation in shallow water. It must either be grown in water or receive a lot of water.

In conclusion, this list is but only some of the most common plants used as architectural form plants. There as so many more that one could talk about for example, bamboos, Cycas, Cycads etc. Adding these architectural plants to your garden will definitely change the look of your garden and make it more interesting as well as more modern. Be careful though to do some homework and choose the correct plant as majority of these are not small plants and will preoccupy large spaces in your garden.

Article written by Jessica Ruger (Procurement at Contours Landscapes and Contours Design Studio and Horticulturist).

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We plan, install and maintain award-winning landscapes for our commercial clients and project partners. Clients who wish to add function, value and inspiration to their outdoor spaces and properties.

Our roots are in Cape Town, but our footprint stretches deep into southern Africa.


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Let’s plan your landscaping project together!

We plan, install and maintain award-winning landscapes for our commercial clients and project partners. Clients who wish to add function, value and inspiration to their outdoor spaces and properties.

Our roots are in Cape Town, but our footprint stretches deep into southern Africa.