Every garden needs a little drama, or at least a few big plants that stand tall and take an extra bow. Of special note are those that have huge leaves, super fragrant flowers, or alien-looking parts. Beware however, many of these drama queens are high maintenance (think of them as movie stars in your garden) – some need a bit of coddling, props and stakes for support when they get tired, they can over-share (lots of seeds), be aggressive (invasive rhizome root systems) and be darn right nasty (prickly or poisonous), so be prepared. However, in small doses these “wow” plants are worth the trouble. I have a long list but will select five of my favorites at random that will enjoy a place in most gardens.
– Acanthus spinosus is the hardiest type of Acanthus (Zones 4-9). It has white flowers with purple hoods on plants up to 4 feet tall. The drama of the plant has been noted for centuries and is one of the oldest forms of ornament, showing up in Ancient Greek architecture in the capitals of the Corinthian and Composite orders, and applied to friezes, dentils, and other decorated areas. The oldest known example of a Corinthian column is in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, circa 450–420 BC.
Orienpet Lilies – The O.T. lilies are cross bred between Oriental Lilies and Trumpet Lilies. The advantage to this breed of lilies is they are generally more tolerant harsh growing conditions, compared to the normal Oriental Lily. The bulbs are typically larger than other lilies due to their fast growth rate. Yet they have an exotic appearance, size and superb fragrance like that of the Orientals. Growing quite tall, they are also known as “Tree Lilies”. Staking is also recommended due to their large stems and heavy flowers. For the most part, they are tolerant to hot sun but intolerant to wind. They need well-drained soils (medium sandy loam is ideal – in our heavy clay we need to create a special bed for them), full sun, and a bit of extra mulch in the fall to help them winter over.
This Tall Ironweed is one of my favorite plants to check out every fall when we go to the Montreal Botanic Garden. Easily 10′ in height, it is usually covered in butterflies and bees. It is considered by the Xerces Society to be an important plant for native bees. The common name refers to the toughness of the stem. The genus name honors the English botanist William Vernon, who did fieldwork in North America. At least 6 additional species are found in the East, including the more common New York Ironweed; some were once used for treating stomach ailments. This giant can be considered invasive farther south so mind the seeds, but worth it here along the back of a border in a wet area. Definitely needs staking and a network of sturdy bamboo and jute twine does the trick.
Hibiscus ‘Red Shield’ is a favorite annual for creating a dark background upon which tall light colored flowers can shine (try it with sunflower ‘Starburst Lemon Aura’). It can grow 3′-5′ tall in one season and looks best when a few plants are massed together. Technically it does flower in zones 8-11 but it always dies off here before it sets buds, so we use it solely for the foliage.
I’ve used Arundo donax (Giant Cane) a few times in designs at Basin Harbor for it’s lightening effect, especially useful in gardens with a dark evergreen background. It’s an annual here and easy to control in beds where the entire plant is removed and composted at the end of the season, but it can be very invasive in temperate regions, especially the Northwestern and Southeastern U.S., and is generally considered a “no-no.” Arundo does not provide any food sources or nesting habitats for wildlife, and when grown along riverbanks the rhizomes may break up into individual clumps, spreading the pieces, which may sprout and colonize further downstream, crowing out native species such as willow which are highly beneficial. On the positive side it is sometimes used in biomass energy plants and phytoremediation, as a plant that can absorb toxins and heavy metals, especially arsenic from contaminated groundwater, but those two pros do not seem to outweigh its damaging effects.
And now for a perennial sunflower that doesn’t flop over or take over the world – “Sunshine Daydream’. It’s the easiest drama queen of the bunch for sure. Introduced by North Creek Nurseries, this lovely plant grows 5-6′ tall, is hardy to zone 4, blooms June through August, holds up well as a cut flower, and is beloved by butterflies – what more could you ask for?