Structural plants are used to make statements in the garden. They may have striking shapes, like bromeliads, cycads and cacti, or use their verticality to create garden accents, as with ornamental grasses and strappy-leafed plants. Modern garden designs have made a feature of these types of plants. It’s said this fashion is waning and we are returning to softer, billowy, flower-filled gardens, but a visit to an up-to-date housing estate will suggest that they’re holding their popularity. Here are some hardy favourites:
With alcantarea’s leaves reaching up to two metres across, this huge bromeliad almost shouts out its presence in the garden. The red-leafed ‘Rubra’ version is the most widely sought after because the leaf colour adds a special touch. After a few years the plant produces a three to four metre tall flower spike. Then, like other bromeliads, the mother plant will gradually fade and be surrounded by clonal babies.
Puyas tend to be more cold tolerant than most bromeliads. Puya berteroniana forms a spiny plant about 1 m high and produces a tall stem of metallic blue-green flowers in summer.
Cacti and succulents
The slow growing golden barrel cactus may, after many years, reach its maximum size of about 1 m high and wide. It is unlikely to bear its yellow flowers until it is 40–60 cm wide. The spherical ribbed body is dark green and covered in fierce golden yellow spines. In time, plants produce offsets that can be separated from the parent plant during spring or summer.
Aloes have tubular flowers, mostly in shades of red or yellow; all attract nectar feeding birds. The candelabra aloe (A. arborescens) grows to about 3 m and forms a multi-branched shrub topped with rosettes of fleshy leaves that bear showy pink-orange flowers in winter. Fan aloe, (A. plicatilis) grows up to 5 m. Its flat succulent leaves are arranged in one plane.
The New Zealand cabbage palms (Cordyline australis) make striking focal points in the garden. Many coloured-leaf varieties are grown, including some with cream-striped green leaves, or maroon or purple leaves. Red Fountain is a newish cordyline cultivar that forms a clump, rather than developing a tall, mostly leafless stem.
The Japanese sago palm (Cycas revoluta ) is the most common in cultivation. Slow growing, it can be cultivated in a container or in the ground. It has stiff, dark green leaves that are palm-like (although cycads are unrelated to palms). The sago palm isn’t a flowering plant but produces a type of cone. Male and female (pictured) cones are borne on separate plants. Watch for scale insects – Yates Scale Gun will help to control these pests.
Extremely slow growing grass trees occur naturally in many varied climates and conditions in different parts of Australia. It makes good sense to choose a species that suits your local area. Grass trees grow readily from seed and, although slow, a reasonable specimen can be growing within three to five years. Trunks may take many years to develop. If purchasing a transplanted grass tree with a trunk, always buy from a reputable supplier.
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