Texture should play a key role in garden design

Touching Beauty


AT THE MAJOR BRITISH FLOWER SHOWS, many of the displays contain small signs that desperately request visitors not to handle the exhibits. “Please do not touch,” they implore, or occasionally, and less politely, “Hands off the plants!” But who can resist touching plants? Just how soft is that stachys leaf, how sharp the barb of that thistle? How do we know unless we touch them? Reaching out and feeling puts us in touch, literally, with what we grow. The way something feels—or looks as though it feels—is a highly important factor in our gardening consciousness, yet it is often neglected when assessing a plant’s true garden worth. Texture is the poor man of aesthetic considerations.

The tactile aspect of plants is often ignored in favor of their more obvious qualities, such as structure and form and, of course, color. Most gardeners are up to speed with color and the effects it can generate. We know that red is going to arouse. We are aware that pastel shades will produce quiet harmony, whereas strong colors can create drama and sometimes unrest. Although color may evoke emotion, it is often remote. Texture is immediate, intimate. It implies physical contact between the gardener and the plant. It is an essential part of our gardening vocabulary. The words are there. Whether or not we make them into sentences, let alone stories or poems, is another question.


Stachys byzantina, the ubiquitous lamb’s ears, is surely the most furry of garden plants. (For hardiness zones, size, and other information about the plants mentioned here, see the chart on page 44.) The woolliness of the whole plant is created by thousands of tiny hairs, developed to protect the leaf cuticle from the searing sun of its Middle Eastern home. In the garden its soft, dense clumps belie these “tough guy” characteristics. Later, the ground-hugging carpet takes back seat to a forest of 15-inch woolly flower spikes.

Several of these furry plants have more than one persona, which makes them doubly useful. The big felted rosettes of Salvia aethiopis and its close cousin S. argentea send up enormous branching spikes smothered in white-hooded flowers. Verbascums like the white-furred V. bombyciferum, often uninvited but usually most welcome guests, put on a similar performance. Verbascum leaves were once used to line children’s shoes, and it is difficult to keep your feet, let alone your hands, off their downy foliage.

Texture as Adaptation

AS WITH ALL NATURAL PHENOMENA, the texture of leaves and flowers is no accident. There are good reasons (other than decorating our gardens) for leaves to be as soft as velvet or as polished as steel. Understanding why plants have evolved in certain ways gives us crucial information about where and how to grow them successfully.

The presence of hairs, for example, is often an adaptation to reflect intense sunlight and slow water loss from the leaf; many plants with furry or silvery foliage can thus be assumed to come from parts of the world that experience periodic severe heat and drought. (There are exceptions: silvery Anaphalis triplinervis from the Himalayas and the daisylike celmisias from New Zealand prefer ample moisture.) A waxy cuticle, characteristic of many succulents, and which imparts a glaucous color to the leaf, performs the same function. Conversely, glossy leaves are often a device to dispel water and help the plant cope with rain drip from trees.—C.K.

What’s in a Name?

The species names of many plants give a clue about their texture. Here’s a list of some of the more commonly encountered names and their meanings:

aculeatus (uh-kew-lee-AY-tus): armed with prickles

barbatus (bar-BAY-tus): bearded

hirtus (HURT-us): shaggy

incanus (in-KAY-nus): covered with short, dense hairs

laevigatus (lee-vih-GAY-tus): polished

laevis (LEE-vus): smooth

lanatus (luh-NAY-tus): woolly

nitidus (NIH-tih-dus): shining

pilosus (pih-LOE-sus): covered with short hairs

plumosus (ploo-MOE-sus): feathery

pubescens (pew-BESS-enz): downy

sericeus (suh-RISS-ee-us): silky

spinosus (spin-OH-zus): spiny

If you want height without anything too statuesque, fuzzy fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) will create a haze of green or bronze, or the tall wafty stems of Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ could float overhead. This selection of purple moor grass is beautiful both in its green life in the summer and its golden death in the fall. Don’t rely on it for winter effect, though—come November, the whole growth collapses into a horizontal heap. Convenient for tidying up, but not a pretty sight.

There are furry flowers, too. The pasqueflower, Pulsatilla vulgaris, and Lupinus angustifolius, an annual blue lupine native to the Mediterranean, are both covered in fluff from top to tail. The pulsatilla is virtually indestructible, given sharp drainage, and yields a second textural treat when its woolly flowers give way to fluffy seed heads. A member of the buttercup family, it shares this method of seed dispersal with a few other relatives among the Ranunculaceae. The tails on the seed of Clematis orientalis, for example, start as silky as can be but soon become characteristically fluffy and eventually grizzled.


If you want to create drama rather than cushiony complacency, you could use the same soft plants but contrast them with sharp, polished leaves or those with bristly or barbed bracts and stems. Plants such as the New Zealand native Astelia chathamica and biennial Miss Willmott’s ghost (Eryngium giganteum) keep the gray and glaucous theme going alongside gray, woolly-leaved subjects, but add a frisson of danger.

All the eryngiums are exciting texturally. Most have distinctive armored bracts within which the cone of tiny petalless flowers is protected from assault. They figure prominently in a superb group in Beth Chatto’s gravel garden, at her nursery in Essex, along with soft Stipa tenuissima and Allium nigrum, each element serving to emphasize the textural characteristics of the others. Although it looks sharp to the touch, Eryngium alpinum in fact bears soft flower bracts. Its ruff of silver filigree turning to blue is just the sort of detail you need if space is limited and texture is to be viewed at close quarters. This plant gets full marks for a long display, too, for the bracts last up to six months.

One plant that cannot make up its mind where its loyalties lie is the huge biennial Scotch thistle, Onopordum acanthium. Not only are its fluffy leaves armed at their extremities with fierce barbs, but its spherical, cobwebby buds bristle with prickles as well—excellent defenses against hungry goats in its arid home, which is southern Europe, notwithstanding the plant’s common name.


At the other end of the climatic spectrum are shade-loving plants with shiny leaves. Sometimes they are slender and straplike, as in mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) or blue lilyturf (Liriope muscari), creating a dense, linear effect; sometimes they are smooth, glossy, and rounded, like the leaves of European ginger (Asarum europaeum), making dense mats, polished and sleek at all times and even better after rain. In contrast, the bold foliage of Rodgersia aesculifolia has a puckered, lacquered look. Associate it with the soft, unfurling shuttlecocks of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) to accentuate the elephant-skin effect.


Texture can be a permanent element in the garden, or a fleeting stage in a plant’s development. The shaggy bark of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) or the polished trunk of Prunus serrula are enduring features. Other textures are more ephemeral. If you are lucky enough to be able to grow it, the crumpled petals of Meconopsis punicea—a Himalayan poppy with red flowers rather than blue ones—once rid of their bud casings, straighten themselves out, looking like emerging butterflies. Most true poppies, in fact, have tissue-thin petals that induce protective instincts in even the most hard-hearted gardener. As a lure for insects they are second to none, but as soon as pollination has taken place, they drop to the ground.

Fallen petals and leaves create another layer of texture, accidental but often enchanting. The confetti under a spring-flowering cherry or the dense carpets of crimson palmate leaves beneath a Japanese maple in fall deepen the gardening experience.


Bark, petals, or foliage constitute texture on the individual level, in microcosm. On a wider level our gardens abound with textural wealth, deliberate or unplanned. In the spring developing leaves and emerging shoots create it. Vernal grasses mixed with wildflowers jostle together in ever-changing waves. In midsummer herbaceous plantings, flowers join in the action contributing another layer, be it the woolly spires of verbascums or the dancing constellations of Crambe cordifolia or Thalictrum delavayi. The ribbed leaves of hostas and veratrums add shape and substance.

Often this large-scale texture is most obvious at the end of autumn. Color drains away, yielding up unimagined pictures. Seed heads, desiccated flowers, and sere grasses combine to produce waves of contrasting texture. Hydrangea heads with the skeletons of crocosmias and the dry seed heads of alliums, admired originally for the relationship between their color and form, now take on another guise. Their colors may have faded to more somber hues, but there is a new richness to their texture. Some of the more naturalistic plantings that have become so prevalent over the last few years have the scope and the ingredients to look texturally stunning as fall descends to winter, owing in large part to the fact that few of them are tidied and cut back. A particularly good example is the American Impressionists’ Garden at Giverny, where grasses and the dry seed heads of perovskia and phlomis integrate into a hazy, golden picture—evidence of the pure poetry texture can create. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 79.

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