Focal points are used in landscape and garden design to lead the eye and draw attention so that other plants and features in the garden are noticed. These points of interest don’t stop the sense of flow in a design but tend to slow the gaze down, allowing the garden to be slowly discovered. Your design doesn’t have to have a focal point but it can help to focus the style and draw the final design together.
Focal points take many forms and include hard landscaping elements such as rocks and boulders, water features, ornaments, statues and bird baths. Soft landscaping elements, in the form of plants, can range from a bold splash of colour, in the form of flowers or foliage, to unusual specimens or striking feature or architectural plants.
Feature plants used as focal points are often chosen for their foliage or unusual form because they provide year-round interest. Within the Australian flora alone, there is an incredible range of strong sculptural form, shape, texture and size to choose from, whether you are looking for something for a modern or minimalist design that will complement modern architecture, or something for a more naturalistic, waterwise or native garden.
Xanthorrhoea or Grass Trees, are easily recognisable Australian icons and are ideal for creating dramatic focal points. There are many species, with the smaller-growing ones being well suited to smaller gardens or even pots and containers. They are generally slow-growing and the smallest species grows to about 1m, while others can reach 6m.
- Straight trunk, often blackened by fire, formed from accumulated leaf bases. Some species may have a branched trunk while others don’t form a trunk at all. Species that don’t form trunks make good container specimens.
- Narrow, reed-like leaves form a fountain-like tuft on top of the trunk. Old leaves often hang down to form a skirt around the base of the trunk. The skirt protects the trunk from fire and skirt length is a good indication of intervals between fires. The longer the skirt, the longer the duration without fire.
- Flowers are borne on a long spike that can rise several metres above the leaves depending on the species. The flowers are full of nectar and attract insects and nectar-feeding birds.
- Plant in an open, sunny location or part shade.
- Ensure the soil is free draining and won’t become waterlogged. Regularly waterlogged soil will quickly result in root rot.
- Options to provide good drainage are: Create a raised bed of soil using a native soil mix or general garden mix; Use gypsum to break up heavy clay soils and add a good mound of coarse sand to the planting hole to under and around the roots.
- Disturb the roots as little possible when planting. Grass Trees have very sensitive roots which form a unique symbiotic relationship with soil microbes to help nutrient uptake.
- Water regularly until roots are well established (1-2 years). A deep watering once or twice a week is a good idea.
- Mulch helps reduce moisture evaporation from gardens beds but keep it well clear of the trunk.
Species to look out for:
- Xanthorrhoea australis
- Xanthorrhoea brunonis
- Xanthorrhoea fulva - doesn’t develop an above-ground trunk
- Xanthorrhoea glauca attractive blue-grey leaves
- Xanthorrhoea johnsonii
- Xanthorrhoea latifolia
- Xanthorrhoea media usually has no trunk or only a short trunk less than 0.5m
- Xanthorrhoea minor - doesn’t develop an above-ground trunk
- Xanthorrhoea preissii
- Xanthorrhoea resinifera (Syn. Xanthorrhoea resinosa) - doesn’t develop an above-ground trunk
Note: It is illegal to remove Grass Trees from their natural habitat for sale as garden plants, so be sure to purchase and grow only legally sourced or grown plants.
The various species and hybrids of Brachychiton make very impressive statements in a garden or landscape design. Common names include Kurrajong or Bottle Tree, and these trees are most well known for their spectacular shows of flowers or their impressively swollen trunks.
- Swollen trunk or stout stem that stores water during periods of drought.
- Leaves vary from simple and entire to palmate leaves that may be very deeply lobed, giving the impression of narrow leaflets.
- Some species are seasonally deciduous and drop their leaves in dry weather.
- Clusters of bell-like flowers range in colour from cream and white to pink, vivid red and orange.
- Seeds are carried in woody, boat-shaped pods.
- Plant in an open, sunny location.
- Ensure the soil is free draining and won’t become waterlogged.
- Trees up to 2m can be transplanted provided the swollen taproot is conserved.
- Fallen flowers will carpet the ground with colour and these along with fallen seed pods can look messy, so avoid planting near areas such as driveways or paths that will need to be cleaned regularly.
Species and cultivars to look out for:
- Brachychiton acerifolius - Illawarra Flame Tree (very showy with panicles of bright red flowers appearing when the tree is leafless)
- Brachychiton bidwillii - Little kurrajong (red or pink flowers)
- Brachychiton discolor - Queensland Lacebark (lobed leaves and pink flowers)
- Brachychiton gregorii - Desert Kurrajong
- Brachychiton populneus - Lacebark Kurrajong (white flowers are streaked with reddish-brown on the inside)
- Brachychiton rupestris - Queensland Bottle Tree (most recognisable with its bottle-shaped trunk, and narrow, very deeply divided leaves)
- Brachychiton vitifolius - Kurrajong
- Brachychiton ‘Scarlet Flame’
- Brachychiton ‘Rosalind’
- Brachychiton ‘Jerilderie Red’
- Brachychiton ‘Bella Donna’
- Brachychiton ‘Griffith Pink’
Gymea Lily and Spear Lily
The loose rosettes of stiff, upright leaves and the spectacular flower heads that are carried high above the foliage on tall stems, is the main appeal of these very dramatic accent plants. Although their common names imply they are lilies, they’re not and there are only two species in this genus, Doyranthes excelsa (Gymea Lily), Doryanthes palmeri (Spear Lily). They occur naturally on the east coast of Australia in moist, free-draining soil but can tolerate a wider range of climatic conditions. The foliage is resistant to frost but the buds and flowers will be damaged by heavier frosts.
- Clumping, upright habit of stiff, bright green, sword-like leaves.
- Flower heads in both species are carried high above the leaves on very long stalks.
- Gymea Lily has compact, terminal heads of red flowers.
- Spear Lily bears spikes of red flowers.
- Attracts nectar-feeding birds.
- Plant in a full sun or part shade position.
- Grow in deep, well-drained soils in the garden.
- Can be grown in large containers or pots - ensure the potting media is free draining.
- Remove spent flower heads and dead or dying foliage in autumn to keep plants neat.
Species to look out for:
- Doryanthes excelsa - Gymea Lily (Compact terminal heads of red flowers)
- Doryanthes palmeri - Spear Lily (Red flowers carried in a dense spike)
Other plants with sculptural elements
- Banksia – there are many species and cultivars of Banksia, all of which offer a wide range of height and shape to choose from, including trees and shrubs and ground covers. Many have striking leaf form, e.g. saw-tooth and zigzag edges, and the cone-like flowerheads can be features in themselves.
- Asplenium australasicum - Birds Nest Fern - the open rosettes of lush, glossy green leaves are ideal for shady areas in the garden and also make good container plants.
- Platycerium spp. - Staghorn Ferns and Elkhorn Ferns are well suited to shady garden areas, verandas and conservatories, and a large specimen could make a very dramatic statement in an entrance area.
If you’re a landscape architect, garden designer, nursery industry professional, real estate agent or developer looking for wholesalers of architectural or sculptural plants to use as features or specimens to make a statement, then PlantSelect is the ideal place to start your search. We connect landscapers to growers and plant wholesalers using our comprehensive plant database which allows you to search and discover plants using a range of filters that will streamline your experience.
Simply sign up to PlantSelect to start exploring our plant categories or search for the specific plants you want and PlantSelect will find the relevant plant wholesalers for you. If you’d like to get in contact with us then please fill out the form on our website or call 0433 745 004.