Cool patterns and shapes in the garden

Story and Photos by Richelle Stafne

Intentional garden design with a specific palette of patterns and shapes can not only adds interest, but also can create cohesiveness among plant material. Growing up, I would watch Sesame Street and sing along with the song One of These Things … is not like the others, learning about patterns and shapes. The eye seeks to find patterns in everything we see, including the garden. 

Patterns and shapes can complement the architecture of a home or can set a theme such as fun and frivolity. Some patterns, such as Fibonacci, may not be as obvious, but can make for fun conversation and teachable math moments in the garden.

The Fibonacci sequence: a set in which each number is the sum of the previous two (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610 …)

Garden sculpture can complement plant patterns by echoing the same shapes and patterns. For example, colorful, spiraling metal art placed among toothache grass, a native perennial bunch grass.

Vertical lines, such as those in the leaves of some plants, lead the eye upward and can make a space feel bigger. 

Below are categories with a few representative plant species. Not all plants will exhibit the desired pattern characteristic throughout the year, so choose several species with similar attributes to emphasize the pattern in your garden. Most of these plants (trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, annuals, natives) will grow throughout USDA Hardiness Zones 7b-9a, but double-check species for your area.

Concentric: Several succulent species, including red heart hens & chicks (Sempervivum ‘Red Heart’); Zinnia elegans (look for the Swizzle series); Dahlia; and Camellia japonica with double flowers.

Tulip: Tulips (Tulipa spp.); saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana); and tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera).

Spidery: Assuage your arachnophobia by incorporating spidery plants such as star magnolia (Magnolia stellata); Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana); spider flower (Cleome hassleriana); beebalm (Monarda didyma); Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense; fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus); sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus); red spider lily (Lycoris radiata); several witch hazels (Hamamelis spp., such as American witch hazel H. virginiana); Florida anise (Illicium floridanum); and peony poppy (Papaver somniferum ‘Black Swan’).

The spidery-like blossoms of beebalm partner well with upright spikes of flowers such as Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and sharp-edged grasses such as Princess Caroline purple fountain grass (Pennisetum ‘Tift-17’).

Stripes and Streaks: Get in the spirit for the 4th of July with the red-and-white-striped-shrub rose Stars n Stripes Forever (Rosa ‘CLEhope’). If you like that look, you can nearly duplicate it with several similarly striped varieties of Camellia japonica. Other cool striped-leaf plants include Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’ and ‘Gold Breeze’; ornamental corn Zea mays ‘Quadricolor’; Hawaiian ti plant (Cordyline fruticosa, overwinter indoors in most of Miss.; ‘Bordelon’ banana (Musa ‘Bordelon’); and the succulent Haworthia fasciata (overwinter indoors).

Triangle: Some daylilies (Hemerocallis) with officially designated triangle form such as ‘Barbara Mitchell’; flowers of wild ginger (Asarum canadense); Mississippi River wakerobin (Trillium foetidissimum); greater yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens); purple shamrock (Oxalis triangularis); and remember, “Sedges have edges,” mostly triangular, so consider the native clumping fox sedge (Carex vulpinoidea).

Stars: You won’t have to gaze into the night skies for stars when you plant star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides); star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), grow in a pot to control spread; sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua); Angyo Star’ fatshedera (x Fatshedera lizei ‘Angyo Star’); and for ornamental dried fruit structures, try Florida anise (Illicium floridanum); for most of the state, grow perennial Egyptian star clusters (Pentas lanceolata) in a pot to bring indoors, in a protected area with mulch, or as an annual bedding plant. (Patriotic? Consider Stars & Stripes pentas.); To complement your star garden, try a ‘Southern Home’ grapevine (Vitis hybrid). I work with this grape and to me, it looks like the vines are covered by hundreds of ornamental, deeply cut, star-shaped leaves.

Trumpet: Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata); red angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia sanguinea); ‘Ragin’ Cajun’ false petunia (Ruellia elegans ‘Ragin’ Cajun’); horn of plenty (Datura inoxia), bring indoors except on the coast; and Shining Sensation weigela (Weigela ‘Bokrashine’).

Hearts: Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis); some Cyclamen hederifolium (hardy) and C. persicum (Zone 9 and higher); bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis); elephant ear/taro (Colocasia esculenta); and wild ginger (Asarum canadense).

Gardeners should try varieties of hardy cyclamen. This low-growing perennial is a double-header of garden interest with both heart-shaped foliage and splotched foliage.

Hoods and Phallic: Welcome all to your garden ‘hood with these plants exhibiting hoods, spathe and spadix, or phallic structures: elephant ear/taro (Colocasia esculenta); peace lily (Spathiphyllum), overwinter indoors; corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium); sago palm (Cycas revoluta); pale/trumpet pitcher plant (Sarracenia alata); calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), overwinter indoors above Zone 8; and jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum, as well as other Arisaema species).

Feathery: Birds of a feather may flock together, but you can grow your own flock of feathery-looking plants such as: plumed cockscomb (Celosia argentea); Astilbe spp.; Miscanthus spp.; fountaingrass (Pennisetum spp.); goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus); asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus); dill (Anethum graveolens); bald cypress (Taxodium distichum); and bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Smokey’).

Bells: Every song could use a little more cowbell, and every garden could use a little more bell-shaped flowers: Elliott’s blueberry (Vaccinium elliottii); snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis); bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis); several Fuchsia spp., including F. campos-portoi; Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica); and summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum).

Polka dots & splashes: Polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya), overwinter indoors; variegated gold dust (Aucuba japonica  ‘Variegata’); certain varieties of Caladium; blotched pansies (Viola x wittrockiana); aluminum plant (Pilea cadierei), overwinter indoors; Mississippi River wakerobin (Trillium foetidissimum); cane-type (angel wing) Begonias such as B. ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, a Begonia fibrous hybrid that should be overwintered indoors for most of Miss.; Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’ – grow in pot to control spread; many coleus cultivars (Solenostemon scutellarioides), overwinter indoors; and Aloe hybrid ‘Cha-Cha’, overwinter indoors most of Miss.

Upright Spikes: Delphinium; nearly any Salvia species such as perennial S. nemorosa; dense blazing star (Liatris spicata); Ligularia stenocephala ‘The Rocket’; Veronica spicata; Liriope spicata; and chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus).

Needle points/Sharps/Spikes: Wicked sense of humor? Fan of medieval torture? Would you like for your garden to get its point across? Then you’ll get sharp kick out of these plants: Aloe vera (most of the state overwinters indoors); Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa); devil’s walkingstick (Aralia spinosa); eastern prickly pear (Opuntia compressa); crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), overwinter indoors; variegated century plant (Agave americana ‘Mediopicta Alba’), has both spikes and stripes!; hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata); parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii); and mayhaw (Crataegus opaca). 

Spirals: A garden spiraling out of control can be exceptionally cool when you include toothache grass (Ctenium aromaticum); corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’); Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’); spring fiddleheads of native ferns such as Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides); or maintain your own evergreen spiral topiary with ‘Green Mountain’ boxwood (Buxus x ‘Green Mountain’).

Mississippi native toothache grass has seed heads that spiral as they dry, adding a very cool visual element to the fall and winter garden. The common name is derived from medicinal attributes.

Fibonacci: Many concentric flowers and Rosa spp., sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), pinecones, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and pineapple fruit are examples of Fibonacci that can be found in nature.

Sunflowers represent the ubiquitous flower pattern example of the Fibonacci sequence.

Don’t be a square and let your garden spiral out of control as you seek patterns in this circle of life.




Recent releases with eye-popping patterns

Supertunia Picasso in Purple Petunia hybrid – bicolor purple flowers with mint green edges, Proven Winners, annual, Shop Proven Winners here.

Rainbow Rhythm ‘Tiger Swirl’ daylily hybrid (Hemerocallis ‘Tiger Swirl’) – triangular-shaped flowers, light golden yellow with pronounced raspberry red eye; bottom sepals twisting or curling into a “swirling” motion, Proven Winners, perennial, Shop Proven Winners here.

Honeymoon Series ‘Rio Carnival’ Lenten rose (Helleborus ‘Rio Carnival’) – heavy burgundy red speckling on creamy yellow flowers, perennial

Caladium ‘Freckles’ – deep green with splashes of red throughout center, bulb

Miss Scarlett Florida anise tree (Illicium floridanum ‘JCJC’) – brilliant crimson flowers with spidery look, Southern Living Plant Collection 

Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ – dwarf, evergreen with brilliant, rainbow-colored splashes on foliage, Southern Living Plant Collection 

Carex x oshimensis ‘Eversheen’ – ornamental grass with green-and-lime-yellow-striped foliage, Southern Living Plant Collection 

Moody Blues Dark Blue veronica (V. ‘Novaverblu’) – bright blue flower spikes, Southern Living Plant Collection 

Senorita Rosalita spider flower (Cleome ‘Inncleosr’) – lavender pink spidery blossoms, Proven Winners, 2012 Louisiana SuperPlant, Shop Proven Winners here.

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’ – Zones 4-8a, variegated, heart-shaped leaves, two-tone flowers, perennial

Visit Proven Winners online here.
Visit Southern Living Plant Collection online here.

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