Architectural Plants for Mid-Atlantic Gardens

yucca architectural plant for mid-atlantic gardensDramatic and architectural are not terms one would normally associate with plantings in the home landscape. But planting striking “architectural” plants is a garden design technique landscape architects have long used in commercial installations. And it’s something you can do, too.


Although associated with the plains and grasslands of the Southwest, the yucca is actually a native of the Southeastern United States. Some varieties are hardy to Zone 3, so there are plenty of yuccas that will easily grow in Zone 7 of the Mid-Atlantic region where DC, MD and VA lie.

A member of the Agave family, yuccas are evergreen “shrubs” that grow very slowly. They tolerate urban conditions like drought, pollution and winter salt spray, and are also disease resistant. Yuccas will grow in just about any soil, except those that are wet or lacking good drainage.

Aside from the design value of its spiky clumps, it’s the five to eight feet tall flower stalks that set the yucca apart. Appearing in July and August, the flower stalks are covered with dangling white flowers. The blossoms and most parts are of the yucca are edible.

Yucca are attractive in group plantings, in containers or at entryways. The sword-like leaves have sharp edges, so when working with them, gloves are recommended. Stalks should be removed right after flowering, as they become woody and difficult to remove later.

Some varieties recommended for the Washington, DC metro area include:

  • Soapweed Yucca (Yucca glauca)
  • Adam’s Needle Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)
  • Blue Yucca (Yucca Rigida)


Members of the genus acanthus feature spines, which stands to reason as the name is derived from the Greek words for spiny flower. Acanthus mollis, also known as Bear’s Breeches or Oyster Plant, features pairs of bi-colored bracts on either side of a square stem. Spectacular when planted in groups, an added advantage is that the flower spikes may be left to dry on the plant, where they continue to add a striking sculptural element to the garden. However, there are reports that this plant can be invasive if not deadheaded.

This perennial is sturdy and easy to grow, although it wilts in the summer heat or late afternoon sun. It prefers shade to partial shade locations. It makes a nice companion to ferns and hostas, blooming in the spring and dying back in the summer.

The deeply cut leaves of the acanthus may seem familiar, as they appear frequently as a decorative motif as far back as 450 BC. Perhaps the most famous of these appearances is on the capitals (tops) of Greek and Roman Corinthian columns. The striking leaves symbolize immortality in several cultures and were often used in funerary decoration.

acanthus architectural garden plant corinthian column capital

Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

Native to Southern Europe and related to the globe artichoke, this gray-green vegetable was brought to America by the Quakers. Standing five to six feet tall, its enormous flower heads make it a great accent plant in the back of the flower border. It is considered a perennial in USDA Zone 6 or warmer.

As a vegetable, it is grown for its leaves, but it’s the leaf ribs that are cooked and eaten. They should be peeled to remove the strings and then soaked in water and lemon juice to prevent browning.

cardoon architectural mid-atlantic garden plant

Cardoon blooms in the fall. Flower heads left on plant stalks become enticing food for zebra swallowtails and monarch butterflies.

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