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Native Plant Design: A Spiky Accent

A desert like plant at home in a woodland garden bed

Garden designers remind us to focus on foliage and texture rather than flowers to create a year round garden of interest. Blooms are fleeting while foliage lasts all growing season and for evergreens, year round. Putting that advice into practice requires selecting plants with different leaf shapes.

Adam's needle (Yucca filamentosa), technically a shrub, looks like a perennial with stiff sword like foliage. It is said to be easy to grow and drought tolerant. Growing in full sun or part shade, it needs very little to no maintenance.

In the central Chesapeake area, it blooms in June, sending up tall stalks of white flowers that attract hummingbirds. The foliage is also mostly evergreen. Native to the southeastern United States, it has spread northward. The straight species has the added advantage of blue foliage, yet another way to add contrast.

Cultivars with variegated foliage are also commonly available. So what's not to like?

Despite these fantastic attributes and the fact it is readily available at larger garden centers, I just never seemed to think of a place where it could fit in our garden (and there aren't many plants I can say that about!).

I have seen it grouped, and occasionally planted in large containers, but it was always hard to think about how to gracefully add this plant to a smaller garden mostly woodland in style.

Stoneleigh Garden in Villanova, Pennsylvania to the rescue. This large estate garden, in the midst of a major transition to native plants, has numerous examples of how to use this plant oh so elegantly. The key seems to be use it as an accent and repeat.

adam's needle along pathway at stoneleigh
Stoneleigh Garden Path

Spacing the plant out a bit softens its spikiness. You still get the foliage contrast but it is not overwhelming as it can be when planted in even small drifts. Along this walkway, adam's needle is planted about every 12 feet or so. It draws your eye forward.

variegated adam's needle in garden bed late fall
Stoneleigh Garden

In this location, variegated yuccas and evergreen shrubs ground the planting while asters and grasses do their sprawling thing in late fall. Despite all the plants in this bed, this garden still looks, for lack of a better word, organized. Grounding a planting in this way is a very useful native plant design for those who don't favor a wild meadow type style. I am sure the way the afternoon sun hits the yucca foliage is no accident either! Really beautiful.

Adam's Needle Cultivar at Meadowlark Botanical Garden

This planting at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia highlights a different type of foliage contrast. Wispy grasses and spiky foliage of an adam's needle cultivar -- it's hard to get more contrast than this and it really works!

Happy Fall Gardening.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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