Plant Texture: What It Means and How to Add It to a Garden

Tropicanna canna in bloom with striped leaves.
Tropicanna canna has very coarse leaves. Tim Thompson/Getty Images 

In landscape design, the definition of plant texture is the perceived surface quality of a plant part compared to that of surrounding plants. The texture of a specimen's leaves or blooms can be perceived as coarse, medium, or fine. Eye-catching combinations can occur when coarse foliage grows next to fine foliage, creating a contrast.

A good landscape designer will often mix plant textures to avoid monotony and draw attention to a planting bed. Textural contrasts can be mesmerizing. Beginners may think of color first as a way to achieve this goal, but professionals have many other tricks up their sleeves to elevate their landscape-design work to a higher level.

Using the term plant texture can be subjective or precise. Gardeners often use comparisons like "the leaf or flower of plant A is coarser or finer in comparison to the corresponding plant part on plant B." For example, the leaf on one plant will appear coarser than that on another if:

  • It is larger.
  • It has no indentations along the margin.
  • It has a blunt shape (as opposed to being long and narrow).

In everyday language, texture usually refers to whether the surface of an object feels soft or abrasive, smooth or rough. Occasionally, the term is used in this way when referring to plants:

In landscape design, however, references to plant texture most often reflect how a plant part looks with others rather than to how it feels.

How to Create Texture Contrast in a Garden

You can create aesthetically pleasing gardens with textural interest with the following landscaping combinations.

  • Canna lilies, such as Tropicanna canna, have very coarse foliage. Ornamental grasses have a finer plant texture by comparison and would contrast well with canna lilies.
  • The blooms on the various types of roses (Rosa spp.) are relatively coarse. By contrast, the flowers of perennial bachelor buttons (Centaurea montana) have a fine plant texture. 
  • Silver Dust dusty miller, a silvery foliage plant, has fine leaves. Pair with the popular annual red salvia plant, which has coarser leaves. 
  • Red salvia is also a good companion for another annual, yellow French marigolds (Tagetes patula). The result is the textural contrast between the fine foliage of the marigolds and the coarser leaves of the salvia and a vibrant red-yellow flower combination.
  • Another good match for annuals for textural contrast is flossflower (Ageratum houstonianum) with its coarseness and cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) with its fine leaves.
  • Russian sage (Perovskia) is a sub-shrub with wispy foliage that looks good against a background of the coarser leaves of plume poppies (Macleaya cordata) or Incrediball hydrangea.
  • If you value fragrance, let lavender (Lavandula) do double-duty by combining it with coneflower (Echinacea). The latter's coarse foliage contrasts with the fine, fragrant leaves of the former.
  • For shade areas, the elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta) creates coarse texture when paired with ornamental grasses.
  • Pair the cold-hardy, shade-loving perennial with big leaves, leopard plant (Ligularia) with black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens) and/or border grass (Liriope spicata).
Article Sources
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  1. Plant Selection Factors. Oklahoma State University

  2. Landscape Design: Aesthetic Characteristics of Plants. University of Florida Extension