Plant "Texture": Meaning, Application

How the Word Is Used in Landscaping

Image showing how elephant ears (black) contrast in texture with cosmos.
Elephant ear plants have leaves with a coarse texture. David Beaulieu

In landscape design terminology, the definition of plant "texture" is the perceived surface quality (regarding size and shape, not feel) of a plant part compared to that on 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 is juxtaposed with fine foliage, creating a contrast.

A good landscape designer will often mix plant textures to avoid monotony.

Doing so is just one way to draw attention to and improve the appearance of a planting bed. In fact, textural contrasts can be mesmerizing. Amateurs may think of color first and foremost 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. 

Note that the term is necessarily relative in nature, even though one sometimes has occasion to use the term more loosely, in isolation. That is, when we are trying to be truly precise, we will say that 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:

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

Note also, as alluded to above, that this is not an issue of how a leaf or flower feels to the touch.

In everyday language, when someone says "texture," they are most likely referring to whether the surface of an object feels soft or abrasive, smooth or rough, etc. Occasionally, the term is used in this way when referring to plants, as well, as when we say that:

  1. A tree's bark is rough.
  2. The leaves of the lamb's ear plant are soft.

    In landscape design lingo, however, references to plant "texture" most often reflect observations about how a plant part looks relative to others, as defined above, rather than to how it feels.

    Examples of How to Create Textural Contrast

    Consult the pictures in this photo gallery showing examples of plant texture and form to learn more about the concept. But here are a few quick examples of plant textures and possible combinations that you can use to achieve textural contrast:

    • The previous examples are all sun plants. For shade, one possible choice is elephant ears (picture), whose leaves are very coarse. Like canna, it is a tropical plant. If you would prefer a cold-hardy perennial with big leaves, grow leopard plants. Pair them with black mondo and/or . Both of these shade-tolerant plants are sometimes referred to as "ornamental grasses," although they are not grasses, technically. This botanical fact not withstanding, they share a fine texture with the true ornamental grasses and so are useful for creating contrasts.