Use big, bold leaves as focal points
Red-leaf Abyssinian banana sets the stage with its strong lines, structure, and rich color.
Ask any garden designer and you will hear that bold, oversize foliage is critical to a dramatic visual picture. The most successful borders that I’ve seen mix a range of tiny to towering textures to keep plantings of traditional perennials and shrubs from looking too busy. By placing big-leaved tropicals as focal points at intervals along a border, you can create a visual respite from jumbled masses of undifferentiated, frilly textures, while achieving visual movement through the border. This can be effective right up to the border’s front edge, where textures tend to be timid.
Some tropicals produce leaves so large you could wrap yourself up in them. If you live in the extreme northern or northwestern United States, cold-hardy ornamental rhubarbs (Rheum spp. and cvs., Zones 5–9) and butterburs (Petasites spp. and cvs., Zones 5–9) serve up similarly bold foliage, but in much of the country, these plants collapse from heatstroke in midsummer. Meanwhile, jumbo-leaved tropicals like banana and butterfly ginger lily thrive under these conditions.
Red-leaf Abyssinian banana makes as bold a statement as a gardener could hope for. Over one summer, it can grow up to 8 feet tall, sporting burgundy-backed leaves 6 feet or longer. It becomes an instant anchor, drawing the eye up and out along the smooth length of its leaves, when nestled in a bed of burgundy prince’s feather, hardy golden groundsel (Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’, Zones 4–8), golden sunflowers (Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Irish Eyes’, Zones 3–7), andDahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’.
Not every focal point, however, has to be the tallest plant in sight. Grown as an annual, bed of nails only reaches 30 inches to 40 inches tall, but its broad leaves are 24 inches across; they’re made even more eye-catching by the inch-long purple thorns protruding from the veins. The little elephant’s ear Alocasia ‘Hilo Beauty’ is even shorter—only 2 feet tall—but its cream-spotted leaves grow a foot long, making a wonderful contrast with finer-textured, low-growing plants.