Architectural Plants in the Garden

A current project in my garden involves relocating a specimen plant to a more prominent site, to take advantage of its current and anticipated appearance.

The plant is Giant Cabuya, a member of the Agave family (Agavaceae). In English, Cabuya means Agave, but it might also mean fibre. The plant’s botanical name is Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’.

Native to the Caribbean area and northern South America, this succulent plant is widely grown as its variegated leaves can create a five-foot wide display and a spectacular presence in the landscape.

Brazilian Plant

Furcraea foetida ‘Mediopicta’

It will produce a 25 feet tall flower stalk on an apparently unpredictable basis. The inflorescence is unremarkable in appearance but reportedly strongly fragrant. The specific epithet, foetida, means “stinking.”

Once the presents its great flower stalk it will die. Like other monocarpic plants, e.g., the Century Plant (Agave Americana), it will propagate itself by generating adventitious shoots, or “pups.”

The plant’s strongest points are its colorful leaves, which first attracted my eye. Because it was labeled as native to Brazil, I brought it into my garden as a plant familiar to a Brazilian graduate student who was staying in my home. (He recognized it, but was more interested in his studies of microbiology.)

I put the Giant Cabuya in a large terra cotta pot, where it grew well for more than a year, and spread about three feet wide. I learned that it would reach its maximal spread only when grown in the ground.

I had recently renovated an overgrown cluster of Peruvian Lilies, and reshaped the planting bed into a roughly circular form. The new bed, currently without plants, needed redesigning, with a focal point. A dramatic sculpture would be appropriate but not in the budget, so a large plant with architectural character could serve as the purpose of a focal point.

This was to be the new home for the Giant Cabuya.

The bed was large enough for the plant to grow to five feet wide, and eventually to throw up its malodorous flower stalk.

A short list of plants can be useful as focal points in the landscape. Large succulent plants, particularly those in the Agave family, have good qualities for this purpose. This is a matter of individual preference of course, but long, sturdy leaves can form a roughly symmetrical display that is readily perceived as sculptural.

For an interesting overview of architectural agaves, visit the website of succulent expert Debra Lee Baldwin, navigate to Videos and look for “Six Great Agaves for Your Garden.” In this video recording, renowned agave hybridizer Kelly Griffin casually demonstrates agaves that would work well as focal points in the garden.

In addition to the larger agaves, several other plants have architectural value. If your garden could benefit from an eye-catching, prominently placed plant, look for candidates when you visit your local garden center. A dramatic feature could add interest to your landscape.

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