Best architectural plants – shape your winter garden with these textural choices

Get to grips with architectural structure and you'll have a garden that works hard all year round

architectural plants with grasses in a flower bed
(Image credit: RM Floral / Alamy Stock Photo)

Add architectural plants to your backyard and you'll soon see the benefits over the winter months. The bare bones of your winter garden are revealed for all to see when flowers fade and the leaves have fallen. 

This is where architectural plants come in, adding a much-needed focal point during the colder seasons. Although unusual in appearance and often of tropical origin, they're easy to grow in non-tropical climates. 

Their spiky, bold shapes will make their presence known as winter plants, and as many of them are evergreen they will add color all year round.

winter garden scene with phlomis stems against Cornus sanguinea midwinter fire

Leave the seed heads on some of your flowers for winter shape

(Image credit: Patsy Davies / Alamy Stock Photo)

7 architectural plants to select for your backyard

'Select architectural plants that are suited to your climate and growing conditions,' advises Janet Loughrey of Garden Design. 

'Consider the style of your home. Spiky plants such as yucca and agave may be more suited to a southwestern style landscape, while palms and canna lilies will be compatible with a bungalow or Mediterranean-style home.'

Many of these winter garden favorites are drought-tolerant and would make fine choices for xeriscaping.

Janet Loughrey headshot
Janet Loughrey

A gardens writer with over 25 years experience in the garden publishing industry. Janet's work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Sunset, HGTV and many other publications.

1. Phormium 'Sundowner'

Winter Foliage of a New Zealand Flax Lily (Phormium 'Sundowner')

(Image credit: Peter Turner / Alamy Stock Photo)
  • USDA zones: 9-12
  • Height: 1ft
  • Spread: 3ft

Phormium 'Sundowner' is an evergreen perennial also known as New Zealand flax. The arching, sword-shaped leaves of this variety add a touch of drama to the winter garden. It forms a large clump with handsome leaves, that are a bronze-green color, tinged with red and rose-pink edges. 

Adding year-round color to a backyard, it likes a spot in full sun or part shade. It is frost hardy, but might need a little extra protection if temperatures plummet. 

2. Black bamboo

Phyllostachys nigra growing in gray pots

(Image credit: Newman / Alamy Stock Photo)
  • USDA zones: zone 7-11
  • Height: 25ft
  • Spread: 15ft

This elegant evergreen bamboo features gracefully arching slender jet-black canes, with delicately feathered leaves. It’s a must for a modern garden, especially small urban spaces. It’s a hassle-free option as it’s clump forming rather than invasive

Every spring you get lush new foliage as the bamboo regenerates. It likes full sun or part shade in a sheltered spot, and will grow to such a height that it is excellent for screening purposes.

3. Miscanthus Nepalensis

Miscanthus Nepalensis in the fall garden

(Image credit: Tom Cardrick / Alamy Stock Photo)
  • USDA zones: 8-9
  • Height: 5ft
  • Spread: 4ft

Also known as Himalayan fairy grass, this ornamental grass has arching, linear leaves and shimmering silky-textured flower plumes in late summer and fall. In winter the leaves and architectural seed heads turn a spectacular shade of bronze. 

It likes a sunny, sheltered spot, and tends to be quite hardy when the chill sets in. It grows to around 4-5ft, so is ideal as a graceful addition to borders as part of your planting scheme without dwarfing other plants. 

Silver Feather Maiden Grass at Nature Hills

Silver Feather Maiden Grass at Nature Hills

This ornamental grass will add elegant plumes of silver to your flower bed. A great architectural option with a fair saving currently.

4. Mahonia 'Charity'

Mahonia x Media 'Charity' (Oregan grape) Yellow flowers in winter December.

(Image credit: Susie McCaffrey / Alamy Stock Photo)
  • USDA zones: 8-9
  • Height: 20ft
  • Spread: 20ft

This stunning evergreen with its clusters of fragrant yellow flowers in winter makes a real focal point in the garden, adding sculptural shape as well as glowing color and a hint of scent. 

The flowers of mahonia are set in rosettes of holly-like leaves, that fan out gracefully to add interesting structure. It is happy in full sun or partial shade, and is not too fussy where you plant it.

5. Eryngium

Eryngium - Sea Holly Flower heads covered in frost

(Image credit: Jacky Parker / Alamy Stock Photo)
  • USDA zones: 5-9
  • Height: 4ft
  • Spread: 3ft

With their spiny ruff of leaves and striking cone-shaped flowers, these are beautiful plants to look at in winter, when they take on a steely gray color in the low light. Eryngium like a sunny position and work really well in Mediterranean-style gravel gardens, where they will grow up to 3ft tall. 

As well as adding a bold statement in your garden, these are the stars of the show indoors too when used as the centerpiece for dried flower displays. 

Also known as sea holly, eryngium will thrive in coastal gardens.

Blue Glitter Sea Holly at Nature Hills

Blue Glitter Sea Holly at Nature Hills

This choice of sea holly is suitable for zones 5 through 9. It has bold violet color flowerheads as an added bonus to the spiky architectural shape.

6. Dogwood

Cornus sanguinea Midwinter Fire in fall display

(Image credit: Mike Russell / Shutterstock)
  • USDA zones: 5-9
  • Height: 8ft
  • Spread: 8ft

Also called cornus, dogwood is grown for its vivid winter stem color, which comes in spectacular orange, yellow and red shades that are revealed when the leaves fall in autumn. 

Plant a few of them together to create a dramatic impact when the winter sun hits them, and there’s little else in the garden to demand your attention. They’re not fussy and will even thrive in damp and shady spots, but do best in a sunny place. 

Red Twig Dogwood Shrub at Fast Growing Trees

Red Twig Dogwood Shrub at Fast Growing Trees

This dogwood (also known as cornus) will give a bold color injection to a bare winter garden. The 2 gallon pot is currently 19% off. Fast Growing Trees also currently have a 25% discount on all orders over $200.

7. Agave parryi

Agave parryi, North American native, Succulent

(Image credit: Botany vision / Alamy Stock Photo)
  • USDA zones: 7-12
  • Height: 2ft
  • Spread: 3ft

Native to North America, the Agave parryi is a spectacular architectural plant with rosettes of large gray-blue leaves edged with maroon spines.

This agave is great for adding a touch of the exotic to a patio or gravel garden. Grow outdoors all year round in USDA zones 7-12. Otherwise it's possible to grow them in pots on a patio and bring them inside during the cold months.


What is an architectural plant?

An architectural plant is one that adds structure and shape to a landscape.

'These may include plants with a weeping, upright or arching habit, or plants with leaves or flowers that are oversized or with a well-defined shape,' explains Janet Loughrey of Garden Design. 'These plants can be used to add visual interest to beds, borders and containers.'

Some examples include: Ornamental grasses, weeping cedar, agave, red hot poker, yucca, bear’s breeches (Acanthus), sea holly (Eryngium), canna lily, bamboo, windmill palm and boxwood.

Your climate should be the first consideration when choosing architectural plants. 

Though low maintenance, they will only succeed if grown in the correct USDA hardiness zones. So be sure to check these before making a purchase to avoid disappointment.

Sarah Wilson

Lifestyle journalist Sarah Wilson has been writing about flowers, plants, and garden design and trends since 2015. Having already studied introductory garden and landscape design as well as a course in floristry she is currently adding to her list of qualifications with an RHS Level 2 course in the Principles of Plant Growth and Development. In addition to and she's written for, Modern Gardens and Country Homes & Interiors magazines.