What are Specimen Plants?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Specimen plants are plants which are grown as exhibition pieces in the garden. They are typically isolated from other plants so that they stand out, rather than being situated in a mass of plantings. Specimen plants are one of the key aesthetic elements of the garden, and in some cases they can be decades or even hundreds of years old. In antique gardens, the specimen plants may include rare and unusual species, such as heritage roses and unique tree cultivars.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Many specimen plants are trees or large shrubs, for a number of reasons. Bigger plants tend to stand out and look appropriately scaled when they are planted alone in an open space, for starters, and they also tend to be more long-lived. Since a specimen plant is intended to be a permanent display piece, a plant with longevity is desired so that the plant will stay healthy for years. Large plants can also be more showy, with features like bright flowers, unusual foliage, peculiar twists and turnings of their branches, and so forth.

A specimen plant can be isolated in an open area and surrounded by grass, low ground cover, moss, gravel, wood chips, sand, or other materials, depending on the aesthetic in the garden. Lower plantings may be situated nearby to set the plant off without crowding it, and a large garden can have several specimen plants which create focal points and areas of interest in the garden to keep visitors occupied and interested. Specimen plants can be used anywhere from a small courtyard with relatively limited space to a large country estate.

For people designing a garden from scratch, choosing specimen plants can be very exciting. Many nurseries carry mature plants for people who want a well-established garden from the very start, or people can purchase saplings and seedlings which will mature over time. In an existing garden which is being relandscaped, people may opt to retain current specimen plants and trees, or to relocate them or install other specimen plants.

Gardens in all environments can have specimen plants, ranging from a low water garden with native plants in a desert region to a formal European-style garden. Gardening stores may have recommendations for specific types of ornamental plants which may be suitable to particular areas or types of gardens. Such plants can also be ordered from nurseries which ship their products if nothing suitable can be found locally.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


One of my friends wanted to plant a night garden which she could sit in on mild evenings.

She planted a lot of roses and some jasmine (although she made sure to plant non-invasive species) so that there would be lovely scented flowers everywhere.

Then she picked a few specimen plants to add some interest. White flowering plants are best as they show up best in the night, so she added a couple of cherry trees that would look lovely in the spring.

But there is also a particular species of cactus that flowers at night called night-blooming cereus which has lovely scented flowers and she added a few of those as specimen plants.


@pastanaga - Growing plants on a bank is actually often good for them as long as you can build the soil up enough. They get excellent drainage but nutrients tend to run down the slope as well.

I would consider using fruit trees as my specimen trees. In fact, I really think more people should put in fruit trees.

I know that they can be a nuisance if you don't use up enough fruit and it becomes a hazard on the ground, but you can always use it for fertilizer or to feed local pigs or something like that.

With the expense of fresh food at the supermarkets I feel like everyone should at least try to make an effort at growing their own, and really a fruit tree is usually beautiful, particularly in spring and smells good as well.

And they come in all shapes and sizes so you can easily pick one to fit your garden.


My stepfather and my mother have bought a house with a large bank behind it. It's quite steep although there is a path which goes up it and it amounts to about half an acre of land I think.

At first they weren't sure what to do with it, but eventually they decided they would slowly convert it into a garden of sorts.

It's quite scrubby at the moment with lots of weeds and junk plants, but they are planning to put in several specimen trees as anchors for the soil and focal points for the eye when looking up.

Then they will fill the under story of the trees with various area natives and small shrubs.

So far they've put in a few trees and they've done really well. The specimen trees they want can be quite expensive, so they try to pick ones that will do well in the conditions they have available.

I think it's going to be a very lovely place to be in a few years and it gives them something to work on in their retirement.

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