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The Most Underused Plants

This month I want to highlight the most UNDERUSED plants for several of the planting zones. I am located in the Piedmont Triad are, NC (Zone 7-8) and also for some of my readers zones- 9 and 10.

Here are my top 10 most underused plants that have to meet a strict criteria:

They must to grow well in our area, with a minimum of care (OK- you still have to water them- but little else.) They must have several attractive characteristics (i.e Beautiful bark AND leaves, OR great flowers AND branching pattern,etc.) they must not be on every street corner- so we can create a unique look when they are used. Take a look at these selections by zone:


  1. Chionanthus Virginicus – (Fringetree). This small to medium tree has beautiful blooms in the spring. Soft green leaves and fringe like blooms give the tree its name. grows to 20-25 ‘ tall at maturity.
  2. Edgeworthia chrusanthua – (Paperbush.) This blooms when very little else is in EARLY spring. Great fragrance to the blooms- a nice touch to the late/winter/early spring landscape. Use as a small specimen tree or focal point- grows 6-10’ tall and wide.
  3. Cytstisus scoparius – (Scotch Broom.) Very attractive branching pattern, leaves and blooms. Great blooms in the early spring- deer resistant too! Will grow to 3’ tall and wide.
  4. Illisium floridatum – (Anise.) You will notice some crossover with this plant, also doing well in zones 9-10. Again, I Love the red blooms and evergreen foliage. Use as a large hedge, screen or accent plant.
  5. Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’– Gorgeous full sun evergreen. Variegated green and yellow foliage on red stems. White flowers in spring and will grow to a mature height of 2.5’- 3’ tall and wide.
  6. Corylus contorta – ( Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.) “Stick’ this in your yard (no pun intended) for a great conversation piece. I also see it quite often in a  container- but it would eventually have to be moved to allow the plant to fill out.
  7. Cedrus atlantica – (Blue Atlas Cedar.) This large evergreen will make a statement in any garden. I love the steel blue foliage and striking branching pattern. Great for a unique look in the winter landscape. Ultimately grows to 15-20’ tall and 6-10 wide after 10 years.
  8. Sarcococca ruscifolia – (Sweetbox.) Small evergreen shrub- 2.5’ ht at maturity. The flowers are fragrant and it is a deer resistant resistant plant.
  9. Hellebore orientalis – (Coral Bells.) Blooms in the winter about when the Paperbush is blooming. The star shaped evergreen foliage is beautiful year round and stands about 2’ tall in height. The pink/white blooms emerge in winter and persist until after the last frost.
  10. Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Mohawk’- (‘Mohawk Burkwood Viburnum)- Gorgeous semi-evergreen Viburnum that boasts fragrant white flowers in spring. Needs partial to full sun and grows to a mature height of 6-12’ tall.


  1. Feijoa sellowiana (Pineapple Guava)- Versatile and easy to grow, this evergreen landscape plant boasts edible flowers and tropical fruit! It is a moderate grower- growing 10- 15 feet tall at maturity. The lovely hue of the gray green foliage shows well in contrast to the beautiful white flowers in early summer. Tasty guava-like fruit becomes ripe in late fall. Landscape uses can be specimen tree, or can be pruned to a hedge.
  2. Illisium floridatum – (Anise.) You will notice some crossover with this plant, also doing well in zones 7-8. Again, I Love the red blooms and evergreen foliage. The Mexican variety has very red fragrant flowers and prefers moist conditions with full sun to shade. Lower understory shrub 3-4’ tall and wide.
  3. Fastia japonica (Japanese Aralia)– This beautiful understory evergreen also does remarkably well in zone 8. Love the large star shaped leaves. Also available in a variegated variety. Flowers and fruits in winter, prefers a shady site. Grows to a mature height of 5’ tall and wide.
  4. Vitex Agnus Castus- (Chaste Tree)- Beautiful alternative to the Crape Myrtle in zones 7-9. Has beautiful terminal clusters of fragrant purple flowers in summer. Also has aromatic gray/green foliage and attractive multi branching truck. Can be used as a specimen tree or large shrub. Deciduous, growing to a mature height of 15-25’ tall.
  5. Ravenala madagascariensis-(Traveler’s Palm)- This large specimen is not a palm at all, but closer to a banana or Bird of Paradise. Use in zones 9B to 10Needs full sun to only part shade. Landscape uses are as a single LARGE specimen or large accent plant. Give it plenty of room as it grows 30’ tall.
  6. Bauhinia x blakeana- (Hong Kong Orchid Tree)-Considered by many as one of the most beautiful tropical landscape trees. This semi evergreen, long blooming tree boasts gorgeous purple flowers in late fall/early winter. Prefers full sun and grows to a mature height of 20-25’ tall.
  7. Chaenomeles speciosa- (Flowering Quince)- Medium to large deciduous shrub growing 3-5’ tall. Flowers in early spring and persists through summer. Fruit is attractive and tasty to birds. Many new varieties boast deep red, orange and light pink flowers. Zone 5- 9 only.
  8. Nephrolepis biserrata-  (Macho Fern)- Also known as the Giant Sword fern, this is a large presence in the tropical garden. The fronds can reach 4’ long- with the entire plant encompassing a 6’ space, so give it plenty of room. Give the Macho Fern partial shade and moist soil for it to do its best.
  9. Brugmansia- (Angel’s Trumpet)- Beautiful pendulous, tubular flowers bloom on this deciduous small tree/shrub in the late summer, fall. This plant is poisonous, so use with caution in some applications. Grows from 3 to 20’ tall, depending on the variety and 5-8’ wide.
  10. Polystichum setiferum-(Soft Sheild Fern)-Semi- Evergreen fern that will grow to a mature height of 2-3’ tall. The outstanding foliage is feathery and dark green. Can adapt to dry shade conditions once established.

Incorporate these into your new landscape and get your neighbor’s talking! These selections are definitely not on every street corner and will add beauty and interest to your unique landscape. Enjoy highlighting the lawn with unique plants and happy gardening!

About the Author:

Lori Hawkins, RLA, ASLA has been a practicing landscape architect out of the Greensboro, NC area since 1999. Residential and Commercial landscape design using 3D imaging technology is her specialty. You can read her blog and see more about her work at