Photo by: Susan A. Roth.


Mod Appeal: Yucca’s stiffly upright crown of evergreen swordlike foliage creates a living sculpture. Though perfect for a drought-tolerant garden with a southwestern feel, especially when combined with cacti and succulents, many types are hardy as far north as Zone 4.

Update: Types with cream or yellow centers (‘Color Guard’) or edges (‘Bright Edge’) really glow in a sun-drenched garden; ‘Starburst’ has cream stripes that take on a pink tinge in cool weather. Banana Split® is tender but glorious in a simple container.

Photo by: Susan A. Roth.


Mod Appeal: Structural to the extreme! Lush, oversize foliage like that of Canna ‘Pretoria’ at left and the elephant’s ear at right (Alocasia macrorrhiza) provides a perfect foil for the spare straight lines of modernist architecture and offers a tropical, exotic look. Dramatic in mass plantings, but the simplicity of one elephant’s ear makes a bold statement.

Update: Used in over-the-top Victorian gardens, but development of canna cultivars with striped or nearly black foliage have put them back in the scene. Notable are the Tropicanna series, ‘Red King Humbert’, ‘Stuttgart’ and ‘Lucifer’. The 70 or so species of elephant’s ears are hardy in Zones 7 to 10 but are used seasonally in cooler regions because they grow so fast—up to 6 feet in one season. Striking cultivars and hybrids are ‘Hilo Beauty’, ‘Black Velvet’, ‘Lutea’ and ‘Variegata’.

Photo by: Susan A. Roth.


Mod Appeal: Unbeatable foliage plant, forming the backbone of many shade gardens. Use as a specimen in a pot or in sweeps of ground cover.

Update: Twenty years ago a flood of new cultivars began to enter the market, with a mind-boggling array of leaf shapes, sizes and colors. While some older varieties are still rock-solid selections, choice newer introductions include ‘Hanky Panky’, ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’, ‘Paul’s Glory’ and ‘Stiletto’.

Photo by: Susan A. Roth.


Mod Appeal: Strongly vertical yet compact, the red-hot poker contributes the all-important eyestopping moment to a design. Kniphofia ‘Flamenco’ (shown), an All-American Selection winner, is a traditional mix in red, orange and yellow.

Update: The latest red-hot pokers have gone sophisticated in subtle shades of cream, primrose, lemon and burnt apricot with fine, grassy foliage—try ‘Toffee Nosed’ or ‘Little Maid’.

Photo by: Susan A. Roth.


Mod Appeal: Space-age globes of flowers float above mounds of strappy foliage, attractive even when not in bloom. Plant en masse or in a pot.

Update: This conservatory plant from South Africa moved outdoors with the arrival of the hardier Headbourne Hybrids in the 1940s, just in time to become a darling of the modernists. Further breeding has produced plants with flowers in white (‘White Heaven’), variegated foliage (‘Tinkerbell’), and dwarf (‘Peter Pan’) or giant (‘Storm Cloud’) forms.

Photo by: John Glover.


Mod Appeal: For designers concerned with form, texture and color, New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) is a godsend. The long, leathery, swordlike leaves fan out boldly and hold their shape through thick and thin.

Update: Breeding at a furious pace has produced some excellent garden varieties, both in form and color, e.g., Phormium ‘Sundowner’ (shown).

Photo by: Andrea Jones.


Mod Appeal: The fleshy, organic geometry of succulents is fascinating and seems particularly at home in contemporary settings. The California modernists in particular enjoyed the graphic impact of these low-upkeep plants in the garden and in containers. A conversation piece in windowsill gardens in cooler zones. Their symmetrical rosettes can be nearly flat to the ground or perched atop snaky stems.

Update: In sunny, warm zones Aeonium haworthii ‘Variegatum’ (shown) branches readily into a mat of subtle foliage. For a dramatic focal point in a pot, try Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’, a black-maroon oddity. The aptly named ‘Dinner Plate’ is only 2 inches tall but 12 inches across.

Photo by: Andrea Jones.


Mod Appeal: Tolerant of most soil types, drought- and disease-resistant with interesting foliage and long-lasting flowers appearing late in the season, the sedums are an easy sell to any garden designer looking for an attractive, hardworking plant that plays well with others of the same ilk, such as grasses—just ask Oehme, van Sweden.

Update: Constant breeding work on sedums has introduced many superb varieties such as ‘Matrona’ (shown in bud), which shares the all-round virtues of its family plus subtle coloring— dark burgundy stems, gray-green leaves edged with deep rose and flowers in maroon to pale pink that attract butterflies and bees.

Photo by: Andrea Jones.


Mod Appeal: Fountains of delicate foliage and flowers are good foils for bolder plants and add movement to thegarden. Tall grasses make living hedges; shorter grasses and sedges are tidy yet informal edging. Handsome in the garden even in their winter tans and browns.

Update: Grasses and sedges have taken the gardening world by storm. Amber-colored sedges, like Carex comans (shown) and C. testacea are the latest wave. Carex siderosticha ‘Lemon Zest’ is bright green; C. phyllocephala ‘Sparkler’ is variegated.

Photo by: Andrea Jones.


Mod Appeal: Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) is a robust vine in warm zones and a houseplant farther north. Used in interiors so often at midcentury (especially in the Eames’ work) that it is synonymous with the fifties. Split-leaf philodendron (Philodendron selloum) has the same architectural look but doesn’t climb.

Update: As if the deeply split and perforated leaves weren’t striking enough, ‘Variegata’ has white markings and ‘Marmorata’, splashes of yellow.

Photo by: Andrew Lawson.


Mod Appeal: The modernists agreed with the Victorians on this one. Aucuba japonica has full-season interest with glossy evergreen leaves and red berries. Adaptable, easy shrub for shade.

Update: Breeding programs have produced a plethora of variegated forms. Joining the old standby ‘Variegata’, or gold dust plant, are ‘Picturata’, ‘Mr. Goldstrike’ and ‘Pepper Pot’.

Photo by: Andrew Lawson.


Mod Appeal: A native of Japan, Fatsia japonica suits the Asian-inspired style of many modernist homes, making a bold foliage plant for the shade.

Update: Fatsia is a familiar houseplant that has made a transition to the outdoor landscape in warmer zones. The variegated leaves of ‘Aurea’ and ‘Variegata’ create a bright spot in shady gardens. The lace-doily leaves of ‘Manchu Fan’ are intricately lobed and nearly circular.

Photo by: Jerry Pavia.


Mod Appeal: A cast-iron constitution, shade tolerance and easy upkeep explain the appeal of smart, functional lily turf (Liriope muscari). But, like many other stalwart ground covers, it has been overexposed to the point of cliché.

Update: Liriope muscari ‘Pee Dee Ingot’, on the other hand, inspires reverence among leading-edge gardeners for its fountains of chartreuse foliage—chartreuse being the in color, along with black, for foliage fanciers today.

Watch this short video to see how a modern planting plan was put together.

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