The emerging foliage of miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliate) often resembles oversized hearts before transforming into their mature circular discs. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.

The joy of a garden lies not only in its carefully planned design or harmonious plant combinations but also in the spontaneity of unexpected surprises that emerge throughout the year.

Ramp up your garden’s delight by incorporating plants with unique and surprising features, such as flowers that look like little slippers, heart-shaped foliage, a shrub that perfumes the air with a candy-like scent, or unexpected and oversized varieties of everyday favorites. Adding these whimsical wonders to your garden creates a unique experience filled with enchanting surprises.


Nature's sense of humor is ever-present, inviting us to join in the laughter and find joy in the simplest things. Flowers, for example, can add so much more than color to the garden but also fun and surprising shapes: the sweet pea shrub (Polygala myrtifolia), for example, has magenta-pink flowers that look like birds of paradise, or slipper plant (Euphorbia lomelii) with little red blooms in the shape of a lady’s slipper, or the tiny bat-face flowers of Cuphea llavea.

Foliage is another way nature can showcase its creative flair, such as the delicate trailing stems of the rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii) with its heart-shaped leaves, the snail-shell-shaped foliage of the ‘Escargot’ begonia, or the swiss-cheese-like foliage of a Monstera plant to name just a few.

Visitors delight in seeing how the uniquely-shaped coral flowers of the Euphorbia lomelii look just like tiny slippers. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.


Interactive plant leaves and flowers provide a captivating glimpse into the fascinating realm of botanical communication. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, these remarkable plants actively engage with their environment dynamically, responding to touch, movement, and even sound.

Examples include the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) that folds its leaves inward once touched, the infamous Venus flytrap that responds to touch by swiftly closing its specialized leaves upon unsuspecting insects, and, of course, many of the carnivorous plants such as sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) with sticky tentacles that cluster around a trapped insect.

Adding interactive plants that respond to touch or movement to the garden is guaranteed to provide a fun and surprising experience for all (adults and children alike!)

The very definition of an interactive plant is the Venus flytrap who quickly snaps its leaves shut on an unsuspecting insect. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.


Who doesn’t love deliciously scented flowers, inhaling the fragrance of an old-fashioned rose, the heady scent of a blooming jasmine vine, or the sweet scent of a tuberose? But, why not take it up a notch and include a few unexpected ‘scent-surprises’ in the garden? Add plants like Iris pallida 'Variegata' variegated iris with grape-juice-scented blooms or popcorn cassia (Cassia didymobotrya) with foliage that smells like popcorn and flowers that smell like peanut butter, or a mock orange shrub (Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’) whose white flowers perfume the garden with the fragrance of SweetTart™ candy. There's also the many scented geraniums whose foliage adds layers of lemon, lime, cloves, cedar, or even chocolate mint.

Including surprising scents such as these creates an unforgettable and delightful journey through the garden.

Inhaling the mouth-watering, candy-like fragrance of a blooming ‘Belle Etoile’ mock orange is one of the most pleasurable things to do on a warm summer afternoon. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.


Introducing plants with unexpected shapes, forms, and growth patterns to the garden ignites the imagination while evoking curiosity. Picture the mesmerizing spirals of a spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla) with its enchanting symmetry; or the rock-impersonating shapes of Lithops, their camouflaged appearance blending seamlessly with rocky landscapes; or the corkscrew-like twists and turns of a corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), its contorted branches adding a playful touch to any garden.

Adding plants such as these adds a surprising touch of drama and personality to the garden, resulting in a unique and memorable experience.

The vertigo-inducing spirals of a spiral aloe add an unexpected sense of motion to the garden. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.


Add a captivating and dynamic surprise to your garden by incorporating flowers that change color throughout the day, reflecting the passage of time and the shifting hues of natural light. However, these flowers also serve a purpose beyond their visual appeal, frequently changing color to entice specific pollinators throughout various times of the day.

Examples include the yesterday-today-tomorrow plant (Brunfelsia grandiflora) with flowers that begin the day with lavender or purple, fading to white as the day progresses. Or, Four o’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), which blooms late in the day, simultaneously showcasing flowers of multiple colors, with some blossoms transitioning from yellow to dark pink and others from white to violet. And certain morning glories (Ipomoea) transform as their petals unfurl, revealing vibrant hues of violet, pink, or blue at dawn that gradually soften throughout the day.

The vibrant, everchanging blooms of the Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow (Brunfelsia grandiflora) adds an unexpected surprise to the spring garden. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.


Exploring the colorful world of gardening is like going on a treasure hunt; besides the usual pops of color from flowers and leaves, there are hidden sources of color waiting to be discovered. You'll find contrasting hues in unexpected places like a flower's intricate center, its subtle shading, or even in its stems and seed heads. For example, the captivating 'Lady in Red' hydrangea boasts cranberry-colored stems, or the 'Honeycrisp' coleus with a surprising burst of magenta hidden under its leaves.

Keep looking to discover colors beyond just flowers and foliage. Think berries, bark, or even a plant's vibrant new growth—like the first flush of red leaves from a rose, Pieris, or peony. And don't forget about a plant’s old growth, too, coordinating fall's fiery foliage with late-blooming flowers. These other, less apparent colors are a golden opportunity to create a bit of visual magic in your garden.

Look beyond the radiant golden yellow petals of the Kahili Ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) to discover a hidden treasure: vibrant orange stamens just waiting to become an unexpected color echo. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.


Texture is an alluring element in the garden, creating an irresistible physical reaction among kids and adults alike (who can resist the uncontrollable urge to stroke the soft leaf of a lamb’s ear plant or run a hand along the peeling bark of a paper bark maple?) However, in addition to the texture coming from foliage and flowers, look a little deeper to find other sources of texture, such as feathery seedpods, bristly stems, peeling bark, and even hardscaping. While many of these sources of texture are subtle, their influence on the garden’s overall harmony is vital, helping to create year-round interest.

The feather-duster seed heads of the clematis vine are a show in and of themselves. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.


Don't forget to enjoy the pleasure of discovering any late-season surprises that your garden may offer. Unexpected seedpods such as the money plant’s translucent, wafer-thin disc that resembles flattened silver dollars, or the knobby marble-sized red fruit of a kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa).

Late color surprises can be found in places other than foliage, like the surprise emergence of flowers from a naked lady bulb (Amaryllis belladonna), which seem to snake out of the bare ground on tall stems, adding soft pink trumpet-shaped flowers to the fall garden; or the brilliant red stems of the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) that shine brightest on a cold winter’s day.

The white blooms of the Harlequin glorybower (Clerodendrum trichotomum) transform into jester-hat-shaped berries in eye-popping shades of indigo and crimson. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.


Introducing exceptionally large or small variations of common plants into your garden can add a delightful twist, sparking intrigue and fascination among visitors. Imagine spotting a group of towering 'Titan' or 'Giraffe' sunflowers reaching for the sky or colorful, petite miniature roses nestled among lush foliage. Whether it's the awe-inspiring grandeur of giant plants or the endearing charm of miniature ones, integrating these varieties lends a whimsical allure to your garden, creating an unforgettable experience for all who visit.

Though the Iris reticulata 'Katharine Hodgkin' boasts mesmerizing sky blue and yellow flowers intricately veined with dark purple and yellow, they stand at a mere 4-inches tall, offering a delightful surprise to in any garden. Photo by: Rebecca Sweet.

How & When to Plant Bulbs
20 Spring-Flowering Bulbs to Grow
20 Best Summer Bulbs to Grow

JOIN 100,000 GARDEN LOVERSSign up for weekly gardening inspiration and design tips

Get plant information, gardening solutions, design inspiration and more in our weekly newsletter.

* Required Fields
We will never sell or distribute your email to any other parties or organizations.

More about the newsletter

Follow Us Garden Design Magazine Facebook Garden Design Magazine Twitter Garden Design Magazine Pinterest Garden Design Magazine Instagram Garden Design Magazine Youtube