Accent Plant Smorgasbord!

It’s been a busy month! And it’s nice to come back from tilting at windmills and other kinds of fun to see what’s been going on while away. I always look forward to see what’s blooming on the accent bench, and what’s getting ready to bloom. They’re a cheerful bunch!

I’ve shared photos of accent plants in the past when they begin to get showy, so it’s nothing new that I’m waxing rhapsodic at this time of year. This time I’ve also included a few paragraphs about their care, and some observations on the aesthetic horizons of these special plantings that my teacher Shinji Suzuki was so very fond of.


Columbine is one of my favorite plants. This is the first time I can remember it blooming the same week as the hawkweed, which is the yellow flower here. The dying flowers of the hawkweed, by the way, should be removed promptly or you will have them EVERYWHERE and you’ll likely be deported to Antarctica by your neighbors for the oversight. Spiral Orchid peeking out around the left side, which will likely give us a show in another month or so.


Three kinds of ferns indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Also a small Solomon’s Seal hidden in there somewhere.


A whimsical composition by Greg Brenden: Horsetail potted in a blown glass piece. No drain hole, perfect for a water loving plant.


Vetch and Giant Helleborine. Also a couple of things that I’ve not the faintest idea what the heck they are. (That’s one of the delights of collecting a mass of promising-looking roots, it might take a few years to figure out what you’ve got-)


Sword Fern and a species of evergreen penstemon on a chunk of lava. I had trouble growing the evergreen penstemons on rocks until I planted them on a wad of sphagnum moss. Now they do fine.

I’ve not yet fertilized any of these rascals this year, just watered. In early July I will fertilize. Most accent plants like a lot of water, even the succulents pictured here don’t mind it. But then they are from the wet West Coast, so they grow mold like the rest of us. Also I don’t repot them very frequently. Most accent plants can go 7-10 years between repottings. They get tighter growth and bloom better, and begin to mound up and crawl over the sides of the pot so it looks like one unit. Then things get really JUICY… which is a technical term that true accent plant fanatics use. You might begin using it too, but it requires long term exposure to juicy plants or a very severe knock on the head, either will do.


A type of rush. Can’t water this one enough. Moss climbing down the sides. A few orchids in there somewhere and a volunteer weed or two that I’ve not yet identified. I like the top hats on the rushes that wave around in the breeze.


Another Sword Fern and penstemon on lava. They both grow naturally on the lava flows up in the Cascade Range a few grasshopper jumps east of us.


Rush and Giant Helleborine in a water dish. Lovely T1-11 siding backdrop. Good heavens.

I think we all have a tendency to ‘compose’ an accent planting, which I think really kills it aesthetically. It’s so easy to pot up a few plants together and have it look like it was designed. It should feel organically WILD. Try to keep it simple, 1-3 kinds of plants only. Also, try to have things that bloom at different times so it doesn’t get too complex at any one blooming month. Many of the accents pictured here were dug up in the dormant season before I saw what was there, which is one way to avoid the impulse to compose. That’s also a way to make use of the art world idea of a ‘found object’. Also, consider keeping the volunteer plant when it arrives, which might be a random seed that blows in from elsewhere. This will assist us in creating an improvisational feeling. Then, once you’ve got it all, let it grow and get lopsided all by itself, and make slight adjustments only with a scissors. Good accents take at least five years of growth to look established and convincingly wild, lumpy, and playful. And they just get better with time!


A lump of roots that includes three kinds of fern. The Licorice Fern leaves have dried up already. They take a holiday in the summertime but will regrow in the fall.


Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, which will shortly have a dangling sky-blue flower, and some volunteer coltsfoot. The coltsfoot has never bloomed, the bugger. I don’t think it likes me very much. But who can argue with a volunteer? Nice little leaves.


Wild Ginger.


Six-Spot Saxifrage on a mossy piece of lava. It had tiny white flowers pop up earlier this spring, rising up like exclamation marks. The snaky shoots that tumble off the left side make it a particularly useful directional accent in a bonsai display.


Another Wild Ginger, this one in a metal half-sphere. No drain hole, so it’s great for ginger which likes a ton of moisture. I just mounded the soil for some oxygen in the roots. These fellas have the weirdest dark purply/brown flower that looks like the inspiration for something scary like the Little Shop of Horrors.




Several things, including Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium) which is in the iris family, along with a true grass and a Spiral Orchid which might grace us with a bloom spike later this year.


Very old succulent with a withered bloom spike, recently absconded with on the coast five miles from Jim Gremel’s place. What do you think Jim, did anyone see us? Should we turn ourselves in? To whom, I wonder. The seagulls?

The last photo is of an accent less than 3″/7 cm high. The tallest in this gallery was 20″/50 cm. My teacher in Japan had many that were in the 24″-36″/60-90 cm range, like a pot of tall reeds or cattails. These were not used as a companion piece to a bonsai but were displayed by themselves in a separate tokonoma. Very large ‘accent’ plants are not really accents, but are appreciated for their own qualities independent of the subordinate role usually reserved for smaller accents in bonsai display.

The thing I love about accents is, they are fringe. Accent plants are for really fanatical bonsai nutballs and wingnuts. You’ll know if you’re also a nut if you spend more time admiring your accents than the deeply valuable old bonsai that impress first-time visitors. If you’re such a nut, you’re probably also more interested in process than economics, in beauty than making sure the balance sheet of labor to price works out positively. It won’t. Accent plants are pretty worthless by most value metrics in our daily lives. Pure and untethered to pennies, we won’t get overly precious with them and can enjoy them just as they are: A beauty as rambunctious and free as the wind.

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  1. Tom Kruegl says:

    I agree with your philosophy of accent plants. They are such happy little carefree creatures!

  2. bonsai eejit says:

    Reblogged this on Bonsai Eejit and commented:
    I’m a bonsai nutball and wingnut 🙂

  3. Judy Fister says:

    Perfect antidote to a Monday that never ends….must run out into the weird parts of the yard to see what volunteers for accent plants lurk about there!

  4. The Gremel succulent is a species of Dudleya. Definitely needs winter protection here (Portland, Oregon, USA)! I used to have one.

  5. A great place to find great plants for accent is at neighbourhood plant sales.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, one can, although most of the plants sold that way are hybridized and rather…’pretty’. In using them we can lose the natural, wild quality that is found if we just look in our backyard weed patch or on a hike down a nearby trail. One should not need to spend a cent on an accent plant, but, of course, you Might find something suitable at a plant sale-

  6. Bruce Winter says:

    I’m more enthused than ever with these care-free little puppies. I was hoping to see your Habenaria radiata, not the right time I guess..sigh…I can’t fine one even here in orchid heaven (Hilo)

    • crataegus says:

      Ya, they bloom in the summer, usually August. This year I have twice as many bulbs coming up as last year, but I don’t think they’ll all flower. If it’s a good year I’ll certainly put up a pic-

  7. Steve Carini says:

    Great blog Michael… In my classes at Boon’s, I think that I also spend much time admiring his many interesting accents. They offer so much beauty and are named so appropriately, as they do so honor the trees they are placed among! Like growing a garden in a pot.

  8. princhipi says:

    Love the one in the tall tiny pot!

  9. princhipi says:

    Reblogged this on Melanie's dream of a house with lots of bonsai and commented:
    I really love accent and kusamonos!! This ones are so fresh and airy, gives immediatly a sentetion of coolness in a warm breezy summer.

  10. Pierre-Alex says:

    High Michael,

    Thanks for this exciting post. Could you tell what kind of substrate you use for your accent plants?

    Thank you.

    • crataegus says:

      I tend to use different things for different plants. Because I want small leaf characteristics, though, I tend to use the siftings (minus the dust) of the akadama/pumice mix I use with my bonsai. About 1/16″ particle size. Works very well for the grasses and the like that have very fine roots to begin with. Then, for things like many of the terrestrial orchids that like a lot of water and have fatter roots, I will tuck sphagnum moss around each bulb. I use sphagnum more than many people I think, called ‘orchid’ moss by many distributors. It’s straw colored, NOT brown peat moss which is a very dangerous product (will become water repellant when dry). I like the fact sphagnum never breaks down (needs an anaerobic situation to become peat moss). And I’ll use it with accent rock plantings, too. Otherwise I’m using just my normal bonsai mix at a much smaller size for most things, maybe larger 1/6″ size soil for fat rooted plants like ginger. And I’ll add live moss to the top of the accent plants, too.

  11. Chris G. says:

    Great post Michael with some beautiful accents…esp. like the rush and horsetail. Just wish I could keep them here. I can’t provide winter freezing protection (and no garage). But I can admire your unique collection! 😉

    • crataegus says:

      You might try burying the accents in the ground in the winter. The grasses and the like are cut down to nubs in the fall anyway, there’s nothing to worry about there. Most accent plants look like brown lumps in the winter, so you might as well nest them in the ground. Where are you? Harsh winter freezes? Even a very small cold frame could work in most cold climates.

  12. Daniel Dolan says:


    Accent Plantings…….splendid. I want one. Where do I buy these?

    Now, may I ask a question about Shimpaku Juniper and the conditions under which they experience stress……….causing them to produce juvenile needle foliage?

    I have several 15″ high, 10+ year old Shimpakus in Japanese clay training pots
    awaiting installation next year on a beautiful rock. All are growing well, are never pinched as you have instructed, numerous shoots extending, yet on 1…… 4-5 small clumps of vivid green juvenile foliage can be found.

    The trees are in Clay King soil mix from Jim Gremel, receive only fish emulsion fertilizer, are watered appropriately, shaded from hot afternoon sun and wind, no pests or fungus, and generally cared for better than my dog.

    Question: What does this tree have to be stressed about?

    Please advise.

    Best regards.

  13. MPN says:

    Great post with lovely photos!!

  14. monte says:

    Michael, some entertaining mental images come to mind as I imagine a person tilting at windmills but I have to wonder, what the proper technique really is, something you learned in Japan?

    I have overwintered many native and cold hardy garden accents in small pots and on stones stiing on the ground in zone 3 with no problems. temps down to minus 30 c but usually good snow cover here.


    • crataegus says:

      Snow is one of the best protections. I simply put my accents in the greenhouse in the winter. protects from wind, frost, and some of the cold weather. It doesn’t drop below 28 F, most of the time it’s above freezing. they all seem to do fine with that. Most are hardy perennials, some are a bit tender but they do fine too.

      Windmill tilting is quite an art. It’s hard to get the angle quite right, but once managed you can charge on confidently.

  15. Christopher says:

    Love the horse tails, my son and I often reflect on their ancient ancestors that were 40-60 feet tall.

  16. Your beautiful creations and commentaries are keeping me off my anti-depressants. Thank you so much 🙂

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