It is possible to enjoy the look of the tropics in your own garden by selecting the right plants and plant combinations. We live in a temperate climate of Zone 7-8 so some species are hardy here, while others just look tropical, even though they aren’t. Some are borderline hardy, which means they might die back in severe winters, but regrow from the roots come spring.
To get the look and feel of the tropics, don’t be shy about the plants you choose. Big, green, bold foliage and hot coloured flowers in reds, yellows and oranges should fill the garden and spill over in lush repose. Nothing is tight and controlled or neatly shaped. Plants collide and intermingle, which adds to its sultry appeal.
Every tropical themed garden needs a palm tree and Trachycarpus fortunei, the Windmill Palm and the Washingtonia robusta, the Mexican Fan Palm fit the bill. They do well here when planted in a protected spot with winter protection.
Another tropical tree is the Paulownia tomentosa, the Empress Tree. Similar to a jacaranda, this fast growing tree boasts purple foxglove like flowers that are borne in profusion. Catalpas are another bold tropical type tree with huge heart shaped leaves followed by clusters of showy white bell flowers.
Substitute the popular tropical hibiscus with its smaller flowered hardy relative, the Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus syn. Althaea syriacus. Add a banana tree with the hardy Red Leaved Banana, Ensete maurelii. It doesn’t bear fruit here, but it certainly adds a tropical dash.
Combine it with the Yucca’s upright spiky foliage and its tall white flower spike for contrast.
Cannas are known for their bold attractive leaves. Now they come in many colours and colour combinations including green with yellow stripes and deep maroon. Their large lily-type flowers are no shrinking violets either, showing off in hot vivid reds, oranges and yellows. Some grow to a whopping 8 feet while newer hybrids only grow to 2 feet.
The New Zealand Flax, Phormiums sp, does best with some winter protection, but is stunning with their upright lance-shaped leaves. They are great companions to the hardy Frost Proof Gardenia, which bears the same pure white and beautifully scented flowers of its non hardy relative.
For more sweet scents, select the hardy jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides ‘Madison’. Its fragrant white star shaped flowers cover this evergreen vine in spring.
Elephant Ears, Colocasia sp., also are grown solely for their huge arrow shaped leaves. Colocasia antiquorum 'Illustris’ has green veins contrasting on deep purple, while the Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic' bears dramatic deep purple foliage. They all love moist soil so are suitable for bog gardens and ponds.
The arching flowers stems of Montbretias, Crocosmia spp., bear yellow, red or orange flowers lined up neatly in a row. Its curved strappy leaves look great next to the erect form of the cannas. Combine either with the outrageous boldness of Bear’s Breeches, Acanthus mollis. It’s huge deeply cut ornate leaves set the stage for the spikes of light mauve pinky hooded blossoms.
Red Hot Poker, Kniphofia sp., is an herbaceous perennial with stiff upright spiky leaves with colourful tubular flowers in orange, red and yellow clustered on top of a leafless stem. Pare it with round form of the dinner plate dahlias with flowers over 10 inches wide and plants over 5 feet tall. They come in many colour combinations.
Foxtail Lily, Eremurus elwesii, is another dramatic herbaceous perennial that pierces the landscape with over 3 foot flower spires of yellow, orange or white.
Just one or two plants is all you need to bring the essence of the tropics to your garden. Don’t be shy; be bold and get tropical.
These and many other plants with a tropical appearance can be found at Art's Nursery. As always please call ahead to confirm availability of specific varieties as our selection is always changing.