What is it about warm, sunny climes
and tropical fruit drinks that makes everyone feel happy? If it's not the beaches and surf
that attract us to the tropics, it must be the big, bold, beautiful plants. When there is
a breeze, they stir the air around you more than they fan your face. They look
substantial, and truly can stand up to the hottest day. That's tropical texture and it can
be yours in every garden setting when you grow the right plants.
Classic tropical texture plants share these common
characteristics: large leaves, brightly colored, frequently fragrant, flowers, and fast
growth. The leaves make the visual statement. They may be slick and shiny or hairy with
thick, even leathery, surfaces. In mostly medium and dark green, they're often shaped like
hearts or ovals. Tropicals are considered bold or coarse, almost landscape bullies, but
think again. Their fast growth rate makes their impact almost immediate and their size and
shape render them unforgettable.
Tropical plants may not be hardy where you live, but their
stunning beauty makes them worth using as annuals or tender perennials in the garden. And
all make great candidates for greenhouses and even heated sunrooms if you plan ahead to
keep them over the winter. These plants demand a soil rich with organic matter and
fertilizer in their water at least once a month in the summer. They will return your care
with boisterous good growth, ideal for brightening outdoor living areas.
Try this list of widely available plants in courtyard beds,
containers, sunken pots, and borders. Each expresses the qualities of classic tropical
texture in its distinct way:
Allamanda and Mandevilla may sound strange, but these flowering
vines will win your heart. Thick- petaled, big flowers in yellow and pink shades,
respectively, cover sturdy vines all summer long. Use on trellises in patio pots in nearly
Relatives cannas and bananas tower above, and the eye follows.
Cannas deliver round flowers in tiered clusters followed by interesting seed pods on
upright plants 2'-6' tall. If leaf rollers present, fill the area around the plants with
diatomaceous earth to control them. Bananas arch and then droop with grander height. Keep
both in containers in the border to keep them in bounds.
Plantainlilies (Hosta spp.) develop tufted leaf clumps that look
like thickly upholstered cushions. Stalks emerge with white, lilac, or blue flowers in
shady summer gardens. Grow these as an accent near a shady entrance, or mass them under
Butterfly ginger, hardiest of the species, thrives in rich soil
and partial shade to bloom with fragrant flowers. Each five foot stem has leaves straight
off to each side and flower clusters at its tip. Plant where the smell can reach you, but
the height doesn't block your view.
Hibiscus (H.rosa-sinensis) can be grown in tubs for years with
protection, or as shrubby annuals you can purchase new each year or propagate from
cuttings in the fall. Shiny green leaves feature bold flower trumpets in red, yellow,
orange, and pink.
Two bulbs deliver instant tropical effect and can be dug up for
storage from year to year. Elephant ears (Taro, Xanthosoma, or Alocasia) look like their
name sounds: gigantic, heart-shaped leaves with decorative ridges on long, arching stems.
Believe their name and give these plenty of room. Caladiums are grown for their leaves,
which come in stunning white, green, pink, and red combinations and thrive in warm
weather. Use them as accents or to continue the tropical theme into shade areas. Remove
their flowers as they appear to keep leaves coming. Withhold water to trigger dormancy;
dig both bulbs after leaves die down. Store in dry peat moss in mesh sacks and do not
allow to freeze.
You don't need pink flamingoes or tiki torches to achieve that
tropical effect in your garden. They make fine accents, of course, but so do large rocks
and logs, trellises made from bent wood, and fire pits fashioned from recycled metal.
Windchimes with big tubes for deeply resonant tones and wind socks to catch every breath
of air in motion add even more tropical flavor to your patio, deck, or garden room.
For contrasting tropical textures, grow these:
Save Seed for Big Stars
Rice paper plants, fatsia, and castor bean feature tropical
texture in big star shaped leaves. All can be grown from seed you save each year.