I love big, bold foliage. The “extras” of the plant world. You’ll find tropical plants woven into every garden bed, not to mention the containers on the patio. I tend to like plants, and some people, one might call “extra.” They make life a bit more interesting. Plants that scream look at me have a place in every garden and they make the smaller, softer spoken plants stand out and look even better. Funny how that works. Too much of the big stuff however, just looks like a bunch of big stuff. It’s overwhelming. So I find that a tropical plant here and there makes the garden so much more interesting and it satiates my desire for a little something tropical in every bed or container. Cold climate be damned!
My love affair with tropical plants began several years ago with Christopher Lloyd and Great Dixter, his garden in East Sussex, England. Lloyd, a wonderful gardener and garden writer, died in 2006 and his gardens are now managed by Fergus Garrett and the Great Dixter Charitable Trust. It’s a wonderful place that I hope to someday visit. His garden is several zones (zone 8 to be exact) warmer than mine so many of the tropical plants in what he calls the Exotic Garden overwinter right in the ground. I’m not so lucky, but there are ways around that. They require a little more work but it’s worth it for the thrill tropical plants bring to the garden every summer.
I follow Lloyd’s lead by incorporating tropical plants where I think they’ll accentuate my suburban plot. There’s just something so thrilling about a big tropical leaf amidst all the coneflowers, roses, catmint and daisies common in Midwestern gardens. Mine included.
So perhaps you can understand why my heart flutters at the sight of a Musa basjoo banana plant or a mammoth elephant ear. I love even more the way visitors react to these plants when they visit my garden. “What is THAT?!” is inevitable and I love telling them about this tropical plant that doesn’t really belong here but likes me so much that it can’t help but thrive. Not really. But sometimes it’s nice to think it. To be honest, tropical plants tend to be big drinkers and eaters, like some people you might know. They’re big plants with enormous appetites. Give them what they want and you will be rewarded. The opposite is true for child rearing, in my experience.
Let me show you a few of my favorite tropical plants.
Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpet
Before I carry on about this beauty, all parts of this tropical plant are dangerously poisonous. If you have small children or curious pets, best to avoid it. I bought this brugmansia from a plant sale several years ago. It was about six inches tall and it’s since grown into this gorgeous vase-shaped elegant tree that reached about eight feet tall this summer. I grow it in a pot that has spent time on the patio in previous summers. This summer I decided to sink the plant, pot and all, in the ground thinking it would be easier to keep this thirsty gal happy. The difference was marginal at best and I much prefer it on the patio than I do in the ground.
Perhaps it’s the canopy of trumpet-shaped flowers that drip from it, suspended above my head as I sit in my favorite chair each evening, that makes me love it so much. The scent is heavenly and soothing. A weekly feed of fish emulsion and oftentimes a daily drink of water keep it growing and flowering until frost. It’s hardy to zone 9 and must spend each winter in a dormant state in my basement. It returns every year, knock on wood, to put on quite a show.
After many years here in my very hot, very sunny foundation border, Summer Storm perennial hibiscus (large flowers on right) gave up the ghost last year. I planted Perfect Storm, a slightly smaller cultivar with similar flowers and dark foliage, in it’s place. It’s not exactly a tropical plant but it certainly has that tropical look I love which explains why I replaced the dead one with another variety.
It’s hardy to zone 4 and grows about three feet tall with a five-foot spread. Perennial hibiscus can become quite large so I love the diminutive form of this plant in my narrow beds. I have other varieties scattered about the garden. The trick is remembering where they are in the spring. They’re slow to wake from their winter slumber and I find that leaving the branches intact until they break dormancy helps me remember where they are in the garden.
I learned my lesson early on when I ripped out a Lord Baltimore, assuming it was dead. Later, when I discovered their sleep habits, I felt bad for my abrupt removal of the Lord and haven’t made the same mistake twice. Patience.
What’s an exotic garden without an elephant ear or two? I planted Coffee Cups colocasia with Vista White salvia in the two planters that flank the entrance to the patio. I love the leaves and the way they tip beneath the weight of accumulating raindrops. It’s as though someone is pouring liquid from a vessel, which explains the name of this beautiful plant.
At the top of this post, I showed you a photo of elephant ears planted on each side of the garden gate. They’re Heart of the Jungle colocasias from Proven Winners and were quite tiny when I planted them in May. They grew to become more than what I expected and now feel like this plant is a must in this spot forever. The gigantic leaves of the colocasia juxtaposed with the delicate looking foliage and white flowers of Sweet Autumn clematis (there’s absolutely nothing delicate about this plant) does it for me.
Pictures are great for showing you where something’s lacking and I think a Stained Glass hosta beneath the one on the left will really make those dark leaves pop. Good thing I already have that hosta (on far right) and have added it to the list of things to be divided in the spring. On that note, hosta, while perennial here, also lends tropical flair with it’s big leaves. Check out Empress Woo, Sum and Substance and Diamond Lake hostas to see what I mean.
But not just any canna. Pretoria aka Bengal Tiger is the one for me and they’re dug every fall for safe keeping through the winter. I find I like orange much more these days. It’s grown on me over the years and this canna’s orange flowers are beloved by the hummers who battle over my garden all summer long. I plant Pretoria behind one of my favorite perennials, Calamintha nepeta, another pollinator magnet. The boldness of the canna leaf paired with the fluffy ethereal nature of the calamintha are a combo I repeat every year. I can’t believe I don’t have a photo of it but hopefully you’ll trust me on this one.
While not rocking huge leaves like other tropical plants mentioned in this post, coleus is a rockstar in the color realm. There are so many colors and I struggle with which to plant every year. Here I have Vino planted beneath a hydrangea tree. Both require a good amount of water in this southern exposure and regular pinching of the new growth on the coleus results in a beautifully rounded, dense plant. It’s hard to believe that they started as just four little plants in a cell pack. It’s amazing what a little pinching can do.
While you can take cuttings, root them and grow them on through the winter, space is limited so I prefer to buy new every year. I never miss a chance to experiment with a new variety.
Like brugmansia, datura is poisonous. Beware. That being said, Datura is incredibly easy to grow, which I did from seed in my bedroom window. The flowers are nearly identical to those of Brugmansia but the plant has a shrub-like, sprawling habit and the flowers face up. If you need to cover some ground and haven’t the budget to fill it with perennials, this is a great alternative. They’re fragrant too, becoming more so in the evening when temperatures drop. Also, the rabbits leave them alone.
One seed produced a plant that grew three feet tall with a four- to five-foot spread. Ballerina Yellow datura was ideal for preventing weeds in this new front yard garden bed, which meant I had fewer weeds and more time to stop and smell the flowers. I yanked them out after the first frost mangled them and haven’t decided if I’ll need to sow them again next year.
If you’re into big flowers, dahlias are definitely worth considering. Those huge flowers never disappoint and are without a doubt part of my tropical plant club. Pictured above are Cafe au Lait Royale dahlias from last year’s garden and their size was thrilling to say the least. What is it with big flowers? They never cease to amaze me. If they lack anything, it’s pollinator friendliness. But that’s what the single-flowered dahlias are for. Problem solved.
Like cannas, they’re dug each fall and stored for the winter. I killed them all last year and had to start fresh with new tubers this spring. Learn as you go and I definitely learned that the garage is just too cold to overwinter them. They’re tucked away in the basement beneath a layer of wood shavings and I’m hopeful that the second time’s the charm.
You’ll likely think of other tropical plants, or tropical looking plants, that fit the bill in a cold climate. These work for me and I’ll no doubt discover more next year. But I’d love to know about the bold and beautiful (isn’t that a soap opera?) tropicals your garden would be lost without.
Also, want to see how I handle my brugmansia or Musa basjoo banana for winter storage? Check out these videos…