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Tropical Display in Your Garden: Home

Canna 'Striata'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Canna 'Striata'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Creating a Tropical Display in the Garden

Tropical plants and tender perennials can give an exotic flare to your garden, spicing up containers and perennial borders. Many of them are easy to care for, others need a little pampering, but as long as their light, watering and fertilizing requirements are met, they do well.

Some tender perennials can be used as decorative fillers for containers or as effective edging for a border (when planted in groups of five or more). Scented geranium (Pelargonium), plectranthus (Plectranthus), lantana (Lantana) and licorice plant (Helichrysum) are fairly drought tolerant once established, require very little care and fill out into beautiful masses of flower and/or foliage. They make great, no-fuss additions to the garden.

Scented and ivy-leaf geraniums (Pelargonium) come in a beautiful array of textures and patterns. 'Vancouver Centennial' is a popular red and chartreuse-leaved variety; 'Madame Salleron' has cream-colored leaf edges; and 'Lady Plymouth' provides wonderful textural contrast with delicate finger-like foliage. The licorice plant (Helichrysum) and plectranthus (Plectranthus) come in silver, green, chartreuse and variegated forms.

If it's a purple foliage that you desire, try Persian shield (Strobilanthes), purple spidewort (Tradescantia), blood leaf (Iresine) or Joseph's coat (Alternanthera). All of these make vibrant additions to container plantings and offset annual and perennial displays at the front of your border.

Dahlias are wonderful complements to any perennial border. They pair well with the bold foliage of cannas or the wild architectural structure of honey bush (Melianthus). Dahlias are demanding and insist on nutrient-rich, garden soil that is high in organic matter, a sunny spot and generous feeding and watering throughout the season. Several of the cultivars, with dark, bronze foliage such as the classic 'Bishop of Llandaff', 'David Howard' and 'Fascination', stay a reasonable height (2 to 3 feet) and are easy to grow. The Gallery Series of Dahlias are fairly new on the market and ideal for the no fuss gardener. They have a nice bushy shape, fantastic flowers and only grow to 1½ feet tall so they require no staking.

For late-season color, the temperate and subtropical salvias are a wonderful addition to the garden. They thrive in full sun and well drained sites and are happiest in lean soil that should not be heavily fertilized. Many are tender perennials that will need to be dug up and taken indoors for the winter.

Salvia leucantha is a magnet for hummingbirds late in the season; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Salvia leucantha is a magnet for hummingbirds late in the season; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
 

Salvia discolor has a grayish sheen with nodding black flowers, while the flowers of Salvia patens are one of the clearest blues you'll find in the garden. The silver salvia (Salvia argentea) makes a wonderful addition to container displays with its bold, fuzzy, gray, basal rosettes. If you find the Midwestern Salvia azurea 'Nekan' with sky blue flowers, buy it; it flowers from July until September and is hardy in this region. The Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), with its fuzzy purple and white flowers, acts as a magnet for hummingbirds late in the season. 

The anise-hyssop (Agastache) cultivars are a nice alternatives to salvias. They enjoy the same growing conditions as the half-hardy salvias, but will survive through the winter. The cultivar 'Blackadder' flowers from July to frost with deep purple blooms and fragrant foliage that is reminiscent of menthol. Agastache 'Tutti Frutti,' 'Heather Queen' and 'Sunset Hyssop' are also outstanding choices that have tall, graceful flower spires in pink and salmon.

Begonias make stunning partners for ubiquitous impatiens in the shady border. The 'Dragon Wing' begonia has small red or pink flowers through the entire season, but its full habit with shiny, lance-shape foliage steals the show. It can handle full sun to shade. The silvery, speckled-leaved Begonia coccinea 'Sinbad' is also superb for full sun to part shade situations. The fantastic, marbled foliage of rex begonias do best in part to full shade. They are good additions to container displays.

None of these plants are hardy enough to survive a winter outdoors in the northeast.  If you would like to over-winter one these plants indoors, you will need to treat them carefully and allow them to complete their normal, annual cycle, be that dormancy or continued warmth and sun.  A discussion of the over-wintering needs of various plants can be found by following the US National Arboretum "Preserving Your Container Plants" link in the right column of this page.

Container Suggestions for a Tropical Display

BOTANICAL NAME
COMMON NAME
BOTANICAL NAME
COMMON NAME
Abutilon
flowering maple
Ipomoea
sweet potato vine
Acalypha
copper leaf plant
Iresine
blood leaf
Agave
agave
Lantana
lantana
Alternanthera
Joseph's coat
Lotus
parrot's beak
Angelonia
angelonia
Melianthus
honey bush
Asclepias curassavica
butterfly weed
Musa
banana
Begonia
begonia
Passiflora
passion flower
Brugmansia
angel's trumpet
Pelargonium
fancy-leafed geranium
Caladium
angel's wings
Pentas
Egyptian star
Calibrachoa
calibrachoa
Phormium
New Zealand flax
Canna
canna
Plectranthus
plectranthus
Codiaeum
croton
Ruellia simplex
false-petunia
Solenostemon
coleus
Salvia argentia
silver sage
Colocasia
elephant's ear
Salvia discolor
Andean silver-leafed sage
Cordyline
cabbage palm
Salvia coerulea
Brazilian sage
Cuphea
cigar plant or Mexican heather
Salvia leucantha
Mexican bush sage
Dahlia
dahlia
Salvia patens
gentian sage
Euphorbia cotinifolia
Carribean copper plant
Strobilanthes
Persian shield
Fuschia
fuschia
Tradescantia
purple spiderwort
Hamelia
fire bush
Verbena
verbena
Hibiscus
hibiscus
Yucca
yucca

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