Container gardens Gardening Landscape design Tropical Plants

Tropical Plants: Give Your Garden a Tropical Twist!

Orange canna flower

Written By: Marianne Willburn
Author of: Tropical Plants and How to Love Them

Adding Tropical Plants to your Landscape!

This year when you start your hunt for cool new accents to add to your garden, you’re far more likely to find tropical and subtropical stars such as cannas, cordylines, mandevillas, hibiscus, elephant ears, bananas, palms, dracaena, and various flowering gingers front and center.

It’s thrilling to watch this trend happening. Professional gardeners all over the nation understand the drama, energy, and excitement that this incredible group of plants can add to the temperate garden. There’s simply nothing like it, and there’s no better way to get visitors engaged with your gardening efforts than by surprising them with the unusual textural accents of a nine-foot banana!

Tropical Plants give your garden a tropical twist - National Garden Bureau
A few backyard tropicals to try.

Have you found yourself drawn to the bold, unusual foliage and flowers of tropical plants? Are you excited by the thought of dipping your brush into a tropical palette and having some fun, but you find yourself unsure about how to use them successfully?

Tropical plants don’t have to be forever!

Many temperate gardeners avoid tropical plants as they don’t want to commit to overwintering a tender plant indoors. The good news is that you don’t have to.You can spend a long growing season with a stunning tropical plant and say goodbye to it when the cold winds blow, just as you do with other more ‘traditional’ annuals such as petunias or zinnia. Any plant can be a ‘summer romance’ when life gets crazy and there are a lot of demands on your time.But, if you want to take your relationship up a notch, there are many plants, such as canna, elephant ears, lantana, or dahlia that will store in a frost-free location (such as a basement or garage) in total darkness. They don’t need much from you except a check every few weeks to make sure they’re not becoming desiccated. In the spring, you can replant and enjoy another wonderful season with them.Still, others make strong, excellent houseplants that continue to beautify your life throughout the cold months of winter – providing architectural accents in the home. In the summer, they’ll come out again for a needed vacation and will once again energize your deck, patio, or garden in shade or sun. These are plants such as schefflera, peperomia, dracaena and sansevieria.In short – it’s up to you and there is no right or wrong answer! You can use a gorgeous ‘Bengal Tiger’ canna as a backdrop for your favorite hydrangea and allow it to perish at the end of the season right along with other summer annuals such as peppers and cosmos – or you can dig the rhizomes, put them into a bag without ceremony and store them in your basement.

Successfully designing with tropical plants

Successfully designing your landscape with Tropical Plants

There is no doubt that tropical plants up your garden’s game. They are unusual and vigorous and bring energy, architecture, and awe to a young garden very quickly. But they are so different, that it can feel overwhelming to figure how to incorporate them successfully.

Let’s look at three easy ways to try a few tropical plants this season:

Containers

Containers are the easiest way to get started with tropical plants because the gardener has total control of soil, moisture, and exposure. Think first about vigor and the ultimate size of the plant you’re considering. Tropical plants, like a six-foot canna can certainly live in a 10-inch pot, but it looks awkward and gangly and may dwarf other plants. Instead, choose large containers that can enhance that height and vigor, or choose smaller cultivars (there are many), that work for your smaller-scale containers.

Using several smaller containers with a single tropical plant also works well as you can mix and match, creating patio arrangements that you can change up or change out!.

Mix of begonia, euphorbia, vinca, and tradescantia
Tropical plants create beautiful and unusual combinations in containers – here a mix of begonia, euphorbia, vinca, and tradescantia rise to the challenge of a hot, late-season garden.

Water Features

Water Features don’t have to be huge ponds or expensive backyard waterfalls! A simple ceramic container without drainage holes and an inexpensive pump can allow you to have a small water feature right on your deck – and water-loving tropical plants such as canna, papyrus, and colocasia will give it that lush look all season long.

Submerge your plants just at water level – putting a large rock in the base of the pot you are submerging and cover the soil with pea gravel to stop it floating away. Fabric pots also work well, as they can be squeezed to fit into tight corners.

Canna and colocasia in a water feature
Canna and colocasia in a container water feature early in the season. By mid-season, these plants will have created a lush corner on an atmospheric patio.

Photo from: Tropical Plants and How to Love Them

Indoor Decor

Houseplants aren’t just for the house! Many of your favorites can do double-duty outside and will be revitalized by the summer conditions just as much as you are. Whether your houseplant is a sun or shade lover, make sure to transition it slowly to greater light levels, once temperatures have increased in late spring.Use your houseplants to decorate smaller patio or deck areas, or, if your houseplant pot has drainage holes, you can simply plunge the pot into existing plantings to create fun and memorable combinations.

Sansevieria and Japanese painted ferns
Sansevieria creates incredible contrast with temperate Japanese painted ferns. In the early autumn, these will be brought back inside.

Before temperatures start to plunge in early autumn, bring your houseplant back inside after checking carefully for pests. You’ll be thrilled with the increased vigor and health you see after a summer vacation outside!

This healthy peperomia (Peperomia obtusifolia ‘Variegata’) is starting the season back indoors with increased health and coloration at its peak.

Enjoy a vacation – every evening – with tropical plants!

After a long and crazy year, we’re all feeling ready for a vacation – but we may not be able to take for one a for little while longer. Tropical plants can come to the rescue by bringing that same sense of relaxation, ambiance, and sophistication to our balconies, our patios, our gardens, and our living rooms. They can provide a restful and atmospheric backdrop to outside gatherings with friends we’ve missed.During the hottest days of summer, these plants accept the challenge and meet it with bold, colorful, and texture-rich accents that breathe energy back into the garden.

Give Your Garden a Tropical Twist with Tropical Plants - National Garden Bureau

Allow yourself to flirt with a few this season and enjoy a tropical love affair of your own!

This post is provided as an educational/inspirational service of the National Garden Bureau and its members. Photos are from the book Tropical Plants and How to Love Them (Cool Springs, 2021).


Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

2 comments on “Tropical Plants: Give Your Garden a Tropical Twist!

  1. When I was in Nicaragua I saw Sansevieria/ snake plant, growing along side fence at the front gate. They did not prune the power lines, because the trees never break from snow & ice.
    I also like the look of the Holly fern(Cyrtomium falcatum) & cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), also. I love canna & elephant ear as doorway or background plants.

  2. At a nursery near Oklahoma City, I noticed more of the tropical hibiscus than I see at nurseries in the Los Angeles region. I was told that they are popular as houseplants there through the winter, and that they can go outside for the summer, but must come back in by the following winter. It seemed like too much work to me. I think if I lived there, I would prefer plants that can actually grow there, or plants that can live as houseplants full time. Also, I noticed cannas, both fancy hybrids, and common species. They were out there in the winter! I had to ask about them, and was told that the colony of common species cannas was not maintained, and that they regenerate every spring. That surprised me.

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