Tropicals

No matter where you live you can experience the beauty of the tropics in your own backyard with tropical plants. These lush, colorful plants liven up any garden or home and make it feel like an amazing oasis.  Many of the plants we use regularly in the garden come from tropical climates--we simply think of them and use them as annuals. The word tropical, however, conjures up visions of enveloping leaves, glistening with moisture, as well as full-blown, enticingly fragrant flowers. Many of these tender plants grow successfully in containers so you can surround yourself with a lavish jungle on patio or deck all summer.  For an immediate showy effect, start creating your tropical look with some foliage showstoppers: Bananas, Elephant Ears, Cannas and Coleus.

Bananas are well-known in the tropics and are used for their beauty and delicious fruit. Some varieties are strictly ornamental and are used for their unique foliage, such as dark red striping. The fruit-producing varieties only have green leaves.
Elephant ears, also known as Alocasias, provide large, ruffled foliage that really gives a lush jungle feel when added to a back yard or patio. Similar to the bananas, elephant ears are fast-growing plants and fill out large pots nicely.

Cannas grow from rhizomes, reaching a height of 4 to 6 feet. Dwarf varieties reach only 2 to 3 feet tall. The blooms are produced on a spike held above the foliage. All Canna perform best when grown in warm soil with full sun and warm growing conditions. Cannas have broad green, bronze, or multicolored leaves, which are reason enough to place this plant in your garden or in a container but the striking white, yellow, pink, orange or red flower spikes give an additional motive. They tower above the foliage from midsummer to frost. Set tall plants in the rear of a border; use dwarf ones, such as ‘Tropical Rose,’ in containers. Cannas need a lot of water and fertilizer. They are winter-hardy only to Zone 8; they may survive winter in Zone 7 if you mulch the bed heavily. In other zones, to save the plants for subsequent years, after a hard frost dig up the rhizomes, which form during the season, and store them indoors in a cool, dry place.

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Coleus are known for their brightly colored variegated leaves, which create season-long interest. From tropical Africa and Asia, Coleus is an annual that fits perfectly in containers, alone or in combination with other annuals, as well as in the ground under deciduous trees and shrubs and as an edging for a perennial border. As the lavender-blue flower spikes form later in the season, cut them off as they tend to detract from the foliage. Many of these varieties have been bred to be sun tolerant. Look at plant labels to identify if you are purchasing a coleus plant to be grown in the sun or shade.

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Hibiscus is probably the ultimate tropical flowering plant. (After all, it’s the state flower of Hawaii and the national flower of Malaysia.) There are literally thousands of varieties, and the blooms come in just about any glorious color and size – with some reaching 12 inches wide! An added bonus: You can grow healthy Hibiscus in the ground or in pots, so regardless of your climate, you can definitely incorporate these beauties into your backyard retreat. (Some varieties will keep blooming as a houseplant long after summer’s gone, brightening up those long, dreary winters!)

Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia aurea) is simply spectacular! This large tree or shrub has big, coarse-textured leaves that reach about 8 inches long, giving the plant a “jungle feel.” In its natural South American environment, it can reach 20 feet tall and wide in the wild – but it only gets about half that size in a most gardens. While the entire plant is glorious in its own right, angel trumpet’s main claim to fame is its incredible foot-long, yellow-, pink- or salmon-colored, trumpet-shaped blooms. These fragrant, tubular flowers are borne singly and hang downward from their stems. The basal half of the floral tube is enclosed in a green calyx. Since so many cultivated forms of this plant have been extensively hybridized, you can now even find angel’s trumpet blooming with peach, red or white flowers. Some double-flowered forms are now even available. While the flowers bloom from spring until fall, the heaviest flowering is actually in autumn.
 
As beautiful as this amazing tropical plant is, one very important thing to note is all parts of the plant are toxic. So always watch your children and pets carefully around this plant! Angel’s trumpet only grows as a woody plant in frost-free areas of the US, although it can be grown just about anywhere as an annual. While all varieties are frost-tender, those from higher elevations will make it through the winter as far north as Zone 7 if the roots are protected over winter. A thick layer of straw or similar mulch will prevent the soil from freezing and protect the roots. In colder parts of the country, potted plants can be cut back severely and kept just moist over winter in a cool greenhouse or bedroom. Come spring, plant your Brugmansia when you set out your tomatoes (an angel’s trumpet relative), and give your plant a sunny site with fertile, well-drained soil and ample water during summer. Overly exuberant or very slow growth results in few flowers, with the latter the most common cause of poor flowering. Spider mites are the most serious pest – especially indoors during the winter – but you can get rid of them if you take the proper precautions.
Large, bold and beautiful, angel’s trumpet may be just the plant you’re looking for to launch yourself into the popular tropical gardening trend. With lots of space, sun, water and a little bit of love, it’s sure to be the envy of your neighborhood!

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Mandevillas are an easy-to-grow, flowering vine with a climbing and trailing growth habit. Trumpet-like blooms appear from late spring to frost. Mandevillas are an excellent choice for containers and add a tropical accent to the landscape. Mandevillas love sunlight and plenty of warmth. This plant is easy to grown, if kept in the right conditions. Mandevillas are not cold tolerant, and prefer temperatures above 45 degrees Fahrenheit. They can be kept over the winter months if protected from the cold. It most likely will not flower again until spring and may drop foliage to help it through the winter. When the days shorten in the fall the plants will grow long sprouts/shoots. These can be trimmed gently in the fall. They can also be trained to grow on a trellis or support. Shoots grow in the spring and summer will produce flower buds for the next season. Do not remove or cut back hard in the spring.

Dipladenia is a member of the Mandevilla family, but has a bushier habit and does not usually require staking. They are an excellent choice for attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to your yard. They prefer warmer temperatures and consistently moist soil, although they can tolerate a bit of dryness if they need to.

As with all tropicals, these plants thrive in humid conditions, but they can do wonderfully in containers on your patio or out in your garden if given enough sun and room to grow. Note: The reason for growing tropicals in containers is that they must come indoors when temperatures drop below 50 degrees F. They require full to medium sun and do best potted in large containers that will give their roots plenty of room. When planting, use a commercial potting mix with high levels of organic material and good drainage. Find a nice balance of watering your plants when needed without letting them get too dry or overwatering them. Elephant ears and bananas need more water than the other plants mentioned, so you’ll want to water them more frequently. After potting, fertilize with a six-month controlled-release fertilizer for best results. These are just a few of the plants to consider when planning your tropical oasis. The possibilities are almost endless. Check out our displays of tropical plants for more ideas.