The Q&A Archives: Tropical looking plants for zone 4

Question: I would like a garden with a tropical feel. I know of a couple forms of bamboo & palms that might work here (windmill palm & umbrella bamboo). I need help though with some plants that are little more accessible that have that tropical feel or look. Saw a couple in Canada that had achieved this but the magazine got thrown away. Any help would be much appreciated!

Answer: You can have a tropical look by choosing plants with lush foliage and/or fragrant flowers. In zone 4, I'd include the following:
A Tropical-Looking Tree - Chinese Catalpa (Catalpa ovata), hadry to zone 3.Because of their physical stature and dominance, trees effectively set the tone for the overall landscape style. And we all know that there aren?t too many tropical trees growing in the North. Having said this, Chinese catalpa is an exception. Its very coarse and spreading foliage, fragrant butter yellow orchid-like flowers and enormous pencil-shaped hanging fruit all scream out ?tropical? to almost anyone who sees it. In my estimation, this is the most tropical-looking tree we have at our disposal.

A Large Tropical-Looking Shrub - Tiger Eyes Sumac (Rhus typhina ?Tiger Eyes?), hardy to zone 3. Of all the plants we have in our palette, the sumacs are the most often referred to as ?tropical? in appearance by gardeners. Their enormous frond-like compound leaves evoke images of sago palms and lush tropical forests. They provide a textural contrast with the finely textured leaves held on coarse, clubby branches, and their candelabra-like flowers and fruit are as distinctive as it gets.

A Small Tropical-Looking Shrub - Roseum Elegans Rhododendron (Rhododendron ?Roseum Elegans?), hardy to zone 4. For those of us in the North who are blessed with the necessary combination of comparatively warmer winters, ample moisture and acidic soils, nothing can inject the color and fragrance of the tropics into a landscape like the beautiful rhododendron. And of all the hardy rhodos, the most ?tropical? in appearance is the Catawba rhododendron and its fine cultivars. These have magnificent large flowers in spring that remind of the tropical rhodos and hibiscus, and the broad evergreen leaves are like scale versions of the banana leaves of the tropics.

A Tropical-Looking Perennial - Golden Sword Yucca (Yucca filimentosa ?Golden Sword?), hardy to zone 4. There are a number of perennials that have ?tropical-looking? attributes, but here?s one that?s really different. Yucca is most often considered a southwestern or desert plant, more like a spiky cactus than anything else. After all, it is native to these regions of the United States. But when used creatively, it reminds one of pineapples and the popular annual tropical Dracaena, the spike we find in so many summer container plantings.

Golden Sword is all that and more. Besides the sharp spikes of succulent foliage radiating from its central stem which could easily be mistaken for a pineapple bush, this plant has bold, bright streaks of creamy gold variegation along these leaves. From a design perspective, this plant has it all - bold texture, unmistakable form, and brilliant color. I would use it as a solitary accent in a lush garden, or solo in a container, but with extreme restraint - too many of these, and you?ll send your garden guests into seizures! When placing it, ask yourself where you might plant a pineapple in your garden if you could...

A Tropical-Looking Fern - Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), hardy to zone 2. One of the simplest tropical elements we can bring to our landscapes is the effect of a few ferns. These delicate and finely-textured plants of the forest floor actually enjoy a worldwide distribution, even here in the North, yet still they evoke thoughts of a tropical paradise. Don?t ask questions; just take advantage of this fact and bring their finely textured fronds into the landscape for a hint of the tropics.

Maidenhair fern has distinctive foliage that?s easier to see than to describe. While nowhere near a native of the tropics, this plant?s combination of unique foliage form, arching fronds and finely crinkled texture can easily be used to suggest a tropical flair in a northern landscape. There are two ways to effectively utilize them in a tropical sense; as the dominant groundcover for a shady area of the garden, especially underneath mature trees, and in a shady part of the garden as a foil to plants with coarser textures. Heck, why not surround the base of your Chinese catalpa with an undergrowth of ferns?

A Tropical Annual - Amaranthus ?Love Lies Bleeding?. The tactful use of annuals can further set the tone of the landscape and complete the tropical illusion. And when it comes to annuals, there is no shortage of tropical-looking plants, because so many of them actually are from the tropics! Love Lies Bleeding has long drooping chains of fuchsia-red flowers which dangle from horizontal stems. The combination of color, texture and form presented by this plant speaks to the tropics, and will complement the other tropical looking plants you've included in your garden.

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