Answer: You can achieve the tropical look in your garden by using plants directly planted in your garden or by using them in containers. Pots allow you to spread the tropical feel to your patios, decks and porches and to easily move plants indoors for overwintering. However, for a more dramatic effect, tropicals planted in the garden can't be beat. The large leaf texture and colorful foliage of many tropical plants is quite striking when blended into a traditional flower garden. If you want to save the tropicals planted in your garden, then dig them in the fall prior to frost and plant in containers where they can be overwintered.
Here are a few suggestions:
Caladium (angel wing) is a summer bulb which, with its spectacular, colorful foliage, radiates the tropical look. This South American native is well known for its performance in shade, but new hybrids are available that are tolerant of full summer sun. The colors of the heart-shaped leaves range from bright red, pink, green and white in multiple variegation. They prefer a moist but well-drained site and grow up to 1-1/2 feet tall. Use in containers with mixed plantings or in mass for a very dramatic show. Hardy to USDA Zone 10.
Ribbon Plant (Homalocladium platycladum) is a definite conversation piece for the garden. Also called the tapeworm plant, the stems are flat and not round. The stems continue to add new segments or joints to grow into an upright, somewhat arching plant two to three feet tall. Tiny leaves match the stems in color but don't compete for visual attention. Hardy to USDA Zone 10.
Variegated Tapioca ((Manihot esculenta) is a tropical with deeply lobed leaves accented with radiating bright-yellow central stripes. The stems are bright red, a nice contrast to the foliage. Tapioca is a great accent plant for containers or the landscape and is quite heat tolerant. Plants can reach six feet tall. Hardy to USDA Zone 9.
Golden Shrimp Plant (Pachystachys lutea): In climates where it isn't hardy (USDA Zone 9 and cooler), the golden shrimp plant is a great flowering houseplant that has a dramatic, tropical effect in the garden. Yellow and white bicolored flowers are striking against its dark green foliage. Use in containers or as an impressive show in masses. Grows to 1-1/2 feet tall and flowers nonstop all season. Grow in full sun or part shade.
Copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana) Where it's hardy (USDA Zone 10 and 11), the copperleaf, or copper plant, is an evergreen shrub. Elsewhere, it's an old-fashioned tropical houseplant that has found its home as an annual in the summer landscape.
Many selections are available and all have vivid foliage colors, ranging from dark plum reds to shades of pink, red, orange-red and cream. Some have large heart-shaped leaves, while others have smaller, serrated leaves. Acalypha makes a striking accent plant and can be used in the landscape or in containers.
Ginger has exceptional leafy foliage (some scented) and exotic-smelling flowers. Some varieties like 'Pinstripe', 'Zerumbet Variegated' and 'Amazonicus Variegated' have colorful variegated folige, making them dramatic plants in the garden. Depending on the variety, the plant can grow to eight feet tall. Use in containers or plant in masses in full sun to part shade. Hardy to USDA Zone 8.
Firebush (Hamelia patens)
In Zones 10 and warmer, firebush is a colorful tropical evergreen shrub with tubular red-orange flowers. Plants can grow to 10 feet tall. The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds. Great in full sun and a well-drained soil. Versatile in the garden either in mixed containers or as a specimen or in mass. Hardy as a perennial to USDA Zone 8, where it displays bright-red fall foliage and dies back to the ground in winter. Where it's perennial, expect heights of four to five feet.
Best wishes with your garden oasis!
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