Easy To Care For Large Tropical Looking Plants - Knowledgebase Question

South Orange, NJ
Question by janidw
February 7, 2003
I love large tropical looking plants but I do not have a green thumb. What would you suggest for indoor and outdoor gardening? I love the Sago Palm and the Cast Iron Plant. What else?

Answer from NGA
February 7, 2003


Both of the above would need to be indoor plants, at least each winter. In terms of house plants, I would suggest the large leafed philodendrons and draceanas of all kinds because they look jungly but are very easy to grow. You might also like mother in law's tongue, a sansevieria, also easy to grow and a nice textural contrast.

Most houseplants are actually tropicals, so you might want to read a book or two about houseplants and work from there. The Dummies series includes a good one with lots of practical information.

As a rule of thumb though, our centrally heated homes tend to be stressful on plants because the air is so dry and the winter sun is so weak. If you are able to provide a bright sunny room with temperatures a bit cooler and the humidity a bit higher than the rest of your house then they will probably do okay for you.

Outdoor plants offer a wide range of textures and foliage colors. For sunny spots you can grow the non-hardy Cannas with colored and patterned and solid green foliage for a great tropical effect. (The rhizomes can be dug and saved each year.) Another one to dig and save would be caladiums, these do well in shade, as do the taros and elephant ears.

Vines are always right, so you might try almost any of those, flowering or not. The Virginia creeper or Parthenocissus actually looks like it should be a tropical plant to me.

Some tropicals you might grow in tubs and bring indoors for winter would include the datura and brugmansia group, smaller palms, dwarf bananas such as Cavendish, and flowering plants such as lantana, hibiscus, bougainvillia, dipladenia and mandevilla, and so on.

There are also many extremely colorful varieties of coleus to be grown as annuals or brought indoors each winter, these are typically sold as premium annuals in the spring as are the ornamental sweet potato vines with black or chartreuse foliage. You may consider the sun-loving dahlias to look tropical, along with the season-long flowering impatiens for shade.

In the perennial group, I think ferns and hostas all look tropical and they are available in a huge range of sizes and colors and shapes. Hardy hibiscus produces huge blooms, and the ornamental grasses are very effective once they get growing in the summer.

Consider some of the herbs such as purple basil, scented geraniums, lemon grass, pineapple sage, and so on for their exotic qualities.

Finally, vegetables are a great source: corn is nothing if not tropical looking (and tall!), okra is amazing and blooms prolifically, the squashes and melons have great foliage texture, and pole beans and vining cherry tomatoes will climb to great effect.

I think once you approach the garden center with an eye on "looks" you will find lots to consider including in your garden. I have tried to mention some easy to grow plants, but easy is a relative term when one is a beginner. Again, since you are a beginner, I would suggest you look to some books for basic gardening advice to help you in planning, soil preparation and site analysis as well as plant selection. The Dummies series includes several books that should be helpful in this regard, or your library may have some. Good luck with achieving your tropical look, and have fun!

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