Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
May, 2004
Regional Report

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'Pride of Barbados' sets the landscape ablaze in the heat of summer.

Try Tropicals for Summer Beauty

If you think it gets hot and humid where you live, just ask a tropical plant about its hometown. Plants from hot, humid regions of the world must think our summers are heavenly. While many lack sufficient hardiness to make it through our winters, they perform well as annuals, earning their keep for eight months or more. You can dig them up for overwintering indoors or simply start over the next year.

Other plants that are not cold-tender tropicals can nevertheless provide the tropical look with their large leaves or blooms, or perhaps brightly colored foliage. Many of these tropical-looking plants are dependably root hardy in our region if mulched well. They are a real asset since the investment in them continues to pay off year after year.

While something that is dependably perennial in one part of the lower south may not be so in another, there are a few great choices that can span most of the zone. I like to include them in areas around a pool or Jacuzzi. They work well around a deck or any outdoor gathering place where you want to add some bold beauty to the planting.

Exotic Flowers
While the tropical types of hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) are essential to any tropical setting, don't overlook the large-flowered, perennial hibiscus known as rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). Varieties include 'Flare', 'Lady Baltimore', 'Moy Grande' (yes that is Moy), and the short-statured 'Disco' series. These sun-loving plants put on a daily show with giant blooms in shades of red, white, and pink that reach dinner-plate size in some varieties.

Another outstanding choice for setting the summer landscape ablaze is pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), which has several aliases including poinciana and red bird of paradise. This plant reaches a height and spread of around 6 feet in one season and sports a dense cover of mimosa-like foliage, which is topped by large, intensely colored, yellow/orange/red bloom clusters from midsummer to frost. It is a tender perennial in the lower parts of our region if mulched well and if the winter is mild. Otherwise, consider it an annual.

In shady areas, shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana) fills in with a 3- to 4-foot-tall mound of deep red/rust blooms that attract hummingbirds.

Colorful Foliage
One of my favorites for foliage is canna. The yellow- and green-striped types, like 'Bengal Tiger', are superb for breaking up the "sea of green" in our summer landscapes. Then there is the absolutely gaudy 'Tropicanna' with streaks of coral, orange, hot pink, and green. This may be the only plant that goes well with pink flamingos!

For a really stunning accent in a bright shade area, add some Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus). Its foliage is purple with deep purplish green veins. As if this is not stunning enough, the leaves are illuminated with silvery irridescence. This plant is marginally perennial in the lower parts of the zone if mulched well. I also love white butterfly ginger for its tall, strappy foliage and large, white blooms in late summer to fall that come packed with enough fragrance to rival a gardenia.

In bright shade to part sun, the large leaves of colocasia and alocasia add a tropical boldness to containers and beds. Many come in shades of burgundy or with white or burgundy streaking for added appeal.

Bananas are also a must-have, especially the short-statured 'Dwarf Cavendish' that tops out at a modest 6 to 8 feet with burgundy-streaked, green foliage.

Then there are caladiums, elephant ears, and other common, shade-loving options. Ferns also add a unique texture to shady spots. I especially enjoy the silvery foliage of Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum'), which has been selected as the 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association.

This is just the beginning of the many wonderful plant options that offer a tropical look to your sultry, summer landscape. Give a few of these heat-loving plants a try this year. Then grab a few plastic pink flamingos for the finishing touch!

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