Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
April, 2011
Regional Report

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The spiny stem of Cherry Cobbler euphorbia seems less menacing when the cheerful red flowers are blooming.

Tropical Flair

We almost take tropical plants for granted and use them year round in beds and containers, indoors and out. Some deserve singling out for their leaf patterns, sweet, surprising flowers and bold contrasts.

Wild Leaf Colors
With well-drained soil, monthly fertilizer, and sunny sites, tropical plants can become bedding plants along the Southern Coasts. Many root readily and can be carried over in the house from year to year. Don't overlook the standards in this category: copper plant (Acalypha wilkesiana) and variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet 'Variegata'). The red-orange, burnished copper plant colors paint themselves in an entirely random pattern that is enhanced by full sun. Equally bold in full or part sun sites, variegated ginger is striped in dark shades of green and yellow, combined in every width possible.

Coleus has long been prized for its leaf patterns, but none is a starkly painted as sanchezia (S. nobilis). Both these plants vary their display depending on the amount of sun they receive. Coleus labels indicate a wide range of preferred conditions, but the color of each plant's leaves tell you more. The greener a coleus is, the more shade it can take without losing its color, and green coleus will usually wilt first in a planting with red-leaved varieties in full sun. Indeed, some landscapers use a patch of green coleus as a "wilt detector." When they see green leaves begin to sag, they know it's time to water the entire bed. Sanchezia takes on more yellow tones in full sun and will be almost solid green in shade. It's still a nice form among fatsias, aucuba and hardy ferns, but not as dramatic as when grown in the sun.

Surprisingly Sweet
When you think of tropical plants, it is common to picture huge flowers in your mind's eye. Bird of paradise, lobster claw, hibiscus and plumeria cannot be considered demure, though they are a brilliant addition to any garden. If you know the Clerodendrum genus, it is probably because of glory bower and Mexican hydrangea. These two are nectar garden favorites but can be bullies if allowed to take over a space. More delicate-looking, with thick, rounded leaves and sky blue flowers, butterfly vine (C. ugandese) gains fans each year. The flowers do look rather like butterflies, but it is their airy arrangement and generous nectar that will make it a garden favorite. Lotus vine (L.maculatus), or parrot flower, has leaves that look like needles but it is not a conifer. It is soft, welcoming your touch as you pass by. The flowers are shaped for long-beaked birds and bugs on this outstanding vine.

Unusual Contrasts
Some tropical plants have what I call "Dr. Seussian good looks." Others might say they are plants with parts only their mother could love, but I like the odd mixes of flowers, foliage, and stems. Tropical garden design is often about contrast in colors and bold textures. Sometimes one plant can deliver strong contrast by itself, like those that have rugged good looks accompanied by ethereal, airy flowers. Flowering aloes are a large group with solid and bicolor yellow, orange, or white blooms. They can be a passion unto themselves for collectors, from the biggest and spiniest to smaller, spotted ones like the common aloe vera. Their flowers arise from sometimes spiny, rosettes of thick, fat leaves. The bloom spikes resemble thin straws covered in petite tubular bells. The Euphorbia genus is known for poinsettias and crown of thorns, but these days, two are taking center stage: Cherry Cobbler and Pink Cupcake. The reason for their sweet names escapes me, as both have enough spines to be threatening. But they are excellent for containers and very well-drained garden beds.

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