Dramatic structure and colors tip a garden's design into the tropical zone. The tiger-stripe foliage of a canna, and the vibrant lime, pink, and purple of coleus leaves, put the fun back in gardening. Victorian-era gardens popularized summer beds where circus-color menageries of exotic plants romped. Tropical plants seem at home in any climate. When the sun heats up, their growth accelerates into junglelike luxuriance.
Savvy gardeners value many tropical natives for their flamboyant foliage. Coleus, an annual in most North American climates, offers hundreds of varieties in shades of kiwi green, magenta, gold, burgundy, and white. Sun-tolerant varieties with thicker leaves have recently debuted.
Cannas, grown from rhizomes, sport bold leaves often striped in gold and topped with bright red, orange, yellow, or pink flowers. Another tuberous plant, caladium, develops arrowhead-shape leaves in pink, red, and green. Angel-wing and Rex begonias also add speckled and striped foliage to the tropical palette. Elephant's ear (Colocasia) contributes massive, lofty leaves in deep purple, gold, or green.
The unusual blooms of flowering plants from the tropics of Africa and South America, when planted in borders or containers, form delicate contrasts against flamboyant leaves. Abutilon's inverted bell flowers attract hummingbirds by the droves, as do the trumpet blooms of Phygelius (cape fuchsia). Brugmansia, or angel's trumpet, boasts dramatic flowers with a sweet fragrance. Overwinter these torrid-zone plants indoors.
Hot oranges, reds, and yellows for painting tropical palettes come from nasturtium and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). Annual and perennial salvias supply blues, reds, and purples. Summer bulbs that also fit the tropical motif include crocosmia, dahlia, and Eucomis, or pineapple lily.
Continued on page 2: Tropical Illusions