Garden Plants with a Tropical Flair
Fill your garden -- or surround your patio -- with the bold textures, eye-popping colors, and intoxicating scents of the tropics.
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Cannas are all about color. Their leaves sport various shades of green and bronze, as well as variegation, and flowers bloom in shades of yellow, red, orange, and fuchsia. Standard cannas grow 4 to 10 feet tall. Or try dwarf varieties, which reach a mature height of just 1 to 2 feet and are excellent choices for containers. These tender perennials need to be dug in the fall and replanted in spring.
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Yellow Angels' Trumpet
Announce your tropical garden with angels' trumpets (Brugmansia spp.). The 6- to 12-inch-long trumpet-shape flowers capture the attention of the eyes and the nose. In the evening, they perfume the garden with a sweet scent. Grow angels' trumpets near a patio or entrance to take advantage of the fragrance.
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White Angels' Trumpet
The flowers of angels' trumpet dangle from branches, covering the plant with cascades of pendulous pink, yellow, orange, or white blooms every few weeks. For easy overwintering, grow this tender tropical in a large container.
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Mimic the lushness of the tropics with the fabulous foliage of taro (Colocasia esculenta). Also known as elephant's ear, it has heart-shape leaves that are about 1 foot wide and 2 to 3 feet long. These massive leaves sit atop fleshy 3- to 6-foot-tall stems. Tuck taros in the middle of a border to cover the gangly legs of tall plants and provide a backdrop for short growers. In cold climates, dig and store the tubers in a cool location following a foliage-killing frost.
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Red and Green Caladium
Punch up dense shade with the mottled leaves of caladiums. Splashed with pink, white, and green, caladiums deliver color all summer. This tropical grower has paper-thin arrowhead-shape leaves and wiry stems. Native to the tropical regions in South America, these tuberous plants occupy the understory and thrive in shade.
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Native to the tropical regions in South America, caladiums occupy the understory and thrive in shade. They do equally well in moist fertile garden beds or in containers with soil-less potting mix. Dig the tubers in fall for storage over winter.
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Crocosmia's red, orange, and yellow flowers float along arched stems. Grow it alongside cannas to add color to the base of this tall grower, or mingle it with dahlias for a bright splash of color. Flowers are the highlight in August and September, while bold swordlike foliage adds texture to the garden year-round. With a covering of protective mulch, crocosmia will survive as far north as Zone 6; in colder climates, bring them inside.
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The tropics are rampant with vines, and your garden should be, too. Add mandevilla to the planting area and allow it to ramble up a trellis or tree. Its 3- to 4-inch white or pink blooms lighten up dark foliage. Vines bridge the gaps between tall and short tropical growers by trailing color from the ground up.
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Mandevilla in a Pot
In areas with freezing winters, plant mandevilla in a container outfitted with a trellis. Store the container in a cool, dark place in winter, giving the plant a little water every few weeks to prevent drying out.
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Your petite piece of paradise isn't complete without one of these bright-eyed bloomers. Tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) blooms are 5 to 12 inches across and available in a mix of warm colors. Crepe-paper-like flowers unfurl in mid to late summer, during high temperatures.
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The silver-blue petals and thistlelike foliage of sea holly (shown here with bright green dill) stand almost hip-high in the flowerbed. This ghostly giant is a biennial, and the plant readily reseeds itself. Grows comfortably in Zones 5-8.
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Over time, sea holly will grow into a substantial colony. It's drought-tolerant and thrives in poor sandy soils, making it an excellent choice for coastal gardens. Otherwise, use it in a well-drained sunny flowerbed or border.
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Since ancient times, artists have been fascinated by the lovely purple-and-white tubular flowers on acanthus and have worked them into architectural detailing. The flowers appear for about a month in midsummer. Acanthus also has dramatic leaves that grow 2 feet long, with sharp spines along the edges.
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Bear's breeches grows 3 to 4 feet tall, making it a good choice for the middle or back of a sunny flowerbed or border. It can spread rapidly, however, so give it room and be prepared to pull out unwanted plants each spring.
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Spurges are low-maintenance perennials (Zones 4-8) that thrive in hot, dry, sunny locations. The main point of interest on these plants is not their flowers or foliage, but the leaflike white, green, or yellowish-green bracts that surround and appear below the small flowers. Many types are used in rock or wall gardens and are interesting additions to perennial gardens. As long as the soil is well-drained, spurges do well.
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Fragrant Solomon's Seal
A favorite of woodland wildflower plantings, this native plant has distinctive green alternating leaves 3 or 4 inches tall that have a ladderlike effect. It produces tiny bell-like flowers in late spring, and spreads well in good conditions. The variety Polygonatum odoratum variegatum has cream-edged leaves and fragrant flowers, which attract hummingbirds.
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With their wide range of leaf colors and sizes, hosta are among the most tropical-looking hardy plants. Some are miniatures a few inches wide; others are giants that sprawl 6 feet across or more.
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Hostas have showy leaves that are variegated, puckered, or ruffled and vary from oval to oblong, and narrow to wide. Some hosta flowers are very fragrant. For the most part, hostas are carefree plants.
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With their intensely colored flowers and stiff grasslike leaves, Japanese iris are a natural for a tropical garden. Growing in Zones 4-8, irises like sun and plenty of moisture, but will do well with less of each. Left alone, they will quickly multiply into a handsome group.
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Red hot poker (Zones 5-8) features tall spikes of scarlet, yellow, white, and orange tubular flowers, and fountain-like clumps of coarse, grassy, gray-green 2- to 3-foot-long foliage.
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Red-hot poker (Kniphofia) is impressive in small groupings at the back of the perennial border, or as a single, specimen plant. The flowers bloom from the bottom up, attract hummingbirds, and are excellent in cut-flower arrangements.
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A tall, stately North American native, cardinal flower is excellent for cool, shady moist locations like woodland or bog gardens, low wet spots, wet meadow areas, or along streams. This short-lived yet self-sowing perennial (Zones 3-9) bears bright red flowers on 24- to 48-inch erect spikes.
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Shade-loving pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia) (Zones 3-8) is a low-growing groundcover with fleshy round leaves that are dark green in summer and purple in winter. It produces 3- to 6-inch clusters of pink flowers in spring.