LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(06/19/20) Do you ever dream of lush gardens filled with exotic, tropical plants? During this time when folks are still cautiously quarantining, you can create a tranquil oasis of your own. When you can’t get to the tropics, why not bring the tropics to you?
Tropical gardens like lots of sun, soaring temperatures and plenty of daylight. Lucky for us, we live in a subtropical climate in USDA hardiness zones 8 and 9. Summers are tropical, full of extreme heat and lots of precipitation. Louisiana averages 50 to 60 inches of annual rainfall.
These characteristics make it possible to have a tropical garden look. You can design a garden that includes flora from tropical climates that are low maintenance and beautiful by filling your garden with lush foliage and beautiful blooms.
Density is key for a tropical garden. Go for large, bold leaves and bright flowers to add a tropical feel to the area. The more exotic, colorful and bright the flowers are, the more you will feel like you’re really in a tropical garden.
Start with large-leaved plants that add a dramatic tropical statement. They will need room, so consider their placement and then work from there. If you have palm trees or wish to plant some, they can set the backdrop.
Here are some large-leaf plants to consider:
— Philodendrons have large, glossy green, heavily lobed leaves. Cut-leaf Philodendron (Selloum P. bipinnatifidum) can grow 4 feet across one leaf and as tall as 10 feet. It prefers shade or partial sun. Xanadu is a popular cultivar that is compact with smaller leaves. Note that all parts of these plants are poisonous if ingested.
— Elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) have large leaves ranging in color from green to purple, and some are variegated. They grow 3 to 6 feet tall with leaves spanning 3 feet or more across.
— Giant taro or upright elephant ear (Alocasia spp.) has large, long, shiny green blades (that can also be purple or variegated) and can grow in height to 4 to 6 feet and span 3 feet in width. Plant it in sun to partial shade.
— Ti plant (Cordyline fruticose) has slender, sword-like leaves with vibrant colors of fuchsia, burgundy, green and cream. This grows to 4 to 6 feet in height with a palm-like appearance. Plant it in full sun or filtered shade.
— Cannas (Cannas x generalis) have large, colorful foliage with broad leaves 6 to 12 inches long in colors from green to bronze to deep lavender. They also have beautiful flowers of red, pink, yellow, orange and cream.
— Bananas (Musa spp.) can be used in the landscape to add an effortless tropical effect. They have large lush leaves that add great texture. Grow them in partial shade to full sun. Banana fruits are a bonus.
Vines are another essential element of a tropical garden design. Here are some to consider:
— Allamanda cathartica has prolific yellow flowers with elliptical green leaves and thrives in full sun.
— Mandevilla is an evergreen vine with large deep green leaves and pink tubular flowers. Alice du Pont is the most popular variety. Plant this in full sun to partial shade and be sure to provide a trellis.
— Passionflower (Passiflora) is a native vine that thrives in high humidity. It can be prolific in full to partial sun and in any soil. With beautiful, unique blooms, passionflower is the host plant for the Gulf Coast fritillary butterfly.
— Bougainvillea is a vigorous, evergreen, woody vine with thorns and a very popular tropical plant. The flowers, actually bracts, come in bright colors of fuchsia, purple, pink, orange and white. They thrive in full sun and are prolific bloomers.
— Coral vine (Antigonon leptopus) is easy-care, with large, hanging clusters of pink, red or white flowers. A vigorous grower with heart-shaped leaves and a long bloom season, coral vine is drought tolerant. It prefers full sun and thrives in almost any kind of soil.
Perennial, showy flowers that can create a tropical effect include:
— Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) come in all shapes, color and sizes. Nothing says tropical more than hibiscus. Chinese hibiscus, Rose of China H. rosa-sinensis, is the most popular of the hibiscus. Today, the hundreds of hybrids are available in thousands of color combinations.
— Giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) has beautiful, orange, crane-like flowers against huge, blue-green leaves. A very striking tropical bloomer, this plant prefers full sun to part shade.
— Esperanza, yellow bells (Tacoma stans) is a deciduous shrub that produces bright yellow, bell-shaped flowers from late spring to winter. It likes full sun and will grow 3 to 5 feet tall.
— Firecracker plant (Russelia equisataformis) is an evergreen shrub with red and yellow tubular flowers on cascading stems. Planted in full sun to part shade, it grows 4 feet tall by 4 feet wide.
— Hummingbird bush (Hamelia patens) is a shrub that grows to 6 to 10 feet tall and produces red-orange tubular flowers from early summer to late fall. It performs best in full sun. Try Lime Sizzler, a Louisiana Super Plant.
Tropical plants for shade include:
— Firespike (Odontonema callistachyum) is one of the best blooming plants for shady areas. Blooms grow above the foliage on long shoots in brilliant spikes of deep red, violet and purple. Firespike can be grown in heavy clay soils and wet conditions.
— Caladiums make a strong visual statement when planted in one mass color with shades that range from pure white to burgundy. The many variegated types in between can brighten a shady garden.
— Bleeding heart vine (Clerodendrum thomsoniae) prefers partial shade. Its spectacular flowers are cream-colored and heart-shaped with protruding red petals and long white stamens.
Don’t forget the gingers. With thousands of species to choose from, they thrive in shade and adequate moisture.
Water puts the finishing touch on your tropical oasis. Place a water feature or fountain in your design.
By creating a tropical garden, you can enjoy a staycation in your own home year-round.
Sculptures and water features add the finishing touches to a tropical oasis. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Hibiscus comes in many color combinations. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
You can find thousands of ginger species to choose from. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Passionflower is a native vine and host plant for the Gulf Coast fritillary butterfly. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Bougainvillea is a popular vine for a tropical look. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter