I often escape the workaday world by dreaming of palm trees and bougainvillea, shedding my cares as I inhale an elusive fragrance of frangipani flowers. To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure what a frangipani smells like, but it’s a great word, isn’t it? So evocative! It makes me want to evoke the ambience of the tropics in my own garden by using lush, exotic plants—or hardier plants that simply mimic the features of tropicals.
A quick look at any rack of garden books confirms that tropical gardens are a hot trend. Two of my favorite books that cover the ins and outs of tropical gardening are Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners and Modern Tropical Garden Design.
Creating a tropical garden—one filled with coconut palms, orchids, and plants with large, bold, architectural leaves and flowers exploding with color—is fairly easy if you live in Florida, California or any of the warmer regions of the world. But for regions that experience four distinct seasons, a little creativity is required to create a landscape with the always warm and humid feel of the tropics. It's true; you can fake a Caribbean garden just like you can fake a tropical tan. Some hardy and half-hardy plants effectively mimic the look of tropicals, but are able to thrive in less than tropical climates. These plants are sometimes called tropical impersonators.
Gardens designed with a hot tropical flair can be a welcome change in regions with bitterly cold winters, but that is not the only appeal of faux-tropical gardens. Some designers believe part of the attraction is the freedom to have fun with colors and textures, to go over the top and break the bonds of traditional landscape design.
So what are the key elements of a tropical garden, faux or otherwise? One trademark is the combination of brightly colored and patterned foliage with masses of flowers in a palette of colors—the brighter and more abundant the flowers, the better.
Backdrop: The backdrop should boast woody ornamentals and flowering vines to provide vertical impact. Trees such as magnolia, catalpa, honeylocust, rose-of-Sharon, mimosa, Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia', as well as unusual, dramatic conifers can work well in a tropical-looking landscape design. In cooler climates, you can use genuine tropical plants, but often they must live in greenhouses or in containers that can be over-wintered indoors.
Focal Point: An effective tropical vignette requires at least one focal point, otherwise the mixture of vivid colors and textures will result in a cacophony instead of a symphony. The focal point can be a vine-covered trellis, a large palm, a group of tall cannas, or a concentration of colorful plants that immediately draw the eye. The focal point does not have to be a plant or group of plants; it might be a distinctive piece of garden art, a decorative gate, a fish pond, a fountain, or something as simple as a bench surrounded by flowers.
Foliage: Foliage takes a flight of fancy in faux-tropical gardens, from wildly colored and patterned coleus, to large-leaved elephant ears and bananas, compact palms, and massive ornamental grasses. Cannas plants provide the double-whammy of huge, distinctively patterned leaves and brilliantly colored flowers.
Accents & Wildlife: Unusual stone accents, night lighting, and hardscape materials such as teak and bamboo can help create the feel of a tropical retreat. Fountains or moving water; brightly colored fish, frogs, and lizards can be a calming addition to a tropical garden. Birds, butterflies, and hummingbirds add another level of interest and architectural plants and lush foliage provide shelter for them.
And here's some really good news: actually getting your hands on tropical plants is not nearly as difficult as it used to be, no matter where you live. In the past, tropical plants were hard to find and too expensive for most people, particularly since they have to be treated as annuals in all but the most temperate zones. Nowadays, even the rarest plants can be ordered online, and an amazing number of tropicals are now available at garden centers and even grocery stores. Akatsuka Orchid Gardens and Zone 9 Tropicals are two great online sources that ship exotic flowers, plants, and foliage throughout the U.S.
If your climate allows you to plant true tropicals, keep them grouped together, away from hardy shrubs and perennials. This way, you can add fertilizer as needed throughout the season to keep the plants looking their best. Do not fertilize hardy plants late in the season, since it could put them at risk during the winter. Adding compost to enrich the soil and using mulch to retain moisture will help tropical plants to stay vigorous throughout the summer. And remember: tropical plants are not all created equal; some need well-drained but consistently moist soil, some will thrive in standing water, some need full sun, while others will benefit from partial shade. As with any landscape design, it always pays to select plants that will perform best in the type of site provided.