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5 Plants That Can Help Give Gardens a Tropical Look


This article from Dr. Allan Armitage in Greenhouse Grower magazine lists his favorite plants for achieving that trending tropical garden look, including plants from Southern Living and Sunset.

It was in Madison, WI, at least 15 years ago. I was in the lovely Allen Centennial Garden when I stopped dead in my tracks and realized, “These are not your mother’s houseplants anymore.” I thought I must be somewhere in southeast Asia or the Gold Coast of Australia. In front of me, in a Zone 4 garden, were extraordinarily beautiful plants that I considered subtropical. I could not believe they could grow so robustly in areas of cool summers.

I was such a rookie back then. Look at what is happening now. Landscape designers have adopted the “tropical look,” and landscapers and gardeners are always pushing for tropicals because they are very much a part of Solution Gardening: they fulfill the need for drought tolerance, boldness, and chutzpah.

Before I go further, let’s be sure we understand what I am referring to. Essentially, all annuals, from vinca to impatiens, are tropical. That is, they are from warm areas of the world and in most cases, do not overwinter. The tropical look is simply a form of garden fashion: bright colors, bold design, and eye-catching appeal.

There are some fine sources for tropical plugs and starters, and they are available through brokers and at plant shows. I must admit that I am a little surprised that the major plant breeders, with whom greenhouse operators deal, have not jumped on these. If they were more available, and if new breeding lines were pursued, they would likely take the same path, albeit in fewer numbers, as succulents and herbs.

Here are but five of my favorites walking down the Fashion Show runway that provide the tropical look. They may not be Gucci or Versace, but they surely catch the imagination.

Taro (Alocasia/Colocasia/Xanthosoma)

These are some of the most established fashions on the block. The breeding, as spectacular as it is, has slowed down a bit. However, they are widely available, and as a bonus, they provide return as far north as Zone 6. Alocasia and Colocasia are everywhere, and Xanthosoma is best known for ‘Lime Zinger’.


My friend Rick Watson has a mammoth banana in his garden in Glen Arm, MD. The darn thing just keeps coming back. Cold tolerance is one of the selling points of Musa ‘Basjoo’, while the red banana Ensete ‘Maurelii’ may be less hardy but even more handsome with its purple foliage. These are not small plants.


I really don’t know if I can ever recommend bamboo, but then again, each to their own. The clumping bamboos are surely more restrained and have greater appeal, and they can be beautiful. And oh my, they can solve problems for privacy. They include many species, such as Bambusa and Fargesia. Reliable sources, like my friends at Thigpen Trail Bamboo Farm and TyTy Nurseries, list a half dozen clumping, handsome choices, from golden to variegated, from 10 feet to 1 foot tall.


What is reasonably common to us is still a mystery to many. Going under names like African lily, lily of the Nile, and agapanthus, these plants are highly sought after for deck containers and garden plants. While the plant is known, it is not easy to obtain in numbers. The good news is that a number of fine companies (Southern Living Plants, etc.) have brought new cultivars to market to supplement the dozens already out there.

Siam Tulip, Curcuma

The gingers also provide a tropical look and have become much more widely available, in all their forms. The Siam tulip (C. alismatifolia) is the most common because of its beautiful flowers. The large ginger-like foliage is handsome all season. Other members of the group include the herbs turmeric and curcumin, worthy for the plants themselves, but also for the stories that can be shared.

These are but a few of the plants landscapers, garden centers, and designers are seeking for the tropical look. Many others, common and not so much, are out there. Spider plant (Chlorophytum) and Firebush (Hamelia) along with Passion vine and Bird-of-Paradise are relatively unknown in Chicago and Boston, but there is nothing not tropical about those common plants like Cannas and sweet potatoes.