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Catch the Fever

Not only do tropicals grow quickly, their large, unusual leaves and brilliant—sometimes gaudy—flowers thrive in hot weather.

After being seduced by a bougainvillea vine more than 10 years ago at a friend’s home on a Caribbean island, Freeman Martin has been susceptible to tropical fever ever since.

“I admired his beautiful plants and I took a cutting from one,” says Freeman, and the rest is history.

Indeed, one of the fastest ways to take your landscape to another world is with tropical plants. Not only do tropicals grow quickly, their large, unusual leaves and brilliant—sometimes gaudy—flowers thrive in hot weather, earning them high marks for a season-long performance in the garden.

Hosta, coleus, zebra banana

Medinilla shrub

‘Saturn’ coleus

Japanese forest grass ‘Aureola’

Angel’s trumpet

“They bring to the landscape a lot of color, actually, great color and textures,” says Freeman, who with his wife, Libby, garden on an average suburban plot in central Indiana.

But there’s nothing average about the Martins’ garden, which is rich with Canna, elephant ears (Colocasias and Alocasia), bananas (Musa) and the fragrant angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia).

“At night, it feels like you are in a jungle.
The plants transform you,” says Freeman.

Freeman credits Irvin Etienne, horticultural display coordinator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and well-known lover of all things tropical, for his plants’ survival.

“But then, I was into gaudy long before everyone else was,” said Etienne, who has been tending the Martins’ garden for 10 years. “There’s nothing besides tropicals that give you color, foliage and character. And they are very easy,” he says.

Adding to the mix

The rise in tropical plant popularity can be attributed to there being more plants available, said Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center and Anthony Tesselaer Plants, which introduced the Tropicanna™ series of cannas. “The American gardener has evolved over the last decade from tropicals being avant garde to today, when they are mainstream. Consumers are creating a ground swell of interest in very sophisticated plant material. It’s not just a marigold world anymore.”

Tropicals give gardeners a chance to experiment with color, mix, shadow, depth, color and texture, Ferguson says. Layering plants and color tiers create a very complex design. Tropicals are a way to introduce big plants without overwhelming a small yard. People want to escape the stresses of their daily life, but they want to do it in their own back yards. “Tropicals satisfy that something. Sometimes you just want to get away by going nowhere,” she says.

Cool temperature tips

Tropical plants are easy to winter over, too, even without a greenhouse, says Etienne. Once the plants have been felled by a light frost, “throw them in the basement and allow them to go dormant.” Many gardeners grow tropicals in pots, which makes Etienne’s method quick and easy in the fall. You just move the plants, pots and all, to the basement. Of course, the plants and pots can be stored anywhere that’s not so cold they will freeze or so warm that they’ll sprout. Once dormant, remove the tops of the plants or wait until next spring to cut them off.

Many gardeners hold off watering tropical plants when they are dormant. In spring, pull them from the basement, start watering them, fertilize and repot as needed and reintroduce them to bright light, eventually moving them outdoors when all danger of frost has passed.

For gardeners who plant their tropical plants right in the soil, cut back the tops and dig them before a hard freeze and wash off any soil. When they have dried, store them in a cool dry place where they won’t freeze or sprout. In spring, pot them up indoors to transplant outdoors when all danger of frost has passed. Or, you can plant them directly outdoors in late May or early June.


Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Anthony Tesselaer Plants

Stokes Tropicals

Old House Gardens Heirloom Flower Bulbs

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs


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Plant Sampler

Photo courtesy of Anthony Tesselaer Plants

Canna, especially those with colorful foliage, such as ‘Bengal Tiger,’ ‘Pretoria,’ or the Tropicanna™ series. Cannas like full sun to part shade. They do well in pots or in the landscape and can be used around the edges of ponds or water gardens. Consider placing cannas where their foliage is backlit by the sun for an even more dramatic effect. Hummingbirds like these plants, which also can be cut for indoor arrangements.

Photo courtesy of Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Pineapple lily (Eucomis) has an extremely long-lasting, slightly fragrant flower that resembles its name. Can handle full sun to part shade. Attracts tiny, non-stinging wasps that are beneficial insects. The species is greenish white. ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ is purple. Each gets 15 to 20 inches tall.

Photo courtesy of Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Gloriosa lily (Gloriosa rothschildiana) is the climber in the family, reaching four to six feet tall, sporting large flowers that are pink or orange. It blooms from mid- to late summer into fall. Does best in full sun to part shade. All parts of the plant are poisonous.