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
Japanese forest grass ‘Aureola’
“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).
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
Old House Gardens Heirloom Flower Bulbs
Brent and Becky’s Bulbs