Home Gardening Center Tip Sheet: Tropical Plants in Your Garden

By Sonia Uyterhoeven

·· Plants ··


How to Create a Tropical Plants Display in Your Garden


Tropical plants and tender perennials can give an exotic flare to your garden, spicing up containers and perennial borders.

Many tropical plants are easy to care for; others need a little pampering, but as long as their light, watering, and fertilizing requirements are met, they do well.

Some tender perennials can be used as decorative fillers for containers or as effective edging for a border (when planted in groups of five or more). Scented geraniums (Pelargonium), plectranthus (Plectranthus), lantana (Lantana), and licorice plant (Helichrysum) are fairly drought tolerant once established, require very little care, and fill out into beautiful masses of flowers and/or foliage. They make great no-fuss additions to the garden

The scented and ivy-leaf geraniums come in a beautiful array of textures and patterns. ‘Vancouver Centennial’ is a popular red and chartreuse-leaved variety; ‘Madame Salleron’ has cream-colored leaf edges, and ‘Lady Plymouth’ provides wonderful textural contrast with her delicate finger-like foliage. The licorice plant and plectranthus come in silver, greens, chartreuse, and variegated forms.

If it’s purple foliage that you desire, try Persian shield (Strobilanthes), purple spiderwort (Tradescantia), blood leaf (Iresine), or Joseph’s coat (Alternanthera). All of these make vibrant additions to container plantings and offset annual and perennial displays at the front of your border.

Dahlias are wonderful complements to any perennial border. They pair well with the bold foliage of cannas or the wild architectural structure of honey bush (Melianthus) and the castor bean plant (Ricinus). Dahlias are demanding and insist on nutrient-rich garden soil that is high in organic matter (compost), a sunny spot, and generous feeding and watering throughout the season. Several of the cultivars with dark, bronze foliage such as the classic ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, ‘David Howard’, and ‘Fascination’ stay a reasonable height (2 to 3 feet) and are easy to grow. The Gallery series of dahlias are fairly new on the market and ideal for the no fuss gardener. They have a nice bushy shape, fantastic flowers and only grow to 1 1/2 ft. tall so they require no staking.

For late-season color, the temperate and subtropical salvias are a wonderful addition to the garden. They thrive in full sun and well-drained sites and are happiest in lean soil that should not be heavily fertilized. Many are tender perennials that will need to be dug up and taken indoors for the winter.

Salvia discolor has a grayish sheen with nodding black flowers, while the flowers of Salvia patens are one of the clearest blues you’ll find in the garden. The silver salvia (Salvia argentea) makes a wonderful addition to container displays with its bold, fuzzy, grey basal rosettes. If you find the Midwestern Salvia azurea ‘Nekan’ with sky blue flowers, buy it. It flowers from July until September and is hardy in this region. My favorite is the Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) with its fuzzy purple and white flowers that act as a magnet for hummingbirds late in the season. The new anise-hyssop (Agastache) cultivars are a nice alternative to salvias. They enjoy the same growing conditions as the half-hardy salvias, but will survive through the winter. The cultivar ‘Black Adder’ flowers from July to frost with deep purple blooms and fragrant foliage that is reminiscent of menthol. Agastache ‘Tutti Fruiti’, ‘Heather Queen’, and ‘Sunset Hyssop’ are also outstanding choices that have tall, graceful flower spires in pink and salmon.

Begonias make stunning partners for hostas and ubiquitous impatiens in the shady border. The ‘Dragon Wing’ begonia has small red or pink flowers through the entire season; but its full habit with its shiny lance shape foliage steals the show. It can handle full sun to shade. The silvery speckled-leaved Begonia coccinea ‘Sinbad’ is also superb for full sun to part shade situations. The fantastic marbled foliage of the rex begonias do best in part to full shade. They are good additions to container displays.

Container Suggestions for a Tropical Display:

Flowering maple (Abutilon) Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea)
Copper leaf plant (Acalypha) Blood leaf (Iresine)
Agave (Agave) Lantana (Lantana)
Joseph’s coat (Alternanthera) Parrots beak (Lotus)
Angelonia (Angelonia) Honey bush (Melianthus)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias curassavica) Banana (Musa)
Begonia (Begonia) Passionflower (Passiflora)
Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) Fancy-leaved geranium (Pelargonium)
Angel wings (Caladium) Egyptian star (Pentas)
Calibrachoa (Calibrachoa) New Zealand flax (Phormium)
Canna (Canna) Plectranthus (Plectranthus)
Croton (Codiaeum) Castor bean plant (Ricinus)
Coleus (Solenostemon) False-petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)
Elephant’s ear (Colocasia) Silver sage (Salvia argentea)
Cabbage palm (Cordyline) Andean silver-leafed sage (Salvia discolor)
Cigar plant or Mexican heather (Cuphea) Brazilian sage (Salvia guaranitica)
Dahlia (Dahlia) Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha)
Caribbean copper plant (Euphorbia cotinifolia) Gentian sage (Salvia patens)
Fuchsia (Fuchsia) Persian shield (Strobilanthes)
Firebush (Hamelia) Purple Spiderwort (Tradescantia)
Hibiscus (Hibiscus) Verbena (Verbena)
  Yucca (Yucca)

Learn more about creating colorful, beautiful container plantings with tropical plants.

Download this Tip Sheet.

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Generous support for the Home Gardening Center has been provided by Kenneth and Ellen Roman.