Even if you live well north of the equator and no where near the jungle, you can have the essence of the tropics in your own backyard. A few ground rules:
- First, do a little research about what grows well in your area. In the coldest zones you might need to substitute hardy types of bamboo, ferns, or bananas; in dry, hot areas consider bougainvilleas and palms rather than thirsty ferns. Swing by your local independent garden center for the best plants for your needs.
- Second, the essence of the tropical garden is dense planting. Only with a lot of plants in a small space can you achieve the desired jungle-like appearance. Create a wall around the garden – think vertical layers. Surround yourself in plants. And, remember that in colder zones or where planting space is limited, pots stuffed with tropical plants is always an option!
- Third, give into color. Hot, bright colors just scream tropics. Not only bright flower colors, but striking variegated foliage.And, speaking of foliage, tropical gardens need big leaves.
Now that you have the idea, here are examples of lush tropical gardens from all regions of the continental U.S. and some of the fabulous, zone-appropriate plants to help you get the look.
There are many tropical and tropical-looking plants with a hardy, durable nature to add a touch of the exotic to cooler landscapes. Palms, bananas, elephant ears, cannas, mallows. Most need extra protection in winter such as the sheltered location of this Long Island, New York garden; some need to be lifted out and stored in a cool, dry place. If you live below zone 5, you will likely be limited to planting tropicals in containers or in the case of plants such as bougainvilleas, using them as annuals, but for the impact they bring, it’s so worth it.
Moving further south the plant options expand as in this garden in Maryland. Many ferns, bamboos, and palms that are hardy to zone 7 will thrive here; more tender plants such as caladiums will need to be lifted out and stored indoors. In a sheltered spot such as this walled garden, heat is trapped which might allow for a bit of experimentation with zone 8 plants.
In the deep south and coastal south, you can go wild with tropicals! From bougainvillea to all kinds of palms, ferns, bamboos, there’s no need to compromise. This Florida garden is stuffed from floor to sky with tropical, heat-loving plants that are nothing short of wondrous. Towering plants, specimens with huge leaves, and stands of color— this is textbook tropical.
As with New England, gardeners in colder zones (below zone 6) have fewer choices for tropicals but nothing says you can’t have crazy, colorful, straight-out-of-Bali containers! In this St. Louis garden, cannas, bananas, grasses, and annuals such as sweet potato vine are crammed into large pots; the effect is breezy and dramatic. Some of these will be one-hit wonders, but others can be lifted out and stored overwinter.
With the drought continuing and water-wise in mind, getting a tropical look in the west means swapping-in Australian and Mediterranean plants for thirstier plants. Many palms, once rooted-in, thrive as do some ferns, but the real drama comes from vines such as bougainvillea and perennials including gingers, agapanthus, and plumbago. The cool shade afforded by a grove of bamboo or tall palms is so welcome here.