The tropical style, featuring plants with bold textures and vibrant colors, can add drama and fun to gardens. You have probably seen this...
The tropical style, featuring plants with bold textures and vibrant colors, can add drama and fun to gardens.
You have probably seen this style in magazines, at nurseries and in friends’ gardens. Tropical style can go beyond plant choices. It can include accessories — tiki torches, anyone? — and architectural features such as entry gates festooned with palm fronds.
In designing with plants, the tropical style has stretched the boundaries of what we can do in a garden, added a wider range of textures and colors to our palette and made us see that foliage can be as important as flowers. With this new sensibility we can create richer gardens, even if we don’t want to copy a tropical look.
We can borrow the best elements of tropical style and make them our own.
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So, to enliven a dull composition of small- and medium-sized leaves, add the contrast of large-leafed plants, such as the tiger-striped foliage of Canna ‘Pretoria’ or the jagged-edged ornamental rhubarb (Rheum palmatum).
Go outside your zone
Part of the tropical look involves “zonal denial,” growing plants that may die in our occasional arctic blasts.
Much of this region is in Zone 8 on the USDA hardiness zone map, with a minimum temperature of 10 to 20 degrees. Other parts may be Zone 7, with a minimum temperature of 0 to 10 degrees, because they are higher in elevation or farther from the marine influence of Puget Sound. By using plants that are tagged for zones warmer than 8 or 7, you can expand beyond the familiar.
For instance, you could plant Japanese banana (Musa basjoo), which will usually come back from the roots if frozen to the ground. Or you could try Red Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum Maurelii), which needs more protection. If you try the latter, wrap the stem with insulation in the winter or dig up the plant like a large bulb, place it in a pot and keep it above freezing in a garage or cool greenhouse for the winter.
Looks can be deceiving
If you don’t want to push the zonal envelope and still want an exotic feel to your garden, explore the range of plants that look tropical but are hardy even in a cold winter.
Many bold-textured plants have been around Northwest gardens for decades. Consider evergreen magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), with its lush green leaves and large white flowers. The species can grow into an 80-foot tree, but if you have limited space, the cultivar ‘Little Gem’ reaches just 25 feet.
Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica), with large star-shaped evergreen leaves, looks as if it just came from the jungle. Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) brings big leathery evergreen leaves to the scene.
Our native Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is a member of a genus that has many selections with strong architectural form. For one of the best, consider Mahonia x media ‘Charity.’
Reach for the sky
For the largest leaf of all, plant Gunnera manicata. In a wet spot, a single leaf can reach 6 or more feet across.
Plants with spike-shaped leaves add contrast to a garden scene. New Zealand flax (Phormium species and cultivars) is indispensable for its sword-shaped foliage and bright colors. Give this plant room in your beds; it can reach 6 feet in height and width.
Palm trees definitely speak of warmer climes. The hardiest palm is Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), and specimens have reached 35 feet in the Northwest. Others may prove to be hardy here and are worth a try.
Use small plants for big effect
You don’t have to bring in a 35-foot palm tree for a tropical touch in the garden. Many smaller plants can add big texture. Large-leafed hostas have a tropical look, as well as many hardy ferns. Bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) has large leaves and spikes of flowers.
Grasses add a lush linear form that can look tropical. Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis), with its many cultivars, can add color, too. Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’) has horizontal yellow stripes on a green background.
When placing bold plants in the garden, arrange them for maximum contrast, spiky leaves playing off round ones, large leaves in relief against small ones. You may want to try tropical-looking plants in just one area of the garden such as around a spa, or carry the bold foliage throughout.
Short of a trip to Hawaii, adding the accent of tropical foliage to your garden can be a like a vacation in your own backyard.
Phil Wood has a degree in landscape architecture and designs and builds gardens. Send questions to email@example.com. Sorry, no personal replies.