Originally published Aug. 23, 2017
By Ciscoe Morris, former In the Garden writer
CREATE A TROPICAL flair in your garden by featuring plants with big bold leaves, wildly colorful flowers and delicious fragrance. Fortunately, you don’t have to go to the houseplant store to find them. There are plenty of spectacular tropical-looking plants at quality nurseries, and most of them are hardy enough to survive outdoors year-round in the Northwest.
You can’t see a palm tree without thinking of the tropics. The Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is perfectly hardy in our region. It comes from the Himalayan Mountains of China, and other parts of Asia, and as long as they’re planted in well-drained soil and full sun in an area protected from cold winds, they’ll withstand temperatures down to 10 degrees, and can grow higher than 30 feet. Keep them looking their best by removing old leaves every spring.
Add a “Jurassic Park” feel to your garden with Gunnera manicata or its equally gigantic cousin, Gunnera tinctoria. Hardy to zone 7, these honkers thrive in constantly moist soil and full sun. They can reach 8 feet tall and wide, with leaves that can expand to 8 feet across. Once you plant one, you’ll understand why its common name is Dinosaur Food! Protect from frost damage by cutting the leaves down in late fall, and pile them on the crown. Remove the cover of leaves in early spring to allow new growth to emerge.
The colorful calla lily hybrids (zantedeschia) add a tropical flamboyance to any garden. The spear-shaped, white-spotted leaves are exotic-looking in their own right, but the brilliantly colorful, vase-shaped spathe blooms are pure Tropicana. Although most of the colorful hybrids are tender, ‘Flame’ (sometimes available potted at local nurseries) is generally hardy. Its blossoms emerge yellow before maturing to fiery orange-red. To survive the winter, it must be planted in full sun and exceptionally well-drained soil. Mulch heavily in fall with a cover of evergreen fern fronds. You’ll know you were successful when leaves begin to emerge in mid-May, and the magnificent flower display begins again in early to mid-July.
Don’t forget schefflera. Schefflera delavayi is a gorgeous shrub that can grow to at least 8 feet tall and wide. This sensational plant looks great in every season. In spring, the new leaves emerge coated in coppery felt. In summer, the huge, compound green leaves glow with an undercoating of golden indumentum, and in fall, long, fuzzy wands produce airy sprays of tiny white flowers. As autumn fades, the large evergreen foliage continues to make a bold statement in the stark winter landscape.
Other hardy species of schefflera are available. One of the most elegant is Schefflera taiwaniana ‘Yuan Shan’. This gorgeous species features long, purple petioles (leaf stems) topped with multiple leaflets, and has showy purple fruit during the winter months. Although it can reach to more than 15 feet, it can be cut back hard in spring to regrow almost from ground level. The key to growing hardy scheffleras is all about drainage. Some scheffleras can handle more sun than others, but they all resent constantly wet conditions. They won’t endure our rainy winters unless they’re planted in extremely well-drained soil.
Finally, the big momma of tropical-looking plants has to be the hardy banana (Musa basjoo). Hardy to below zero, these Japanese natives are actually herbaceous perennials. If located in a sunny location and fertilized with organic lawn food every six weeks, these behemoths are capable of growing to more than 20 feet tall, accompanied by leaves that are 2 feet wide by 12 feet long.
How tall your banana will grow is determined mostly by the weather. The stem is made up of rolled-up leaves that die back from the top, depending on how cold it gets in winter. To find out how far the stem died back, climb your pruning ladder in spring and, starting from the top, trim down inch by inch until you see live growth in the form of a pale, green circle in the mushy tissue. That is where new growth will occur. If you’re really lucky, it might even produce bananas. The inedible fruit are quite ornamental, but the downside is that they attract a terrible pest. It’s so hard to get those darned monkeys out of your garden!