Jan 28, 2009

Foliage in the Tropical Garden

The most important element in any tropical garden is foliage. I could easily create a gorgeous tropical garden without flowers, without hard landscaping or without garden art but could never create a great tropical garden without lots of lush, sensuous foliage. A good tropical garden is like a symphony with each of the plants acting as notes. The sum greater than each individual piece. Each complimenting or contrasting other plants. That’s why I’m always surprised that people so often buy plants on impulse often disregarding how they relate to the overall structure of the garden.

As much as I love heliconias I know a garden of only heliconias can be boring. Overwhelmingly green, they need contrast in texture, foliage and color to look their best. Our own gardens are heliconia and ginger centered. The plants we use and sell are plants that we find compliment heliconias best and help to create a lush, well rounded tropical garden with lots of color. In this article we’ll be featuring some of the stars of tropical foliage.

Calathea Lutea or Havana Cigar as it is commonly called is an excellent feature plant with its huge oblong waxy leaves and unusual candelabra flowers. It is also useful for creating a microclimate for other more tender tropicals. It’s also striking in large pots around pools or patios and the leaves can be used to line large platters when entertaining. In fact, in the Amazon the leaves are used to wrap food and cook in. We’ve used it close to the beach and in windy conditions and are impressed with how well it handles harsh condition. Golden Cigar has larger more golden flowers and can be used in a similar fashion.

Pleiostachya Pruinosa or “Wheat” is a calathea relative that is also highly desirable for creating drama in the tropical garden. The reverse of the leaves and stems are a deep purple color. The unusual feathery flower bracts and tiny bright purple flowers also add interest in the garden. I love waxy stems and foliage contrasted with purple leaves. Other plants we use in this particular color scheme are H.Pendula “Red Waxy”, H. “Hot Rio Nites”, Costus “Green Mountain”,H. Velligeria “She Kong”, H. Longa, and Etlingera pyramidosphaera “Black Tulip” . These plants can be mixed, stacked or mini mass planted for high impact. I find that variegated mondo or moss basket as a ground cover really make these plants jump out.

Elephant Ears can also make great accent plants in a tropical garden. Alocasia macrorrhizos is an Australian native that can get to 3 meters in the right conditions. It’s huge deep green leaves scream tropical. Xanthosoma Violaceum is another excellent choice if you are looking for drama. It can get to six feet with large blue green leaves and chunky purple stems. In Nepal and the Himalayas (it’s cold hardy!)it is grown as a food source but I prefer it as an ornamental Xanthosoma Lime Zinger with it’s giant chartreuse leaves and stems brightens up any spot and makes a great feature plant. It looks particularly good when contrasted with dark foliage plants like cordylines. Some of the smaller taros like Illustris are perfect for instant color and can be pulled out as your beds fill or planted in and around ponds.

In gingers I recommend using things like Alpinia Formosana with it’s sexy yet subtle pin striped leaves. If you’re looking for a bit more glitz Alpinia zerumbet variegata is a good choice. All of the tulip gingers have purple backed leaves in the juvenile stage but only the orange tulip and black tulip hold it permanently.

In previous articles we discussed cordylines and costus. Strong in color and texture both are must haves in the tropical garden. There’s also a host of other plants that compliment the tropical garden including broms, pandanus and of course, palms. If you are trying to create a tropical garden or revamping I suggest a little research. Bill Bensley is the king of Baroque Tropical. A lot of the ideas you’ll find in his books are surprisingly easy to incorporate into a backyard garden. If you can afford to splash out and buy Paradise by Design. If not you can check out some of the links below for ideas and information on tropical garden design. I’ve included links to places like The Tropical Plant Society of Sydney for people in more marginal climates. If you know of any other good links please email them to me and I’ll add them.

And of course you can purchase all of these plants in our online plant store.

Article by Fred Moody on Tropical Garden Design for Sydney


Tropical Garden Society of Sydney


SE Qld Tropical garden design


Gardening Australia article on Tropical Garden Design


Website of a Florida Garden Design Guru with photos and ideas


Our Links Page!!! Filled with great plant societies and forums where experts will happily help (especially Tropicshere).



SG said...

Thanks for this wonderful article!

Landscaping Company said...

You can also find info on www.interlinklandscaping.com. It is a comprehensive Landscaping Company which provides information about Landscaping.
Landscaping Company

Ben Shingleton said...

Hi, really like your site, we perform tropical landscaping makeovers in Thailand, our site is http://thaigardendesign.typepad.com/

I was wondering if you are interested in link exchange with our site? Many thanks. Ben

James said...


Could you provide more detail on the book you have sited:

Tropical by Design

So far can not find a reference to it on the web or amazon.

√Čtienne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James said...


I am interested in suggestions for plants as ground covers? I have an established canopy, so after recommendations for shaded and semi-shaded areas. Your thoughts would be very appreciated.


shekong said...

Hi James, Things like mondo grass, rheo and spider lilies are traditional ground covers that will grow in sun or part sun. If you are looking for "filler plants" then I would suggest cordylines. Some great ones for part shade are Disco, Cyclamen,Pink Rose,Maniua, Orange Tip and Waihee Rainbow.