By Heather Blackmore for Proven Winners
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners
When you think of a midwestern garden, a tropical oasis probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. In such gardens where winter is something to be reckoned with, you’ll find a plethora of sedum, coneflowers, daisies and daylilies. While those are all easy, colorful perennials, and they are pretty much a sure thing when it comes to reliability, there’s one thing they are missing—drama!
Want to make your garden more memorable? Go tropical! Plants with big, bold leaves that scream “Look at me!” and brightly colored, gigantic flowers that keep coming all summer long are what you need to get the look you want.
I’m not knocking tried and true perennials. They work. But like a good food pairing, they can be made even better with the simple addition of some knock-your-socks-off tropicals. While many look like they are straight from the islands, you may be surprised that some tropical looking plants are perennials that return bigger and better every year.
Let me show you five I love that will elevate your garden to the next level. They may look high maintenance, but don’t be deceived. These plants are real workhorses in the garden.
The common name, elephant’s ear, should tell you all you need to know about this showstopper. While most Colocasia grow quite large, Coffee Cups has smaller, cup-shaped, dark-veined leaves perched atop black stems. Standing approximately three to five feet tall, it makes an eye-catching thriller plant for container designs. In the landscape, Coffee Cups adds a tropical touch in the middle or back of the border.
Be sure to plant it where you can watch it in action. The cupped leaves catch rainwater which eventually forces the stems to bend, pouring the water down to the base of the plant where its roots can absorb the moisture. The effect is mesmerizing. You’ll want to be around when it rains!
Plant Coffee Cups Colocasia in full to part sun. It’s a thirsty plant and will perform best with consistent water. Got a pond? This plant will be right at home at the water’s edge. Treat it as an annual in cold climates or as a perennial in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8a through 11b.
Prefer a larger elephant’s ear variety that will spread in your landscape? Check out Heart of the Jungle® .
Some hardy plants can have the same bold attributes as tropical ones. A great example is ‘Diamond Lake’ hosta. Its large, thick, heart-shaped leaves are a shade of soft blue that will remind you of a calm ocean. This mounding plant can spread to almost four feet, so give it plenty of room to shine in your shade garden. Pale lavender flowers extend two feet above the foliage in early summer and are a favorite among the hummingbird crowd.
Hardy in zones 3 through 9, ‘Diamond Lake’ hosta is a reliable performer that provides tropical flair in the garden year after year.
Along a pond, in a large container or tucked into the garden, Prince Tut papyrus delivers tropical flair everywhere. Unlike his six-foot-tall father, King Tut®, this more dwarf variety grows just 30” tall. At the top of each strong stem is an umbrella-like plume that dances in the slightest breeze, imbuing the garden with movement and beauty.
Given plenty of water and room to grow, Prince Tut will carry on royally from spring to fall. Choose a spot in full to part sun and work some continuous release plant food into the soil when you plant to ensure a constant supply of nutrients is available. Consistent watering is the key to keeping this thriller happy and lush. Without it, wilting and browning plumes are inevitable. This is one of few plants you can grow in a container with no drainage hole since it enjoys boggy soil. Self-watering AquaPots® are also a great fit for papyrus.
In my experience designing my own garden, the vibrant colors of canna lily flowers can be difficult to work into a space if you prefer more subdued tones. I’ve found that Toucan Coral fits in perfectly with its soft salmon-pink flowers that keep on coming all season long. Its big, bold green leaves bring that island getaway feel to my landscape. Since they are slightly shorter than other cannas, especially when grown in containers, Toucan cannas also make perfect thrillers for tropical looking container recipes, too.
Expect plenty of hummingbird activity as the flowers are full of nectar they can’t resist. If you plant them in the same spot each year, you’ll get repeat visitors. Cannas grow in full sun to part sun and thrive in heat and humidity. They will grow with average moisture but are even more spectacular if you keep the soil moist. Toucan cannas are perennials in zones 8 and warmer but will need to be replanted each year in colder climates.
Eight-inch wide, hot pink flowers that just keep on coming? Yes, please! Bees and hummingbirds will love your Summerific® Hibiscus just as much as you when they bloom every year from midsummer to fall in zones 4 through 9. Like all perennial rose mallow, it is slow to get started every year. Be patient. Once they wake, these perennials have been known to put on an inch of growth per day!
As with all of the five plants pictured here, rose mallow thrives with consistent moisture. This sun-loving nativar tops out around four feet tall and spreads up to five feet wide, so be sure to give it plenty of space to express its tropical style. It will mature within a few years and is tough to transplant, so plant it in a permanent place from the start.
If pink isn’t your jam, check out the wide variety of colors and patterned flowers in the Summerific® series.
Learn more ways to make your garden pop with tropical flair: