If you're looking for a stylish garden this summer, think tropical. The "cat's pajamas" of the gardening world, tropical plants are once again in vogue and all the rage. The tropical look features an abundance of lush, large, colorful and leafy foliage — typical of canna and banana — as well as bright, vibrantly colored flowers with unusual shapes, such as golden shrimp plant and hibiscus. Even if you live in colder climates, you can create dramatic summer landscapes atypical of your region.
Red Banana Plant
Caladium, angel wing, is a summer bulb which, with its spectacular, colorful foliage, radiates the tropical look. This South American native is well known for its performance in shade, but new hybrids are available that are tolerant of full summer sun. The colors of the heart-shaped leaves range from bright red, pink, green and white in multiple variegation. They prefer a moist but well-drained site and grow up to 1-1/2 feet tall. Use in containers with mixed plantings or in mass for a very dramatic show. Hardy to USDA Zone 10.
The ribbon plant is a definite conversation piece for the garden. Also called the tapeworm plant, the stems are flat and not round. The stems continue to add new segments or joints to grow into an upright, somewhat arching plant two to three feet tall. Tiny leaves match the stems in color but don't compete for visual attention. Hardy to USDA Zone 10.
Golden Shrimp Plant
In climates where it isn't hardy (USDA Zone 9 and cooler), the golden shrimp plant is a great flowering houseplant that has a dramatic, tropical effect in the garden. Yellow and white bicolored flowers are striking against its dark green foliage. Use in containers or as an impressive show in masses. Grows to 1-1/2 feet tall and flowers nonstop all season. Grow in full sun or part shade.
Where it's hardy (USDA Zone 10 and 11), the copperleaf, or copper plant, is an evergreen shrub. Elsewhere, it's an old-fashioned tropical houseplant that has found its home as an annual in the summer landscape.
Many selections are available and all have vivid foliage colors, ranging from dark plum reds to shades of pink, red, orange-red and cream. Some have large heart-shaped leaves, while others have smaller, serrated leaves. Acalypha makes a striking accent plant and can be used in the landscape or in containers. Hardy to USDA Zone 10-11.
Persian Shield Plant
Strobilanthes 'Persian Shield' is an exotic perennial in its comfort zone (hardy in USDA Zone 10 and 11), valued for its vivid purple foliage. In cooler areas, 'Persian Shield' makes a wonderful annual, great for use in containers or in the garden. Lavender flowers appear in the summer, but they're far less showy than the foliage. The plant grows to three to four feet and may require pruning. Performs great in full sun to partial-shade; give it good soil and regular watering. It can also be over-wintered indoors.
In Zones 10 and warmer, firebush is a colorful tropical evergreen shrub with tubular red-orange flowers. Plants can grow to 10 feet tall. The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds. Great in full sun and a well-drained soil. Versatile in the garden either in mixed containers or as a specimen or in mass. Hardy as a perennial to USDA Zone 8, where it displays bright-red fall foliage and dies back to the ground in winter. Where it's perennial, expect heights of four to five feet.
Ginger has exceptional leafy foliage (some scented) and exotic-smelling flowers. Some varieties like 'Pinstripe', 'Zerumbet Variegated' and 'Amazonicus Variegated' have colorful variegated foliage, making them dramatic plants in the garden. Depending on the variety, the plant can grow to eight feet tall. Use in containers or plant in masses in full sun to part shade. Hardy to USDA Zone 8.
A Colorful Garden Accent
You can achieve the tropical look in your garden by using plants directly planted in your garden or by using them in containers. Pots allow you to spread the tropical feel to your patios, decks and porches and to easily move plants indoors for overwintering. However, for a more dramatic effect, tropicals planted in the garden can't be beat. The large leaf texture and colorful foliage of many tropical plants is quite striking when blended into a traditional flower garden. If you want to save the tropicals planted in your garden, then dig them in the fall prior to frost and plant in containers where they can be overwintered.
For added fun, consider adding a pink flamingo or two to boldly emphasize your tropical look. Rather than sticking these plastic birds in the middle of your lawn, nestle a few together among your garden's foliage and flowers. Flamingos can be especially pleasing when situated with colors that echo theirs. I guarantee that, in addition to your tropical plants, these birds will make your garden a conversation piece
— Susan Hamilton is an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Landscape Systems and director of the UT Gardens at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.