Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tempting Tropicals

During the hot, humid summers of Hampton Roads, it's not surprising that many gardeners are tempted to bring a little piece of island living to their backyards.  And why wouldn't they?  Many tropical plants are known for interesting and brightly colored foliage, brilliant blooms and quick growth.  With the addition of tropical plants, you can transform your backyard into a temporary paradise.

Growing tropical plants can be challenging but if you are willing to make the commitment, the results will be worth the effort.  Of course, some are easier than others.  Some are likely to return each year and others are only here for the interim.  Before choosing your tropical plants be certain to read up on them and discover just what to expect once they are planted.

As always, we have some favorites that you may want to try.

Croton.  Croton is a colorful shrub with leathery leaves that are most colorful in bright light. In low light conditions new leaves will be smaller and less intensely pigmented. . Allow the soil surface to dry between waterings.

Agave.  Among the most architectural plants, agaves feature bold succulent leaves that set the tone for wherever they're planted. They're incredibly heat- and drought-tolerant and most are long-lived. Many varieties bear sharp spines along leave margins and at the leaf tip, which adds to their dramatic presentation. The bluish-green rosettes naturally spread by producing offsets at the base of the plant. It is an excellent choice for sunny, hot, dry areas, especially desert regions, with good drainage.

Elephant's Ears Colocasia Varieties.  Elephant's ears are lush, tropical accents that look good in any climate. These elephant's ears are hardier than their close relatives (alocasias) and their leaves are heart-shape and larger. When summer's warm weather arrives, they grow fast, achieving a large spread of at least 5 feet. Colocasias languish in drought but thrive in wet soils.

Elephant's Ears Alocasia Varieties.  Elephant's ears are big, dramatic, tropical-looking plants grown for their bold foliage. Aptly named, many bear triangular leaves that are leathery and uniquely textured. These tropical plants enjoy the boggy soils around water gardens and can also be grown indoors as houseplants. The clumping foliage adds lush effects in the landscape and is especially effective in large containers. The plants sprout from large bulbous roots and achieve maximum growth in warm, humid summer temperatures.  

Alpinia Purparata.  A clump forming ginger with red spikes for flowers.  Very showy against the shiny green leaves.  Flowers get bigger with time.  They are famous in tropical flower arrangements.  Like most gingers, the plant must be kept warm.  For shaded and sheltered areas only. 

Cherry Jubilee Allamanda.  This evergreen tropical vine blooms during summer and fall.  Glossy point burgundy-brown buds open into flowers with five overlapped petals of an unusual tint of pink, like a cherry dessert.  During a season, allamanda can grow between 9 to 18 feet.  

Pink Velvet Banana (Musa Velutina).  Rarely exceeding six foot tall, the pink velvet banana is a hardy banana that produces small, pink, velvet bananas which peel themselves when ripe.  Filled with seeds, they aren't grown for their fruit.

Rice Paper Plant or Steroidal Giant. (Tetrapanax Papyriferus).  With enormous, dramatic gray-green leaves (2 to 3 foot wide), this plant thrives in full sun and needs very little water or fertilizer.  

Bougainvillea.  Bougainvillea is one of the showiest vines you can grow. The large plant practically smothers itself in big clusters of papery bracts. These bracts appear in bold shades of pink, lavender, red, gold, or orange and create a display you can see a block away.
While bougainvillea is tropical, it's usually grown as an annual in cold-winter areas.

Hibiscus.  Huge, showy blooms are the hallmark of the hibiscus family, whether the flying saucers on hardy perennial hibiscus, the Hawaiian charmers of the tropical hibiscus, or the frilly-flowered Rose of Sharon that grows into a large shrub or small tree. Not only do hibiscus blooms boast an amazing array of colors, vastly widened through hybridizing, they also draw hummingbirds en masse. The newer, dark-leaf introductions are wonderful architectural fillers in container gardens.
Cold-winter gardeners can grow the more tender types of hibiscus in containers and wheel them into the house when winter approaches.  Prune back heavily to encourage blooms, and watch for aphids and whitefly, which are attracted to all forms of hibiscus.  

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