Do It Yourself Landscaping: Tropical Looking Plants That Can Live In Other Climates

Create your own tropical garden in U.S. hardiness zones 4-8 using hardy tropical plants.

Does the thought of whiling away the afternoon in a hammock surrounded by Hibiscus and palm trees, set to the ebb and flow of gentle waves, occupy your mind when the temperature begins to drop? If you can imagine an idyllic tropical setting, you can plan now to create a little slice of the tropics right in your own backyard""as soon as next spring.

Gardeners in U.S. hardiness zones 9 and 10 can safely plant tender tropical plants and enjoy them year after year. Gardeners in colder zones can achieve the same effect by using one or more techniques, listed below from least practical to most practical:

* Replace tender tropical plants annually.

* Bring plants indoors for the winter, and reacclimatize them each spring.

* Plant tender perennials in containers, and move indoors for the winter.

* Plant nothing but hardy tropical plants.

* Plant tropical-like perennials, add new hardy tropical cultivars as they become available, and supplement with a few must-have tender tropical plants each year.

The distinction between true tropical plants and tropical-like plants blurs more with each passing gardening season. Thanks to cross-breeding, hardy plants with brilliant new color combinations become available to gardeners in moderate zones each spring. Most new cultivars are suitable for zones 7 and 8 and are often hardy to zone 5. The newest varieties arrive first at the specialty local, Internet, and mail-order garden centers. If you are willing to wait for mass production, the most popular cultivars will find their way to a garden center near you within a few years""at an affordable price, often as low as $5-10. Check the zone label that accompanies the plant to ensure that it will survive your winter. When in doubt, ask garden center personnel for help.

Tropical Garden Characteristics

When planning a tropical garden, keep the following characteristics in mind:

* Hyperbole - everything associated with tropical plants is big""overall size, leaf size, and blooms. Rare exceptions include the delicate passionflower vine (Passiflora).

* Flowering plants are profuse bloomers.

* Blooms are always brilliant and often exhibit rare and unusual color combinations.

* Tropical vegetation is lush and copious.

* Green is the mainstay of the tropical garden. Mix unusual variegated leaves, particularly those that exhibit hints of orange, red, purple, pink, and yellow.

* Fragrance - If you like fragrance in the air or want to attract wildlife, add fragrant plants.

Deceive the senses with a close approximation of a tropical garden, and let the imagination take over from there. Rely heavily on hardy varieties, big, colorful plants that lend a tropical air to the garden, combine leafy plants to achieve an overall variegated effect, and fill in with a few of your favorite tender perennials each year.

Mainstays of the Tropical Garden

If you're starting your tropical bed from scratch, create a backdrop of dramatic foliage with elephant ears, banana plants, and hosta. Include canna, and hisbiscus for color, and add custom touches from there.

Elephant Ears

Elephant ears are usually hardy only to zone 7, their leaves resembling oversized, green caladium leaves. Autumn glory (Bergenia cordifolia) is hardy up to zone 4, requires poor, boggy soil conditions to reach its full potential, and adds welcome vibrant color to the fall garden.

Ornamental Banana Plant

To add a touch of the jungle to your tropical garden, plant a few ornamental banana plants in the back of the garden. Banana plants also work well as specimen plants. Japanese banana (Musa basjoo) and Himalayan banana plant (Musa sikkimensis) are both root hardy varieties. Cut them to the ground in the fall and mulch heavily for the winter. Since banana plants are fast growers producing leaves up to several feet long, you don't lose the effect by cutting to the ground each fall.


Hosta is not a tropical. Temperatures in the tropics never reach freezing, the level required to support hosta dormancy. Still, tropical gardeners in moderate zones take advantage of hosta's diversity to add interest to a tropical setting. Hostas range in size from 4-28" tall to 10-70" in diameter. Newer cultivars display an assortment of unusual leaf patterns, and some flaunt dramatic blooms. While hostas are often associated with shade, they thrive equally well in sunlight.


The tropical garden's blooming workhorse is the Hibiscus, which comes in several hardy varieties. The most popular is the Hibiscus moscheutos, characterized by its 9-12 inch plate-sized blooms. Blooms resemble crepe and vary from pure white to blood red and every variation in between, while some varieties sport a light flower with a deep center. All varieties in this family bloom from early July to first frost. Blooms last for only a day, but it's not unusual to find three to five new blooms each day. Hibiscus moscheutos is typically disease and pest resistant. There is one notable exception: if your area attracts Japanese beetles, be aware that they consider this variety their own personal all-you-can-eat buffet, and they can strip leaves, blooms, and buds in a couple of hours. If this seeming devastation occurs, the plant will survive to bloom again""most likely later the same season.

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is another popular hardy variety. Rose of Sharon grows as a small shrub or as a small tree, depending on how you prune it. Growing to about 8', the flowers are relatively small, measuring a scant 4" across. What the blooms lack in size, they make up for in abundance and variety. Hibiscus syriacus blooms range from white to pink and true blue to violet and some varieties sport bicolor blooms while others sport fluffy double petals.


Banana canna (Canna musifolia), and grande canna (Canna grande) are both perfect substitutes for ornamental banana plants, growing to 10', requiring nothing but a little mulch over the winter. Banana canna adds foliar interest and fall color with end of summer red blooms.

Other varieties of canna, those bearing a continual profusion of giant blooms, range in color from red to coral and pink, to orange and yellow. Others produce speckled and variegated blooms resembling gigantic Iris. Lucifer produces one of the most unusual vibrant blooms""bright yellow with hot pink accents. Regardless of which varieties you choose, you will be rewarded with prolific blooms and non-stop drama.

Trumpet Lily

In keeping with the hyperbole theme, gardeners in zones 3-8 can plant trumpet lily to add vibrancy, fragrance, and stature to the tropical garden. This gargantuan variety grows 4-6' feet tall with 6-8" blooms. Intersperse trumpet lilies with Asiatic and Oriental lilies for continual blooming and fragrance from June through August.

Once you've planted the basics, think about other ways to add to the overall tropical atmosphere:

* Move houseplants such as gardenias, palm trees, and orchids outside for the summer.

* Showcase a passionflower vine against a trellis, even if it's an annual variety. Caerulea, from Brazil and Argentina, is one of the hardiest. Cut back in the fall and mulch well to increase the chances of an encore performance the following year. Whether annual or perennial, these graceful and exotic vines are inexpensive, fast growing, and lend an air of grace to the tropical garden.

* Birds of paradise provide a spectacular exotic display, unparalleled by any other plant. Protect during the winter below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. For extra protection, plant in a container, and submerge the container in the garden.

* Fill your pond with deceptively hardy water lilies (Nymphaea). Their graceful leaves and blooms float gracefully on the surface of the water, and each bloom lasts up to four days. They are hardy in all U.S. zones, go dormant in the winter, and require no special attention.

* Add groups of pineapple lily to create a focal point. Eucomis sparkling burgundy, with its vivid pink foliage and blooms, adds an unexpected touch.

* Plant a hardy palm tree. Washingtonia filifera is one of the hardiest varieties. Now there's a specimen plant sure to draw attention and raves from the neighbors.

Tropical gardens are easy to maintain, respond well even when neglected, and reward you with years of carefree enjoyment.

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