Tropical plants thrive in warm, humid climates. They grow happily in Hawaii and along the Florida coast, in the South Pacific and the lush rainforests of Indonesia and the Amazon Basin, and in other parts of the world where the temperatures remain at least 64 degrees, on average, year-round.
As author Mark Twain famously said, you can’t do much about the weather. But if you live where the winters are cold, you can still turn your garden into a pretend tropical paradise.
The key is using temperate plants that mimic the look of tropicals with their large leaves, brightly colored blooms and exotic forms.
"Tropical means the plants don’t tolerate freezing temperatures," says Tony Avent, an horticulturist, garden writer and international plant explorer who owns Plant Delights Nursery at Juniper Level Botanic Garden in Raleigh, N.C.
"Conversely, temperate plants tolerate freezing temperatures," Avent says. But while some temperate plants will grow in cool climates, others won’t.
"Many warm-temperate plants require summer heat, so these would not work in climates with cool summers,” he adds. “It’s not really the length of the season as much as it is the lack of heat. Many of the coldest areas, like Alaska, get almost 24 hours of daylight in the summer, so the growth rate surpasses anything we see in the Southeast."
"Giant tropical-looking plants like Gunnera will thrive in cool climates, but die in summer heat," says Avent of this South American plant, also known as giant rhubarb for the shape of its leaves. "The key is selecting the right plant for each climate."
You can also achieve a tropical effect by planting densely. This isn’t hard to do if you have a small garden space to fill and use leafy plants that grow fast and produce deep shade. Be sure to include flowering plants, too, especially in bold, vivid colors.
Avent recommends these lush-looking plants to create a tropical feel in your landscape:
- Sichuan Hardy Banana (Musa basjoo) – Hardy in zones 7a to 10b (and possibly colder), this banana species comes from China and grows 16 to 20 feet tall, with long, arching leaves. Yellow-orange flowers open at the top of the stem. Later, clusters of short bananas form. Reportedly, they’re considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. But here in North America, the heavily seeded fruits don’t ripen fully and are inedible, with a dry, bitter taste. The plants need plenty of mulch in colder areas, at least until they become well established.
- Elephant's Ear (Colocasia esculenta) – Many Colocasia cultivars are suitable for a tropical-themed garden. ‘Big Dipper’ has purple-black stems and grey-green foliage with a matte finish. The leaves act like cups, catching rain until they’re so full, they droop and spill their water. ‘Mojito’ has spectacular green leaves with dark purple markings. It often dies when temperatures dip into the teens, so mulch this plant generously in the winter to protect its main tuber. Both ‘Big Dipper’ and ‘Mojito’ are typically hardy in zones 7b to 10b.
- Crinum Lily (Crinum spp.) – Add flowers to your lush look with many different types of crinums. ‘Birthday Party’ blooms from June into August with fragrant, deep pink flowers. Each petal carries a wide, dark stripe down the center. The lily’s leaves can reach 40 inches long, while the plants grow to 3 feet tall. ‘White Emperor’ bears snowy-white flowers with a rich perfume. Both of these crinums are hardy to zones 7b to 10b, at least.
- Prairie Rosinweed (Silphium terebinthinaceum) – This sun-lover, hardy in zones 3a to 8B, at least, grows 3 feet tall. Despite its tropical good looks, it’s native to the prairies that stretch from Canada south to Mississippi. Its long, thick leaves have a sandpaper-like texture. Leafless stalks of yellow daises bloom in mid-August; they’re a magnet for hummingbirds and many pollinators. Later, the flowers form seeds that hungry goldfinches snap up.
- Mexican Winged Crown-Beard (Verbesina olsenii) – This Mexican native can be grown in zones 7a to 9b. Planted in early spring, Mexican winged crown-beard can easily reach 10 feet tall by summer. Late in the growing season, the plants bear bright yellow, sweetly-scented flowers. The thick, square stems have many “wings,” or fuzzy leaves that grow to 15 inches long.
All good things must come to an end, and that includes summer’s warm weather. So what do you do with your favorite faux tropicals when winter arrives, if you live outside their hardiness zones?
“Plants with large underground tubers or corms can be stored in dry peat moss and kept above freezing,” Avent says. “Keep in mind that many of the fancier leaf elephant ears never develop a large tuber, and consequently must be potted indoors to overwinter in cold climates.”