Tropical Gardens in temperate climates.
A tropical garden design theme can bring a taste of the exotic into any back yard. To achieve a successful tropical garden you will need to select the best plants providing that magical jungle effect.
Tropical gardens are associated with large, dense, shiny foliage with vibrant colourful blooms. Water is a vital element as naturally tropical regions experience heavy annual rainfall. Creating a tropical looking garden in a temperate climate will rely on implementing a combination of bold foliage, movement, enclosure and colour. As in nature a jungle garden should have varying heights and canopies of plants to stack interest and visual splendour.
Most plants from tropical gardens cannot survive the sub zero conditions of temperate climates. Therefore if you are creating a jungle paradise in North America, Europe or the UK plant selection is essential.
Luckily there are many tropical looking Trees, Palms, shrubs, bamboos, grasses, ferns and other plants which can take cold wet conditions. Many of these are from places with temperate, tropical transitional landmasses. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China and South America are good examples of these.
Hence it is no surprise that most frost hardy palms and tropical lookalikes come from these countries.
There are many temperate garden plants that have such bold colour and architectural foliage they easily compliment tropical gardens. The aim of this article is to set out the main planting types and species of plants for tropical gardens in temperate climates. Or as a simplified climatic example ‘gardens with winter temperatures no lower that minus 10 degrees Celsius.
Climate considerations for tropical garden plants
Regardless of what plants are advised will take sub zero temperatures there are always exceptions. For example if your garden is very exposed to cold winds and damp conditions these can still prove fatal.
Some tropical looking plants are so close to their climatic tolerance in temperate regions one harsh winter can be all it takes. Here in the southern UK about 8 years ago we had record lows of minus 12 which killed many large palms and cordylines in urban gardens.
It is always important to try and analyse your sites microclimates and weather patterns. Many tropical looking plants do not like strong winds and appreciate solar heat traps. Hence tropical gardens in the north USA, UK and Europe are preferable enclosed on all sides with masonry walls. Strong fences are also good but not as successful of absorbing the suns warmth.
As well as exposed hill tops being avoided also very low lying ground is also not suitable. Low areas in temperate climates are usually very damp in winter and susceptible to frost pockets. Cold frosty conditions can spell sudden death to warm loving plants.
Although tropical looking plants don’t like to be too wet in cold winters they still like water in hot dry summers. If your soil is particularly prone to summer droughts you may want to look into irrigating a new tropical garden.
Generally Tropical gardens need soil as close to what is found in nature. This means tropical plants like lots of organic matter mixing in. Also a good thick layer of nitrogen rich mulch can help your tropical plants establish and protect their roots from frost. The best soil for tropical gardens is moist but well drained so try to loosen any compaction and add compost and grid to improve soil structure.
Tropical garden trees
Eucalyptus - Eucalyptus Gunni
Eucalyptus gunni or the cider gum is a type of eucalyptus native to Tasmania. It has been popular in temperate gardens now for many years due to its habit, cold tolerance and decorative features. The bark is smooth with white and grey patches which can create a striking vertical line in tropical gardens. The young leaves of this tree are different from the mature foliage appearing almost completely circular around the young stems.
Indian Bean Tree – Catalpa bignonoides
The Indian Bean Tree actually comes from the southern United States and has become popular in temperate gardens. Its large leaves have made it a popular tree for adding a tropical feel to garden borders. If left unchecked however they can grow quite large so they are best coppiced or pollarded. This actually allows the leaves to grow even larger accentuating its exotic aesthetics.
Fig Tree – Ficus carica
This extremely popular small tree is perfect for tropical gardens in temperate regions. Not only does it fruit the most deliciously sweet fruit it looks almost prehistoric. With dark green fingered leaves this tree can act as a great visual texture to the back of a jungle border. Figs can also be trained into almost any shape you want meaning you can fill and cover any space
Maidenhair Tree – Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo biloba is an extremely ancient type of tree with fossils of its leaves going back many hundreds of millions of years. Its leaves have a very unusual almost crescent shape making them a focal point. Ginkgos have many unusual chemical compounds which can also be used medicinally. They put on an amazing show in autumn when the foliage turns bright yellow.
Large Leaf Magnolia – Magnolia macrophylla
Large leaf Magnolias are from the south-eastern United States and grow very well in temperate regions. They have extremely large leaves and amazingly huge flowers. These magnolias are very capable of growing in deep shade making them perfect for tightly planted jungle gardens.
Tropical garden palms
New Zealand Cabbage Palm – Cordyline australis
This yucca palm is native to New Zealand and can grow up to 20 metres tall. It has a very architectural form and is very popular in temperate tropical gardens. This yucca is very hardy I have seen some die back due to extremely cold weather and grow back from the base. Cordylines look great and are very easy to grow
Windmill Fan Palm – Trachycarpus fortune
When looking at a large one of these growing in a temperate climate it is easy to be amazed! These very hardy palms would not look out of place in Florida however they handle very cold conditions including snow! This tree is native to Southeast Asia and commonly found in China and Japan. This is a must have tree for a tropical garden but will grow to 20 metres eventually.
Japanese Fiber Banana – Musa basjoo
This rather amazing banana palm also known as the Japanese Banana is incredibly hardy by temperate standards. I have seen these in South facing gardens in the UK creating miniature jungles and reaching 2.5 metres high. The roots of these palms can survive temperatures of -10. This means the palm if killed by frost can re-sprout in a season of good weather. It must be stressed however to keep these standing year after year the palms should be wrapped up every mid autumn. Or they can be kept as large potted conservatory plants during the winter.
European Fan Palm – Chamaerops humilis
This small palm is native to southern Europe and able to take periods of cold and wet weather. Its compact size makes it a good choice for a pot but will do just as well in a sheltered tropical garden border. Just bear in mind this palm does not like shade so a sunny position is best.
Chilean Wine Palm – Jubea Chilensis
The Chilean Wine Palm is a large palm which can take cool temperate temperatures. In cold climates they never grow that large but are perfect for a well drained sunny position in a tropical garden. They have a thick base and striking rigid feathery foliage.
Tropical garden shrubs
Paper Plant – Fatsia Japonica
These evergreen shrubs are perfect for tropical gardens with beautiful, large glossy leaves. These are very tolerant of soil conditions and climate and make great medium story border filler. Every year they produce globe shaped white flowers which look very exotic. These will tolerate most temperate areas of the USA, UK and Europe.
Chinese Holy Grape – Mahonia Lomariifola
This palm like shrub is excellent for small tropical gardens providing rigid vertical stems and sharp jagged foliage. They are native to China and found at high elevations meaning they can take cold wet conditions. This makes them perfect plants for tropical gardens in temperate climates. They have the added benefit of being winter flowering meaning they can brighten up a dull winter’s day.
New Zealand Flax – Phormium tenax
Phormium’s are like exaggerated bulky grasses with a long flat leaves proving a jungle like foliage. The leaves create an explosion of rising and weeping leaves which can be very dramatic in the flower border. The delicate leaves can soften strong edges of hard landscaping features and provide movement on breezy days. They now come in a vibrant array of colours to add drama to jungle borders.
Japanese Camellia – Camellia Japonica
Camellias are truly beautiful shrubs with glossy leaves and very striking flowers. These shrubs originally from Japan are related to the tea plant and require an acidic soil. They have such a glossy neat growing habit they can almost look artificial. Not thought of typically as tropical but its evergreen foliage is perfect for tropical gardens in temperate regions.
Japanese laurel – Aucuba Japonica
Aucuba’s are very similar to laurels but with a smaller growing habit and larger leaves. The foliage has a dark / light green pattern that makes them look rather exotic. They are very tolerant of a wide range of conditions including heavy shade. At the end of summer they grow bright red berries which are very striking.
Tropical garden Bamboos
Heavenly Bamboo – Nandina domestica ‘firepower’
Nandina often thought of as not a typical bamboo is small in size but has dramatic fiery foliage and fruits. This plant which looks like a small shrub can inject drama into any garden bed. Its vibrancy and architectural form makes it perfect for tropical garden plantings.
Black Bamboo – Phyllostachys nigra
This rather tall bamboo can grow to up to 3 metres in height and create a bold statement in the jungle garden. It has relatively thin, long canes which are a very dark black colour which contrasts against it green foliage.
Its delicate form sways in the breeze and its aerodynamic leaves creates rustling sounds on breezy days. This bamboo really provides an exotic feel and much height to the tropical border. However be warned this bamboo can spread and become unruly. Try to retain the roots so it does not spread too far.
Kuma Bamboo grass - Sasa veitchii
This bamboo likes moist dark areas but is generally tolerant in most gardens. It has thin flexible stems and double lobed foliage which works well in the tropical garden
Chinese Fountain Bamboo - Fargesia nitida
If you are looking for a softer les vigorous bamboo for the garden then this is the bamboo for you. There is a good reason it is known as the fountain bamboo its foliage really has a fountain look to it. It has such a dense, fine textured foliage but beware this can also eventually get to two and half metres high. It can also spread but is relatively easy to manage. Its evergreen foliage works so well in small tropical gardens.
Kamuro Zasa - Pleioblastus viridistriatus
This grass like bamboo is very popular in tropical gardens as it is less vigorous as other bamboo varieties. Many have brightly variegated foliage which can create vibrancy and movement. Some can still get very tall some reaching two metres tall. This is very effective in smaller jungle gardens especially to create dense habitat around ponds.
Tropical garden Grasses
Pampas Grass – Cortaderia selloana
This robust grass forms dense clumps up to 2 metres high although there now dwarf varieties. Every late summer these large grasses throw up spear like flower heads with feathery seed heads. Although not typical of tropical gardens it can look effective in large borders.
Spanish Reed – Arundo donax
When looking at this primeval plant it is hard to distinguish if it is a bamboo or a grass! This grass is actually very common across the Mediterranean and looks very striking especially in variegated forms. Its long cane like stems grows very tall and can be the perfect addition jungle gardens. It is very tolerant of cold conditions and is not fussy about soil.
Elephant Grass - Miscanthus Giganteus
This enormous grass is a personal favourite of mine. It has almost a tubular form and bamboo like stems can reach over 4 metres tall. This grass like its name can make you easily image elephants emerging from its towing foliage. One phrase! Fantastic for a tropical garden in temperate climates.
Reed Canary Grass - Phalaris arundinacea
This beautiful grass is a spreading perennial variety which is a fantastic ground cover in the tropical garden. Personally I think it looks better when it is variegated creating an almost white sheen to borders. This grass becomes golden yellow in autumn and winter providing seasonal interest. Its maximum height is about 1 foot or 300 millimetres.
Black Dragon - ophiopogon planiscapus 'nigrescens'
This extremely fascinating and novelty grass is an exceptional addition to any jungle garden. Its low lying broad, black blades almost seem to lie horizontally creating a thick dark ground cover. This dark foliage can create beautiful contrast to more erect green foliage and is great to create ribbons of black through planting beds.
Tropical garden ferns
Golden Male Fern - Dryopteris affinis
The Golden male fern is an upright fern very effective in tropical beds and very tolerant of cool shady conditions.
Common Polypody - Polypodium vulgare
Common polypody is a medium sized fern which can tolerate surprisingly dry conditions. This is great for growing in crevices of rocks, walls or logs. These ferns are perfect for creating the effect of ferns growing over hard landscape features very effective in tropical gardens.
Soft Shield Fern - Polystichum setiferum
The soft shield fern is a native fern to Europe and is very at home in cold damp environments. It has very feathery foliage and not fond of dry conditions.
Harts-Tongue Fern - Asplenium scolopendrium
Harts tongue fern is less commonly glossy opposed to other feathery foliaged ferns. It has erectly pointing foliage which can be very effective in a jungle garden.
Tree Fern – Dicksonia Antarctica
Commonly thought of as some sort of palm this prehistoric looking fern grows in a vertical fashion very much like a tree. Hence the tree fern is extremely popular in tropical gardens. From New Zealand this unique fern can tolerate cool climates but will need some frost protection. Tree ferns will only grow about 1 inch per year meaning it takes a very long time for them to grow to a substantial height. This can make them expensive but they are hugely effective for tropical gardens in temperate climates.
Tropical garden perennials
Hosta Big Daddy - Sieboldiana hybrid
Hostas are generally great for tropical gardens with their large leaves and striking colours. Hosta Big Daddy however is an exceptionally impressive Hosta which can be extremely effective in temperate tropical gardens. Be wary though slugs absolutely love to eat Hostas to nothing. Try to mulch these with a sharp bark chipping of some sort.
Coppertips - Crocosmia Lucifer
Cocosmia are perennial reed like flowers which grow up from bulbs every spring. They have a very tropical feel about and have the most exquisite flowers which are usually bright red. These have a very exotic feel about them and perfect for tropical gardens. They are extremely tolerant of dry and poor soil conditions.
Stone crop - Sedum herbstfreude ‘autumn joy’
Sedums are usually associated with succulents and dry gardens but Sedum Herbstfreude autumn joy has a place in any jungle garden. Its tall succulent leaves have a lush, tropical feel to them and they have impressive blooms in Autumn.
Lady’s Mantle - Alchemilla mollis
Ladies mantle is a hardy perennial with unusual pentagon like leaves and interesting blooms. It is an effective ground colour and although not commonly associated with tropical gardens work very well in such schemes. It is also tolerant of cold, dry conditions and poor soil.
Lily of the Nile - Agapanthus inapertus
Agapanthus is a truly wonderful perennial flowing plant. It grows very similarly to alliums with a central stem and globular blooms which are absolutely stunning. These flowers have an exotic touch but the plants overall form does work well in the tropical garden. The flowering heads will gently sway in the breeze adding much movement to the border.
Tropical garden climbers
Blue Passion Flower - Passiflora caerulea
This taste of the exotic can add real authenticity to a tropical garden. Some varieties are more frost tolerant than others with some surviving temperatures of minus fifteen degrees. It has to be noted however that these are best used in a warm microclimate. I have only seen these fruit once in temperate climates but don’t believe the fruit fully ripened. Either way the flowers are truly the epitome of exotic beauty. Great for the temperate tropical garden but does best growing up a wall.
Persian Ivy - Hedera Colchica ‘Sulphur Heart’
This large leaved ivy is both vigorous and beautiful. Its evergreen striking foliage can act as a fantastic back drop and can be used to screen unsightly areas.
This does work very well in large exotic schemes but please bear in mind it can get out of control. It can grow to be even tree like in its vigour so you may want to consider restricting its roots. It is extremely useful at creating nesting opportunities for birds.
Virginia creeper - Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Virginia creeper has rather attractive five pronged leaves which have a tropical feel about them even though they are extremely hardy. What is most valued about these is their stunning autumn colour made up of intense shades of orange and reds.
Many say it is worth planting simply for this attribute alone but bear in mind it does shed its leaves in winter. Nonetheless this climber has a delicate habit and looks very tropical especially if it is allowed to hang from garden structures or trees.
Evergreen Clematis - Clematis armandii
This has to be a personal favourite of mine and always works well in the tropical garden. This evergreen climber has dark green shiny hanging lobed leaves which almost look camellia like. It can grow to cover large areas but is not aggressive or unruly.
In February it becomes covered with the most exotic looking white flowers with incredible scent. This plant is extremely tolerant of cold conditions and will look fabulous all year round. This is the perfect climber for the temperate tropical garden.
Star jasmine - Trachelospermum jasminoides
This evergreen climbing shrub almost looks like it would not be out of place in the rainforest. Its leathery dark green leaves and delicate habit make it very effective in tropical gardens. It has a typical jasmine flower with four white petals and gives off the most amazing jasmine scent. This is a must if you are planning a tropical garden in the USA, UK or Europe.
Vegetables and edible plants for tropical gardens
Lacinato Kale - Brassica oleracea ‘Lancinato’
Tuscan kale almost has a palm like foliage which can work very well in tropical garden themes. What better way to add annuals to your tropical borders than this nutritious treat.
Globe Artichokes - Cynara scolymus
This beautiful perennial vegetable has such architectural foliage and a striking form that its almost hard to believe it is a vegetable. This fantastic plant can contrast well with the dark greens of a tropical garden and give you a rather tasty treat. Commonly thought of as a Mediterranean plant it does work very well in temperate tropical gardens.
Rhubarb - Rheum rhabarbarum
Rhubarb just naturally has such a tropical look to it with its bright red stems and large Gunnera like leaves. The best irony of this is it can actually tolerate extremely cold temperature. It is a perennial so will die back in winter but rhubarb is very effective in tropical garden schemes.
Rainbow Chard - beta vulgaris subsp. Vulgaris
Chard has thick, colourful stems and large, dark, green leaves making them surprisingly fit into jungle gardens really well. This bi-annual can actually keep growing for up to five years if you cut out the flowering stems. If planted in amongst the other tropical garden plants they can become a novelty feature. They are also very versatile in the kitchen.
Jerusalem artichoke - helianthus tuberosus
The Jerusalem artichoke is actually a perennial type of sunflower with tall stems and bright yellow flowers. They have a reed like growing habit and do have a tropical look to them. They can create a physical barrier in a tropical garden scheme but need to be cut down to the ground every year.
They produce very tasty tubers which can be eaten raw or cooked in soups and stews. Be warned they can spread and are hard to get rid of once planted. These are best planted submerged in a sunken box. They do work surprisingly well in tropical gardens.
Tropical garden plants for the pond
Gunnera - Gunnera manicata
This giant of the plant world is perfect for large ponds and especially the ones in tropical gardens. They have humungous leaves which look like something out of Jurassic park. They love boggy soil but do like a warm, sheltered position.
Bog Bean - Menyanthes trifoliate
This rather common European pond plant is far from a tropical look alike. However its large leaves and ability to form dense clumps works well in the temperate tropical pond. It is also good for aquatic life.
Sweet Flag - Acorus calamus
This reed like flowering plant is a native to Europe and is extremely effective at creating attractive vertical miniature reed beds. This is extremely effective at softening the edges of ponds and is very useful in cold climate tropical gardens. It is also very beneficial to wildlife which adds extra interest to tropical gardens.
White Water Lilly - Nymphaea alba
This very widespread water lilly is native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. It is very rare to find a plant that can thrive in both tropical and temperate regions of the world. Furthermore the White Water Lilly does look rather exotic so it really is a no brainer for the tropical garden pond.
Yellow Flag Iris - Iris pseudacorus
The Yellow Flag Iris is native to Europe and a very beautiful marginal pond plant. Its bold, sharp spear like leaves is perfect to contrast still bodies of fresh water and its yellow blooms are exquisite. This is not a plant usually associated with tropical gardens but in temperate climates it’s perfect for tropical garden ponds.
Creating a tropical garden in temperate climates can be a challenging but rewarding project. One of the biggest allures of these gardens is they usually stay green all year. Jungle gardens look extremely authentic and there are some fantastic examples across the USA, UK and Northern Europe.
The key to creating a successful temperate tropical garden is using the correct plants suitable for colder climates. The aim is not to find tropical plants that will survive colder conditions but to seek plants from colder climates with tropical characteristics. Indeed some of the plants mentioned here are even native to colder climates.
It is the habit, form and aesthetic which makes them suitable and effective for a tropical garden. The plants in this article will give you the perfect starting point for creating the perfect tropical garden in temperate climates.
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