Bringing the tropics home
IF you’ve ever holidayed in a tropical part of the world, where palm trees bend over pristine white sands and a clear sea is aquamarine, you’ve probably dreamed of transplanting paradise to your own backyard. While the flamboyant torch gingers, heliconias and gingers may remind you of sun, surf and sand, many demand the high rainfall and temperatures experienced only in the northern parts of this country.
There are some species that will perform well in cooler climates, however, to allow you to re-create that relaxed and happy atmosphere in a garden of intense fragrance, generous foliage and clashing colours.
Top of the list for southern gardens might be the gorgeous blue ginger, Dichorisandra thyrsiflora. Native to South America, this plant is not a ginger at all but, rather, related to the tradescantias or spiderworts. It reaches more than 1m in height and bears stunning, bright blue spikes through summer, autumn and into early winter. It’s easy to grow well and easily propagated with cuttings or divisions once flowering is over: you can plant sections straight into the ground. It looks fabulous behind the new, brilliantly coloured cannas, with their paddle-like foliage splashed with the colours of a tropical dawn.
Try Canna ‘Tropicana’ with its red and orange leaves, or ‘Bengal Tiger’, which is striped in greens, creams and yellow; cut them right back to the ground in winter. You could employ, instead, the giant calla lily, or elephant’s ear (Alocasia macrorrhiza), which sports generous, arrow-shaped leaves on 1m-long stalks. The flowers are like those of the arum lily and have a faint scent.
The gorgeous medinillas, with their pleated, leathery foliage and cascades of pink and purple flowers like hanging bunches of tiny grapes, flower for months in my Sydney garden, although they are native to Southeast Asia.
From a genus of about 300 species of shrubs and climbers, some of which are epiphytic, Medinilla myriantha is hardly without a bloom. Again, it is easy to propagate from cuttings.
The peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.), from tropical South America and parts of the Far East, will mass out helpfully in dappled shade in warm temperate climates where it can enjoy summer humidity. Then it will flower for months with white spathes atop tall stems. Cut back untidy foliage to maintain a fresh, tropical look. Or choose Anthurium scherzerianum, which really deserves its common name: flamingo flowers. Add them to other hot colours, perhaps backing them with a mass planting of a low growing soft palm such as the lady palm ( Rhapis humilis) in a shady courtyard. They speak of the tropics even in a temperate climate. They love humidity and moisture, but also demand good drainage as well as morning sun.
Next you’ll want to consider groundcovers in your tropical design. Most of the spiderworts ( Tradescantia spp., also known as rhoeo) are very useful. Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart’ teams well with the bright colours suited to the clear light of warm climates. Propagate it easily by just breaking off a piece and placing it in the ground.
If you need hedges in your tropical-look garden you might select the candycoloured ixoras. A genus of about 400 species of tropical shrubs, ixoras have attractive glossy leaves; an extensive range of hybrids flower in reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and whites. They are frost-tender and demand rich but well drained soil. Try the large-leaved Ixora ‘Malay Pink’ planted behind a smaller I. ‘Little Willy’. And they look particularly effective when planted with hibiscus: go mad with colour!
If it’s foliage rather than flowers you need in your paradise, think about crotons ( Codiaeum spp.), a genus of about 15 species of evergreen shrubs grown mostly for their intricately marked leaves. They like plenty of water and food in the summer growing season. Codiaeum variegatum, which comes in a range of brightly marked cultivars, can be clipped hard, perhaps to mirror or highlight the shape of a building, or to create a line of defence in a windswept coastal garden.
Of all the trees that speak of hot days, balmy nights and easy living, the lovely, dome-shaped poinciana ( Delonix regia) is one of the most coveted. Native to Madagascar, it grows to about 10m in height and 15m in width, stretching out its elegant arms with their feathery, bright green foliage, and bearing gorgeous vermillion, orchid-like flowers. It demands warm summer rain, well-drained soil and only flowers north of northern NSW.
Don’t despair, however: if you garden further south, you can achieve a similar effect with the silk tree, Albizia julibrissin.
And for those of us who grew up in the tropics, the calypso colours of hibiscus will always transport us back to our childhood. Follow daily garden tips and tricks on twitter.com/hollykerforsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Seasons in My House and Garden, is out now.
Medinilla and blue ginger will perform well in cooler climates