Showy sur­vivors

Flow­er­ing trop­i­cal plants are per­fect for pro­vid­ing color dur­ing Arkansas’ steamy sum­mers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY JANET B. CAR­SON

When tem­per­a­tures are ris­ing and rain is not fall­ing, we all still want color in our gar­dens. Few plants are as showy as trop­i­cal flow­ers.

Thanks to their ex­otic ori­gins, they have what it takes to live in warm and very hu­mid en­vi­ron­ments like jun­gles, so they do well out­doors in our sum­mers. They can pro­duce color all sea­son.

It wasn’t long ago that gar­den­ers who wanted to en­joy their beauty had to visit Hawaii. To­day a wide range of trop­i­cals — flow­er­ing as well as fo­liage plants — is avail­able at nurs­eries and gar­den cen­ters statewide.


One of the most com­mon of the trop­i­cals is the flow­er­ing hibiscus. Hibiscus plants are in the mal­low fam­ily and in­clude trop­i­cal (which die in the cold) and win­ter-hardy shrubs.

In fact, the com­mon marsh­mal­low you see bloom­ing in the ditches now is in the same fam­ily. Its ed­i­ble cousin is the com­mon okra. No­tice the sim­i­lar­ity in the blos­soms?

The showiest mem­ber of the mal­low fam­ily is the trop­i­cal or Chi­nese hibiscus, known botan­i­cally as Hibiscus rosa-sinen­sis. This plant is na­tive to trop­i­cal Asia. It forms a lovely green plant with leath­ery, glossy leaves, and some va­ri­eties hav­ing var­ie­gated fo­liage.

De­pend­ing on va­ri­ety, blos­soms can be sin­gle or dou­ble, all one color or mul­ti­col­ored, with colors rang­ing in­clud­ing white, yel­low, orange, pink and all shades of red. Each flower only lasts one day, but given plenty of sun­light and am­ple nu­tri­ents, these plants can pro­duce enough flower buds to give you flow­ers all sea­son.


Mandevilla is a beau­ti­ful and highly pop­u­lar trop­i­cal flower. The first mandevilla Arkansans could buy was a vig­or­ous vine with vi­brant pink blooms. Through breed­ing,

we now have more op­tions, in­clud­ing plants in var­i­ous shades of pink, red, white, yel­low and even apri­cot blooms.

The plants can be pro­lific vines or more com­pact and bushy plants. All thrive in full sun.


Bougainvil­lea is of­ten sold in hang­ing bas­kets where its showy bracts can cas­cade down.

The true flower is the tiny white one in­side the col­or­ful bracts — which can be pink, red, yel­low or orange.

Bougainvil­lea usu­ally do best if given lim­ited space to grow, so their roots are con­strained. If you give them a large con­tainer, they spend too much en­ergy grow­ing fo­liage and roots, which can limit the flow­ers.

Do be aware that there are small thorns along the stems.


Ixora is an ev­er­green shrub in trop­i­cal cli­mates, but here it makes a fan­tas­tic con­tainer-flow­er­ing plant that can bloom non­stop all sum­mer.

The flow­ers come in shades of orange, red or yel­low. It will do well in a con­tainer or treated as a sum­mer an­nual when planted in the ground.

It will not sur­vive our win­ters out­doors.


Vis­i­tors to Hawaii have seen ven­dors sell­ing small plas­tic bags with what ap­pears to be a brown sticks in­side. This is a dor­mant piece of a plumeria.

Planted in soil and given wa­ter and sun­light, it can pro­duce a glo­ri­ous plant cov­ered with fra­grant blooms in a wide range of colors, in­clud­ing yel­low, orange, red, white and pink.


Some other less com­mon, but well worth try­ing, trop­i­cal plants in­clude:

■ Ja­t­ropha, with blooms held above dark fo­liage, can be hard to find but is worth look­ing for;

■ Iochroma, with clus­ters of pur­ple or apri­cot trum­pet-shaped flow­ers;

■ Ti­bouch­ina, with deep pur­ple, vel­vet blooms; and

■ Ran­goon creeper, a beau­ti­ful vin­ing plant with star­shape flow­ers that change from white to deep pink as they age.


Trop­i­cal flow­er­ing plants bloom on new growth, so your goal is to keep them sup­plied with en­ergy.

For most trop­i­cals, the more sun­light they get, the bet­ter they will bloom.

We also grow most of them in con­tain­ers, and with fre­quent wa­ter­ing, the nu­tri­tion leaches out quickly. Wa­ter and fer­til­ize reg­u­larly to keep them at their best.

De­pend­ing on the size of the con­tainer, daily wa­ter­ing is likely to be needed dur­ing the hottest, dri­est times. Fre­quency will de­pend on the size of the con­tainer, the size of the plant and how hot and dry con­di­tions be­come.

To keep your plants in con­stant bloom, fer­til­ize of­ten — ev­ery two to three weeks with a wa­ter-sol­u­ble fer­til­izer, or less fre­quently with one of the slow-re­lease types.


These plants will not sur­vive out­doors year-round in Arkansas. If you plan to keep them from year to year, they need to be moved in­doors in the fall along with your other house­plants.

While most can make it in­doors, they typ­i­cally don’t thrive due to the lower hu­mid­ity and lower light in­side houses. Group­ing plants to­gether can help to in­crease the hu­mid­ity some too. If you have ac­cess to a green­house, they will be much hap­pier.

Be sure to care­fully in­spect them for pests prior to bring­ing them in­doors, so they do not in­fest other plants.

When you move them in­doors, prune as lit­tle as you can, re­mov­ing only what you must to fit them through the door. Move them to the sun­ni­est spot pos­si­ble and re­duce your wa­ter­ing to once ev­ery week or two.

The shock of trans­plant, low hu­mid­ity, cooler night­times and lower light con­di­tions of­ten lead to leaf drop and some tip die-back af­ter their move. Let them be­come ac­cli­mated to their in­door con­di­tions be­fore you do any more pruning.

Pests are not com­mon but can in­clude aphids, white fly and spi­der mites. Mon­i­tor for them closely and con­trol as needed.

With am­ple light, you may be lucky and con­tinue to see some blooms, but don’t count on it.

If you were to just move the plant in with­out cut­ting it back or re­pot­ting it, it would still have fo­liage but few flow­ers.


In mid- Fe­bru­ary, as the days be­gin to get longer, the plant will be­gin to grow again. Cut it back by two-thirds to one-half of its orig­i­nal size.

If nat­u­ral light is not avail­able, give it some ar­ti­fi­cial light.

Be­gin fer­til­iz­ing again, us­ing any wa­ter-sol­u­ble or house­plant fer­til­izer. This should be­gin a healthy growth phase, so that when the plant is moved out­side in late April, it can take off and be­gin bloom­ing al­most im­me­di­ately.

You might also need to up­grade the con­tainer or re­pot it, as a root-bound plant won’t grow very well.

Many gar­den­ers find they have the best luck buy­ing new plants ev­ery year, and luck­ily for us, we are blessed with am­ple choices and lower prices these days.

Whichever trop­i­cal plant you choose, make sure you give it plenty of sun­light. Trop­i­cal plants will pro­duce an out­stand­ing flo­ral dis­play in the heat of Arkansas’ sum­mer, with just a lit­tle care.

Ran­goon creeper is a trop­i­cal vine with star-shape blooms whose colors change from white (in­set photo) to deep pink as they age.

is one of the less com­mon trop­i­cal plants that thrives in Arkansas’ steamy sum­mers.

is avail­able in vin­ing and bushy va­ri­eties.

hibiscus is one of the most fa­mil­iar trop­i­cal plants that does well in Arkansas.

form shrubs, for in­stance, “Ho Chi Minh” thrives in large in-ground, in­door planters.

its flow­ers above its dark green fo­liage, at­tract­ing hum­ming­birds and but­ter­flies.

have seen plumeria starts sold as brown sticks in plas­tic bags. Gor­geous in sum­mer, in the win­ter, plumeria re­sem­bles the stick it came from.

is a less fa­mil­iar trop­i­cal plant that’s worth try­ing out in Arkansas.

Ixora, a great con­tainer plant, can be found with blos­soms rang­ing from yel­low to red.

Cas­cades of bougainvil­lea’s col­or­ful bracts cre­ate masses of color in con­tain­ers.

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