English and Sco­tish gar­dens a big, al­most trop­i­cal sur­prise


Dur­ing the next sev­eral weeks, we are vis­it­ing Eng­land and Scot­land and have been sur­prised at the use of trop­i­cal­look­ing plants in many gar­dens. Even though the win­ter cli­mate can be quite chilly by Hawai­ian stan­dards, some gar­dens ap­pear to be al­most trop­i­cal. We are see­ing wind­mill palms, or

Tra­cy­car­pus for­tunei, as far north as Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land. There are also Ca­nary Is­land date palms in Lon­don. Of course, hav­ing the fa­mous Kew Gar­dens nearby has given folks in south­ern Eng­land ac­cess to many sub­trop­i­cal species. We even ran across a nurs­ery called the Palm Cen­ter in south Lon­don. It was founded by Martin Gib­bons, a well-known horticulturist and In­ter­na­tional Palm So­ci­ety mem­ber. The nurs­ery car­ried more than 20 species of palms. Some like the Chilean wine palm, bu­tias, sa­bals and chamaerops are fa­mous for their har­di­ness. The big­gest sur­prise was to find the hardy bam­boo palm, chamaerops mi­crospadix grown in the area. This del­i­cate shade lover can tol­er­ate tem­per­a­tures of at least mi­nus 23 de­grees.

Some gar­dens of the Bri­tish Isles are great ex­am­ples of how a semi-trop­i­cal look can be achieved in a cli­mate that is chilly much of the win­ter. The nat­u­ral veg­e­ta­tion of the re­gion is much like parts of Switzer­land or France, but with the use of palms, gar­dens have a whole dif­fer­ent am­biance.

This type of land­scap­ing gives a sort of well main­tained jun­gle ef­fect. Ex­am­ples of this can be seen along the Ital­ian and French Riviera, Switzer­land’s Lake Geneva, and Italy’s lakes Como

and Mag­giore.

Many vis­i­tors to Hawaii wish they could take a bit of the trop­ics home with them. This is ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble, since the re­laxed trop­i­cal look can be achieved al­most any­where, but to de­velop that trop­i­cal

look in cooler cli­mates, the se­lec­tion of ma­te­ri­als should be those with a bold and col­or­ful trop­i­cal pres­ence.

Here are some tips for your main­land friends who want a touch of the trop­ics at home. Trees like Al­bizia julib­rissin, or Per­sian silk tree, are very trop­i­cal in ap­pear­ance, with its poin­ciana-like fo­liage and pink pom­pon like flow­ers, This tree will tol­er­ate con­di­tions al­most to zero de­grees. The silk tree is na­tive to Asia and can reach heights of up to 30 feet but is usu­ally much smaller, spread­ing like an um­brella to 20 feet. The tree’s fil­tered shade al­lows grass and other plants to grow un­der­neath. It also makes

a very good pa­tio tree.

Of course, a trop­i­cal­look­ing gar­den must have palms, ferns, and even ba­nanas. Many Bri­tish gar­dens have achieved this look. Two species of hardy ba­nana, musa basjoo and musa sikki­men­sis may be grown in cool cli­mates like Seat­tle and even Ger­many. If you live in an area where tem­per­a­tures sel­dom reach 10 de­grees or colder, the tra­chy­car­pus for­tunei, or Wind­mill Palm, is a great one for the ul­tra-trop­i­cal look. It is rel­a­tively fast grow­ing to about 30 feet. This palm should be used in groups of three to seven for a dra­matic ef­fect. The many healthy spec­i­mens in Scot­land at­test to this tree’s abil­ity to with­stand cold.

An­other palm grown in pro­tected Bri­tish gar­dens is the Euro­pean fan palm, chamaerops hu­milis. Plants from New Zea­land like cordy­line aus­tralis, tree ferns and New Zea­land flax are not un­com­mon.

Many trop­i­cal-look­ing plants thrive in the sum­mer, but freeze to the ground in win­ter. Hostas, cannnas and callas are ex­am­ples. Some gin­gers like the guava jelly gin­ger, hedy­chium greenei from the Hi­malayas may be grown as far north as Ed­in­burgh.

We have seen sev­eral hardy bam­boos that will take tem­per­a­tures to zero. One of my fa­vorites is phyl­lostachys vi­vax from China that will reach 70 feet tall. This is a run­ning species and must be given

plenty of room. Many phyl­lostachys species are hardy much far­ther north in Scot­land. For smaller gar­dens, there are many hardy well­man­nered clump­ing species. Close rel­a­tives of bam­boo like the arundo donax, or Span­ish cane, from the Mediter­ranean are used in ar­eas where tem­per­a­tures are be­low zero. Although this gi­ant reed may freeze down in win­ter, given a pro­tec­tive mulch with a good rich soil and it will grow from 6 to 15 feet in a sum­mer. An­other pop­u­lar bam­boo rel­a­tive we saw is pam­pas grass, or cor­tade­ria sel­l­owana, from Brazil and Ar­gentina. This ver­sa­tile clump­ing grass will tol­er­ate dry to wet soils and tem­per­a­tures close to zero if pro­tected by mulching.

The list of trop­i­cal­look­ing plants goes on and on. We have seen the hardy eu­ca­lyp­tus species. th­ese in­clude the cider gum and snow gum, that sur­vive tem­per­a­tures close to zero. Fruits like the fig, pome­gran­ate, olive and lo­quat are found grow­ing around Lon­don. Lo­cals swear the cli­mate was much colder be­fore World War II. We even saw a large flock of rose ringed para­keets one day.

We can learn a lot from our Euro­pean friends. They have had ac­cess to many sub­trop­i­cal plants due to the early days of plant ex­plo­ration and in­tro­duc­tions. Our main­land friends can ex­per­i­ment with th­ese and other trop­i­cal­look­ing plants that nurs­eries and gar­den cen­ters carry in their area or try some from more southerly lo­ca­tions. To avoid dis­cour­age­ment, check with gar­den books that cover plant har­di­ness. Sun­set’s New West­ern Gar­den Book has some great ideas for plants to try. Even the cooler cli­mates of Wash­ing­ton and Bri­tish Columbia may one day have that trop­i­cal Hawai­ian am­biance, es­pe­cially with the in­flu­ence of global warm­ing.


Date palms in Eng­land are few and far be­tween but this Ca­nary Is­land Date Palm grows well in pro­tected lo­ca­tions along with other trop­i­cal look­ing species.

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