COLD HARDY EXOTIC PLANTS FOR THAT TROPICAL GARDEN EFFECT
With cheap flights bringing increasingly distant, and foreign destinations within our grasp many of us are returning home with a hankering for that romantic, exotic look to be replicated in the garden. But this is no mean feat, especially for those of us who live in seasonal, northern European climates where winter temperatures can easily drop down to at least -5 degrees Celsius, and the sun may not even appear for weeks at a time. Are there such things as a cold hardy tropical plants?
Strangely there are, but not many, and they are found in a few mountainous micro-climates around the 'tropical' world where exotic plants have moved into - acclimatising is such a way that they have at least a fighting chance of surviving in our cooler environments.
The high grounds of Australia, South Africa, China and the Himalayas all have plants to offer but there are certain cheats that you can employ to further your tropical look.
WHERE TO START?
Eucalyptus are another good choice although a little left field but they would need to be cutback early on to create a multi stemmed specimen early on - essential for the smaller garden. It is their open habit and bark effects that create that tropical look - the best varieties are E. niphophila, E. coccifera, E. glaucescens, E. perriniana, E. saxatilis E. subcrenulata, and E. urnigera.
Bananas, can you really have a tropical garden without at least one banana tree? The hardiest is the Japanese Musa Basjoo closely followed by the unfortunately named Himalayan species - Musa sikkimensis. Also consider Ensete ventricosum but anything else is unlikely to cope. Remember that all bananas will need winter protection.
Tree ferns - again a fantastic plant with a true tropical look. Very tough and suitable for sun or shade so long as they get enough water. The crowns will need protection if severe cold weather is expected.
If you look at tropical gardens from Indonesian islands there will be a common theme of red flowering plants on a green foliage backdrop. The look comes from a range of architectural leaves and flowers at all heights of the garden. This is because many of their plants are bird pollinated - hummingbirds - and red pigments are very attractive to them. Try to keep the predominantly red theme going, but intersperse with yellow and golds and just a touch of other colours. What ever you do try to keep to the mainly red flowered theme. As a little cheat, secure pots of red trailing begonias in the branches of your trees - hiding the pots with moss. This will give the effect of tropical epiphytes, but don't forget to water them.
Canna lilies – These highly attractive plants are fantastic for bringing a touch of the tropic to the garden. Exotic flowers are borne from July and can last up until November or at least until the first frosts arrive. Popular cultivars include the impressive ‘Lucifer and Tropicanna’.
Cautleya spicata - Otherwise known as the hardy shade ginger, Cautleya spicata is perhaps the most genuine of all the available plants to give you that true tropical display. They will provide you with a spike of brilliant yellow flowers subtended by bright red bracts borne from slender stems which grow up to about three feet tall . The flowers emerge successively over a month or more with each spike lasting three to five days however the red bracts remain for the entire bloom period. An absolute must for the northern tropical effect garden. Mulch in winter for a little extra protection.
Colchicums – Commonly known as the Autumn Crocus or Naked Ladies – because they come into flower without leaves – colchicums can give a fantastic display from September to October. Although colchicums look like crocuses, they are actually members of the lily family. The most popular is C. 'Waterlily', and is perhaps the most common of all colchicums whose double pink blooms wouldn't look out of place floating on a pond. Raised almost a hundred years ago in a Dutch nursery, this variety is free-flowering and extremely easy to grow – often already flowering in the bag when purchased. There are a number of forms available but keep an eye out for C. agrippinum as it is one of the most distinctive. If you take closer look at its flower you will find that overlaying its pale pink petals is a deeper chequering, like the pattern found on snake's head fritillaries.
Crocosmia species - Yet another exotic looking group of late flowering plants from South Africa. There are a number of very popular colour variations within this family notably 'Lucifer' and 'Emily McKenzie'. They will survive all but the most severe winters so long as they are planted in a well drained soil and are also excellent as cut flowers.
Eucomis - Even though Ecomis species are a relative newcomer to the English garden, their tropical looks and excellent winter hardiness have already made them a sure-fire hit. Originating from the ‘summer rainfall’ regions of South Africa, the native habitat of this plant is surprisingly varied. Comprising of a mixture of grassland, woodland and even the odd mountainside, what more proof do you need of this plants ability to adapt to the garden environment.
Hederchuim - This lush, glossy green tropical plant is an excellent addition to any jungle-style garden. Commonly known as the 'Ginger lily' or 'Kahili ginger' it carries large, wide sheath-like leaves and displays huge 1ft long flowers in bright shades of orange and yellow from July until August. Despite their tropical appearance, ginger lilies are surprisingly hardy and can tolerate temperatures as low as -5 degrees Celsius without any lasting damage. If a hard frost is forecast, protect the base of the plant in horticultural fleece although sheltered areas. may require no protection at all!
Hemerocallis – sneaking in just at the end of summer, Day Lilies give a fantastic show in a range of stunning colours.
Impatiens tinctori -This erect tuberous perennial is a native of the high elevations of central Africa. It will display racemes of large 2.5" white orchid-like, long spurred flowers with maroon-red spotted throats which are born freely from summer carrying on until autumn. It also has one of the best scents in the garden reminiscent of a Plumeria or Gardenia.
Kniphofia cultivars - looking for all the world like exotic flowering Aloe sp, never underestimate the impact that can be achieved by the humble Red Hot Poker. Often left to their own devices, Kniphofia look sickly and weak flowering. Why? Because they are seen as capable, drought resistant plants and as such are not given the care they require. Give them the water and nutrition that they deserve and they will produce strong, luxurious foliage and flowers their hearts out throughout the summer.
Schizostylis coccinea 'Major' – These eye-catching kaffir lilies provide a well needed late splash of colour when many of the summer flowers are coming to an end. Best planted in full sun, they are also perfect for a sheltered, moist but well-drained border. They also make excellent cut flowers.
Ferns are another good choice for architectural foliage effect with a wide range available consider Dryopteris, Polystichum and Asplenium for an all year round evergreen effect. Of course, don't ignore that King of ferns - the magnificent tree fern.
Back to cheating for that genuine tropical look. There are plenty of half hardy specimens available at you local plant retailer, but all of them will need to be brought in under protection to keep them for the following years. Popular plants available include Datura, Strelitzia - bird of paradise and bougainvillea, but if you are prepared to bring them in then you can use pretty much anything that you fancy - you will just need to harden them off first before settling them into their garden position.
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