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 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.


Aeonium 'Zwartkop'
Cold hardy exotic plants for that tropical garden effect
Let's start with the big stuff first - trees, palms and bamboos. Cordyline australis (a false palm) is an easy choice, they can give good height and come in a variety of foliage colours. Also hardy and far more exotic are the true palms, the hardiest of which are the Trachycarpus, chamaerops and Phoenix canariensis - once established. In milder climates you can also have excellent success with Yucca elephantipes - usually sold as a humble houseplant but they would need to be planted early summer so that they have time to 'toughen up' for the winter. All of these plants will need to be grown in a free draining soil and the Phoenix and Yucca will need some protection over the first few winters.

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.

Award winning tropical effect garden
Cold hardy exotic plants for that tropical garden effect
There are also bamboos, stick with the larger growing Phyllostachys species of which the best variety for a small garden is the black bamboo - P. nigra as it densely clumping. Once your bamboo starts to produce its large, impressive stems keep them trimmed up to expose the wood for best effect.

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 fantastic plants 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.

Colour mix of canna leaves
Cold hardy exotic plants for that tropical garden effect
Dahlia Imperialis or 'Tree Dahlia' as it is commonly known is one plant that seems to defy which category it can be put in and so because of its sheer size I have included it in with the trees. The Tree Dahlia is not really a tree of course, but a tuberous perennial, like other dahlias. This species will flower late in the year, around November and December, so the flowers may get hit by early frosts in some areas. In winter, you can cut the plant back to the ground and new growth will shoot up in the spring but give the root area a good protective mulch to help your plant over-winter. The tree Dahlia bears attractive stems which can grow up to 4" thick and are hollow like bamboo canes. Legend has it that the stems were used by the ancient Aztecs as pipes to carry drinking water!


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. Whatever 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.
Yellow with red markings Canna lily flowers
Cold hardy exotic plants for that tropical garden effect
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 Tropicana’.

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.

White Colchicum flower
Cold hardy exotic plants for that tropical garden effect
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 checkering, 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.

Green Eucomis blooms
Cold hardy exotic plants for that tropical garden effect
Eucomis - Even though Eucomis 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 plant's ability to adapt to the garden environment.

Hedychium - 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 tinctoria flowers
Cold hardy exotic plants for that tropical garden effect
Impatiens tinctoria -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.


Border containing exotic cold hardy plants
Cold hardy exotic plants for that tropical garden effect
Luscious green foliage is what is needed here and there are plenty to choose from. Hostas are ideal but they can be a paradise for slugs. Fatsia japonica can make a good specimen plant but Gunneras have the largest leaves of any plant that will grow in northern Europe but make sure that you have the space to accommodate them. Phormiums are a good choice and also come in a wide range of foliage colours. Also look as ornamental grasses such as Miscanthus, and Cortaderia.Use smaller Carex varieties for the front of borders.

Ferns are another good choice for architectural foliage effect with a wide range available consider using Dryopteris, Polystichum and Asplenium species for an all year round evergreen effect. Of course, don't ignore the magnificent tree fern.


Of course there is no harm in using genuine tropical plants to create your 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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