Do you love to travel to tropical islands? Do you long for the bright, colorful blooms and opulent foliage of the plants that grow in these locales? Do you want to step into your backyard and re-create the mood of being at a resort on holiday? Well you can! Most of the plants that grow in tropical locales are hardy in Zones 9-11 (which means that they won’t survive the winter in our Zone 8 gardens), but with careful plant selection, you can create a tropical garden here in McKinney.
I must emphasize that this style of landscape is either all in or all out - and details count. Paint outbuildings in tropical colors, search for umbrellas or gazebos that are thatched, cover upholstered furniture in tropical prints or brightly colored solids, and choose accessories with an island theme. A source of water is essential; it doesn’t have to be a pool, a pond or rill may be enough to set the mood (choose a traditional white or blue bottom to emulate the sea, or a dark bottom for a lagoon inspired ambiance).
When designing the garden, the goal is a lush, full look. Place plants so that they will slightly overlap when they reach their mature width, and intermingle heights to create a layered effect. Choose a mixture of leaf sizes, textures and colors, and create a riot of color with masses of blooming perennials and annuals.
Palms are standard in tropical inspired gardens. Depending on the size of the garden, choose one or three. Here are a few that we can grow in north Collin County:
Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is very hardy, able to withstand temperatures as low as 10°F. This slow growing, shrubby palm has sharp needle-like leaves and eventually reaches a height and width of 8-12’. It’s extremely versatile, growing in both sun and shade. This species prefers moist, well-drained soil and very little fertilizer.
Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is hardy to 0°F. Magnificent in stature, it has beautiful fan-like fronds that are arranged symmetrically in a bunched group. This forms a crown of stunning foliage that grows atop a rustic trunk that grows to 20’ tall. This palm will grow in partial sun, or full sun with some afternoon protection. It grows in any type of soil as long as it’s well drained.
Pindo Palm (Butia capitate) is hardy to 0°F. The pale green leaves, supported by inward curving fronds, give it a distinctive look unlike any other palm. Stems that grow to 20’ tall emerge from a bulbous base. This palm will grow in partial sun, or full sun with some afternoon protection.
With all palms, make sure they are watered regularly, but the soil should not be soggy. As a precaution, some growers recommend that you wrap the trunks of palms when the temperature is predicted to dip below 32°.
If palms don’t appeal to you, or if you want to mix it up, small fruiting trees are always welcome in the tropical garden:
Ornamental Banana (Musa X ‘Bordelon’) is heat tolerant and fast growing; reaching a height of 10-12’ in a growing season. Long, large leaves are marked with maroon streaks and solid maroon undersides emerge from sturdy cinnamon colored stems. ‘Bordelon’ Banana will tolerate quite a bit of shade, but whether in sun or shade, keep the soil consistently moist.
Fig (Ficus carica) grow extremely well in McKinney, but must have good drainage and morning sun. Huge palmate leaves really do make you think of Adam and Eve. Small fruits begin forming in late spring and are ready to be picked generally by mid-July. ‘Celeste’ and ‘Texas Everbearing’ are good varieties and well suited to small gardens as they mature at 10’ tall. Fig trees are just as beautiful in the winter as they have an architectural silhouette.
Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) has lustrous, quilted, evergreen leaves that are sometimes a foot long. Over the winter, fragrant, wooly flowers appear and by early summer edible fruits are ready to be picked. Loquat can grow to 25’ tall, but usually only grows 15’ tall in our zone. Provide protection from wind.
Shrubs anchor the trees and account for the majority of plants in a design; these shrubs have a tropical quality:
Yellow Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii) is an open, finely textured, semi-evergreen shrub that is often used as a blooming hedge or screen because of its large size (4-6’ tall and wide). The fern-like, small, elliptical compound leaves are a slight blue-green color. Showy, yellow flowers with bright red stamens bloom in the summer in upright open racemes. It thrives in the sun and heat. To improve fullness and branching, prune in the spring by 1/3.
‘Little John’ Bottlebrush (Callistemon X ‘Little John’) is a densely branched, evergreen shrub with blue-green, spiky leaves that have a citrus scent when crushed. Deep red, bottlebrush-like flower spikes cover the plant from spring until summer; often re-blooming again in fall. ‘Little John’ is a dwarf variety reaching 3’ tall by 5’ wide.
‘Lemon Lime’ Nandina (Nandina domestica ‘Lemon Lime’) is an evergreen with finely cut, bamboo- like foliage that is a nice foil for bold textured foliage. The new growth is chartreuse. It forms a tidy, round plant growing 3’ tall and wide. This Nandina appreciates some afternoon protection.
‘Sunshine’ Ligustrum (Ligustrum sinensis ‘Sunshine’) is an evergreen with small, bright yellow foliage. It holds this color best when planted in full sun. Allow the plant to grow in its natural form, giving it plenty of room to reach 3-6’ tall and 3-4’ wide.
Oleander (Nerium oleander) has long, narrow, evergreen, medium green leaves that resemble bamboo. The shrub has an upright form and grows 4-8’ tall and 4-5’ wide. Oleanders bloom from spring until fall, producing large clusters of five-petaled, funnel shaped flowers in shades of yellow, white, pink and red. They bloom best in full sun and will tolerate the reflected light and heat from water. They are on the edge of our hardiness zone and will sometimes be killed to the ground, but usually return from the roots and gain full height in a single season. When temperatures are predicted to dip below 20 degrees, cover the shrubs with frost cloth. All parts of Oleander are poisonous and should be planted out of the reach of children and pets.
Thryallis (Galphimia gracilis) is an evergreen, multi-stemmed and dense shrub with a somewhat upright form that reaches 3-4’ tall. Leaves are elliptical with rounded ends and a hint of blue color which contrasts nicely with burgundy stems. Mid-summer until frost panicles of fat buds open from the bottom up to reveal sunny stars with red stamens. A very beautiful specimen that may die to the ground in harsh winters, but often returns from the roots.
Fill in shady areas of the landscape with these shrubs:
Camellia (Camellia sasanqua) are outstanding garden accents from fall through spring. Shiny, ovate evergreen foliage highlights fragrant, single or double, ruffled flowers with fluffy yellow centers. Choose where you site Camellias carefully, as too much or too little sun will cause reduced flowering. Protect from winter winds and mulch heavily. As they prefer slightly acidic soil, they perform well in large containers filled with Azalea soil mix.
Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica) is an evergreen shrub with bold, dramatic large, shiny, medium green, deeply lobed, palmate leaves. It forms a rounded 4-6’ mounding shrub. In fall, round clusters of white flowers form, followed by black fruit that persists through the winter.
Japanese Aucuba (Aucuba japonica) is an upright shrub with evergreen, leathery leaves, often marked with gold or yellow. Full shade is best to maintain leaf color. Size is dependent on variety.
Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) is an evergreen shrub with a dense, rounded habit and shiny dark green leaves. In spring and summer, intensely fragrant, double, camellia-like, creamy white flowers cover the plant. Gardenias should be fertilized monthly during the growing season and are well suited to growing in containers filled with Azalea soil mix. Size is dependent on variety.
Perennials add another layer of plants to the garden and many have colorful blooms:
Angel’s Trumpet (Datura stramoneum) is a shrubby plant with coarse oval leaves that grows 2-4’ tall and is useful as a filler in the garden. All summer long, large, clear white, trumpet-shaped flowers open at sunset and bloom for one day. Most plant parts are poisonous and should be planted out of the reach of children and pets.
Canna (Canna spp.) has broad, sword-like leaves that are either solid green, variegated, or have contrasting vein colors. Most varieties grow to 3-4’ tall. A continuous show of bold flowers in strong colors appear from summer until frost. ‘Australis’ is especially beautiful with dark maroon foliage and deep red flowers.
‘Orange Crush’ Cestrum (Cestrum X ‘Orange Crush’) is root hardy in McKinney. This gorgeous perennial will be knocked down by the winter cold, but will begin growing in the spring and reach a height of 3’ over the growing season. The tall flower spikes, comprised of a many small flowers, in the most amazing shade of orange cover the plant throughout the summer. Cestrum can be grown in part sun or full sun with afternoon protection.
‘Stella d’Oro Daylily (Hemerocallis X ‘Stella d’Oro) is a hardy, prolifically blooming daylily that grows a tidy 1’ tall x 1’ wide. The golden yellow, trumpet shaped, lily-like flowers rise above dense mounds of arching, grass-like leaves. Part sun is where it’s happiest. Plant this Daylily at the front of the border, or use as a flowering edging.
‘Black Coral’ Elephant Ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Coral) has stupendously large, striking, glossy, jet black corrugated leaves on a plant that contrasts beautifully with brightly colored blossoms. It grows 3’ tall and wide.
Firebush (Hamelia patens) is an evergreen sub-shrub that is sun and heat loving (it will tolerate part sun, but will not bloom as profusely). The smooth margined, medium green foliage is attractive and often turns a brilliant shade of red in the fall. Mid-summer until frost the spiky orange-red tubular blossoms create a haven for hummingbirds. Firebush will often return if mulched just before freezing weather, but it roots easily, so take some cuttings just in case (or if you want more plants in the garden). It’s a manageable size at 2’ tall and wide. It looks beautiful planted en masse and grows nicely in a container.
Gerbera Daisies (Gerbera jamesonii) produce cheerful 4” daisy-like flowers in luscious sherbet colors. Full sun is a must or the plants won’t bloom, but provide afternoon protection so the notched, paddle-shaped foliage doesn’t burn. Fertilize every two weeks while blooming, and protect plants over the winter with a layer of mulch.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.) produce large, showy, funnel-shaped flowers with prominent stamens that are synonymous with tropical islands. Varieties that are hardy in our zone include favorites such as ‘Flare’ and ‘Peppermint Flare’ which grow to 4’ x 4’, and the towering ‘Moy Grande’ which grows to 5’ x 5’. Plant in full sun for best flower production.
Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus X ‘Headbourne Hybrids’) produces graceful clumps of strap-like evergreen leaves. In the summer, lovely sky blue clusters of star-shaped flowers rise on hollow stalks above the foliage. Lily of the Nile appreciates afternoon protection from the sun.
Dwarf Mexican Petunia (Ruellia X brittoniana ‘Katy’) forms a bushy clump of dark green, strap-like foliage. Loose clusters of two to four, funnel-shaped light purple or blue flowers bloom summer through frost. ‘Katy’ is the only recommended variety as traditional Mexican Petunia is very invasive.
Montbretia (Crocosmia X Curtonus ‘Lucifer’) is a hardy corm that produces tall (2-4’), sword like foliage similar to gladiolas. Wiry stems produce multitudes of bright red tight flower buds that unfurl in succession from bottom to top over the summer.
Shell Ginger (Alpinia zerumbet) has leafy, arching stems that create a lush, tropical effect with boldly striped yellow and green foliage. Large, drooping clusters of white and pink, shell-like, fragrant flowers appear in spring and sometimes again in the fall. Can reach up to 6’ tall in one season.
Torch Lily (Kniphofia uvaria) produces stiff clusters of tubular flowers on bare stems held above tufts of stiff, gray-green leaves. Rising 2-4’ tall, this is a bold accent in the garden. Flowers open bright red, then turn yellow as they mature. Plant in locations protected from wind.
Umbrella Plant (Cyperus alternifolia) is grown for its unusual umbrella like foliage. Whorls of fine textured, dark green, grass-like foliage form umbrellas at the tops of slender stalks. It’s a tough plant that has only two requirements: sun and consistent moisture. Under optimal conditions, it will grow to 5’ tall
Many perennials in tropical places are considered tender perennials in our area (which means that they will survive if protected in an unheated garage or brought indoors in the winter). While that may seem like a lot of work, these plants are worth the effort:
Brazilian Sky Flower (Duranta erecta ‘Gold Edge’) with green and yellow variegated foliage that will eventually grow to 6’ tall and 4’ wide. The stunning purple-blue panicles of flowers drip from the plant from early summer until the first frost. This plant will thrive in full to part sun.
Dragon Wing Begonia (Begonia X ‘Dragon Wing’) grows in a slightly drooping form, with scarlet red begonia-type flowers that dangle from the lance shaped, medium green foliage. The blooms keep coming from early spring through until frost. It grows well in part sun to full sun, turning a slight bronze tint in full sun. Dragon Wing Begonia is easily over wintered indoors near a bright window.
Elephant Ears (Alocasia spp.) have giant leaves; some are arrow shaped, others are wavy with contrasting veins and dark undersides, still others are heavily lobed and resemble split leaf philodendron. They are grown for their foliage that emerges from a huge tubers and grow in a tall (up to 6’) fan shape. Tubers can be dug up in the fall and overwintered for re-planting when the soil has thoroughly warmed in the spring.
Esperanza (Tecoma stans) is a densely branched, woody, deciduous, sub-shrub. Light green, toothed leaves complement the clear yellow, trumpet shaped flowers that bloom summer until frost. Esperanza benefits from cutting back to shape the plant in early spring.
Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) are fussy, but worth growing because the large clusters of deep purple flowers have a lovely vanilla fragrance. Foliage is an attractive quilted medium green. Do not plant Heliotrope into the garden until the soil has fully warmed and keep them well watered. Cuttings can be taken at the end of the season and grown under lights until the next season.
Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrrima) is valuable in the landscape because it grows wider than tall (3’ tall and 6’ wide) and has finely cut and dissected foliage that give it a lacy look. The orange and yellow flowers are bowl shaped and have prominent red stamens. This plant is a butterfly magnet. Grow it in full sun for best bloom.
Annuals are chosen for their striking foliage or their blooms. Flowers are best planted in masses for the most dramatic effect. They complete their life cycle in one season, so they are heavy feeders (fertilize them at least once a month). Those that will complement a tropical garden include:
Red Abyssinian Banana (Enset ventricosum) has huge, heavily ribbed and slightly curving leaves. They are strikingly colored; the thick spine is burgundy and the edges are burgundy, with green in between. Young leaves are tightly rolled and appear solid burgundy, but change as they unfurl and mature. Planting in a large container elevates the thick, colorful pseudo-trunk to better view. Red Abyssinian Banana will grow to 5’ tall and wide in one season if given a monthly feeding and rich soil amended with compost.
Candlestick Tree (Cassia alata aka Senna alata) is a large annual; growing 4-5’ tall and wide. It’s an old-fashioned plant with small, slightly rounded, pinnate, medium green leaves that fold up at night. Tall (to 18”) “candles” composed of clear yellow blossoms rise up from the foliage from mid-summer until frost. Flowers are followed by long, decorative seed pods. Allow the seeds to brown and fall so that it will re-seed for the following season.
Celosia (Celosia cristata) have crested flowers that are very long lasting. They come in a range of heights and flowers shades are usually red, orange, yellow or cold.
Croton (Codeaium variegatum) doesn’t flower, but the foliage is bold and colorful with stripes of green, yellow, orange and red. I have heard of gardeners overwintering this plant in an unheated garage, but I haven’t had luck with it; I treat it as an annual.
Tropical Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) has dark green, slightly serrated leaves and forms a mounding shape 2’ tall and wide. The flowers are large, showy, funnel-shaped with prominent stamens and come in shades or red, pink, yellow, white and orange.
Lemon Lollipop (Pachystachys lutea) has soft, dark green leaves with smooth margins that are slightly quilted. Spring through fall, small white flowers emerge from a golden yellow, cone-shaped bract. Lemon Lollipop grows 2’ tall and wide. It loves the heat, but won’t tolerate full sun (or the reflected light from water). This plant is not always easy to find, and once you’ve grown it you’ll always want it, so plan to take 6” cuttings to overwinter under lights.
Spider Flower (Cleome hasslerana) produces enormous clusters of pink, lavender, red or white flowers from summer until frost. The foliage is somewhat sticky, with a quilted appearance and arranged in whorls. 3-4’ tall, but only 1’ wide, they provide a welcome vertical in the garden. In spite of their height, they don’t require staking. Plant in clusters of five or more for a natural look.
Variegated Tapioca (Manihot esculenta) grows to 3-4’ tall, and is a beautiful focal point. Slightly downward facing whorls of medium to large foliage with green margins and creamy yellow markings stays fresh looking even on torrid days. Wait to plant this until the soil has warmed in late spring and it will reward you with active growth.
Vines are valuable to cover anything unattractive, soften hard surfaces, and add a vertical textural element to the garden.
Bougainvilla (Bougainvillea spp.) produces large masses of brilliantly colored, papery blossoms all summer long in shades of pink, red, yellow and orange. They are equally at home in hanging baskets or containers as they are growing on trellises or arbors. Bougainvilla require good drainage and full sun; allow the soil to dry out completely before each watering.
Hyacinth Bean (Dolichos lablab) is easy to grow from seed. The delicate purple stems need only a light support. Pinkish-purple pea-like flowers appear in summer and are followed by showy red purple seedpods. Save the seeds for re-planting the following spring.
Mandevilla (Mandevilla sanderi) is an elegant well behaved vine. The dark green, smooth, shiny, elliptical leaves wind their way around a light support readily, but are easy to keep in check. The trumpet-shaped blooms are bright pink, lipstick red or white (some varieties are fragrant). They are suitable for containers or planted directly into the garden. Either way, provide them with at least 4-6 hours of sun with afternoon protection. They are heavy feeders and will bloom best with a monthly feeding of a water soluble fertilizer.
Ground cover is the finishing touch to a garden, protects the soil from erosion, and helps keep plants clean:
Philodendron (Philodendron bippinnatifidium) is a traditional ground cover in tropical gardens. This fast growing tender perennial vine will grow 12-15’ long, and the large, showy, dark green foliage will creep to cover the ground in no time. Take lots of cuttings (root in water) before the cold weather arrives and you’ll have plenty of plants to start with next year.
Moss Rose (Portulaca) is a low growing, annual with succulent leaves. Bright, cheerful 2” cactus-like flowers bloom non-stop; plants can be purchased as all solid or a mix of sherbet colors. Planted in a mass, Moss Rose makes a beautiful blooming summer ground cover.
Hardy Ice Plant (Delosperma cooperi) is an evergreen, perennial, blooming ground cover that grows 6” tall by 24” wide. The small, succulent leaves are closely spaced. Vibrant, red-violet 2” thread-like daisy flowers cover the foliage from spring until frost. Must be planted in full sun.
You don’t have to travel or go on holiday to enjoy a verdant tropical garden. Choose a selection of these beauties and your back yard will be the resort you can step out and enjoy any time you wish. Just remember the goal: a lush, full look, densely planted and layered, with a mixture of leaf sizes, textures and colors – and a riot of blooming perennials and annuals. And don’t forget to pay attention to the details – including the little umbrella in your tropical cocktail!