By the end of June, many of our Maryland gardens are the victims of EGS - English Garden Syndrome - the futile desire to maintain an English-style garden in a summer climate that's more Mexico than Misty Isle. By July, peonies are spent, comfrey's collapsed, and the roses look as though they made an unsuccessful trek across Death Valley. There are big gaps in the garden. Fortunately, there are also big gap fillers - tropical plants.
"By mid to late July, that's the end of color for most perennial gardens," says Steve Frowine, horticulturist at Dutch Gardens in Burlington, Vt. "But tropicals love the heat and go full-tilt through it."
"Tropicals also grow really fast," adds Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery Inc. in Raleigh, N.C. "For example, bananas can get to 8 feet and cannas can get 5 to 10 feet in one season so they make a huge show in a short amount of time."
Tropical plants also turn up the volume on color, creating a kind of festival atmosphere.
"They are all about lush, unashamed color combinations that you wouldn't be enthused about inside your house," says Frowine. "But outside they have a Jimmy Buffett 'let the colors and sounds go' kind of feeling."
Yet despite their rapid growth, tropical plants are annuals here in Maryland so the look isn't permanent. If you don't like Canna 'Bengal Tiger,' which resembles a mariachi band, you can replace it next year with something quieter, like the Blood Banana (Musa acuminata 'Zebrina') whose big floppy dark leaves hint of the Brazilian rain forest.
Big, bold, and beautiful
Tropicals can be spectacular accents in containers. They also make dramatic garden focal points that stand in sharp contrast - in color, texture, and size - to the demure perennials that surround them. Wherever they appear, they draw the eye with their flamboyance.
Caladium 'Thai Beauty,' has crimson leaves outlined with white and forest-green veining while Alocasia 'Frydek' has startling white veins against big satiny arrowhead-shaped leaves. Cordyline baueri sends up tall spears in dusty purple, while Elephant Ears, also known as taro (Colocasia esculenta), has dinner plate-sized leaves in a range of colors that grow into a 5-by-5-foot mass. Cannas, now the darlings of the sophisticated garden, offer a host of choices in size, leaf, and bloom ranging from mild to wild.
"Ten years ago, cannas were considered gauche," says Frowine. "But since then there has been a lot of breeding and in addition to the fire-engine red and bright orange blooms, there are pastel flowers and variegated and different-colored foliage."
Depending on variety, they grow from 3 to 10 feet tall. C. 'China Doll' has hot pink blooms with mid-green foliage, C. 'Wine & Roses' has deep rose blooms atop burgundy leaves, C. 'Princess Di' has peach-cream blooms with gray-green foliage, and C. 'Tropicanna' is an exotic mix of russet, scarlet, orange, and burgundy stem, bloom, and striated foliage.
While most tropicals are grown primarily for foliage, Angel Trumpet (Brugmansia, sometimes classified as Datura) is grown for the blooms. Covered with huge, herald's trumpet-shaped flowers in cream, canary, rose, white and more, it exudes a heavenly scent in the evening. But while the fragrance can add intoxicating ambience to a patio dinner, the plant may not suit every household. For one thing, Angel Trumpet requires lots of water. More important, many varieties are toxic if ingested.
"Some have alkaloids that some kids have used to try to get high," says Sid Gardino, owner of Sid Gardino Nursery in Delray Beach, Fla. "Some people have died. It can be dangerous if you misuse plants."
Though few tropicals tolerate drought, many can adapt to a variety of conditions. Cannas, Caladium, and Colocasia for example can stand a lot of water but don't necessarily demand it.
"They will grow in ponds, but they don't require that much water," says Cindy King, horticulturist at Kingstown Home, Farm and Garden in Chestertown.
Because they grow so rapidly, tropicals are heavy feeders. Use plenty of compost and fertilize regularly. Don't plant until ground and air temperatures are reliably warm.
If you want to overwinter tropicals - some will make it, some won't -whack them back and store in a cool (not cold) place. Water sparingly or not at all, depending upon the plant. King leaves her 'Black Magic' Elephant Ears in containers. In fall, she shifts them into the garage, then rolls them back into the garden in late spring.
While most tropicals grow huge over a season, they rarely if ever become invasive. In Gardino's experience, none drop viable seeds and the original plant won't survive Maryland winters if left in the garden.
"At 32 degrees," notes Gardino, "they're gone."
Plant Delights Nursery
Juniper Level Botanic Garden
9241 Saul's Road
Raleigh, NC 27603
144 Intervale Rd.
Burlington, VT 05401
Sid Gardino Nursery
P.O. Box 83-2024
Delray Beach, FL 33483
Kingstown Farm, Home, and Garden
7121 Church Hill Rd.
Chestertown, MD 21635
McClure & Zimmerman
335 S. High St.
Randolph, WI 53956
White Flower Farm
P.O. Box 50
Litchfield, CT 06759-0050