University of Illinois Extension

The Tropical Garden

Adding tropical and tropical looking plants to the garden can: give the garden a different look, create a unique feeling in the garden, add focal points to a traditional garden, enable us to have a good-looking garden in the hottest part of summer

Sharon Yiesla

"There are a number of different types of plants that be used to give us the feeling of a tropical paradise. There are pros and cons to using each plant group. The gardener can make this project as big or as small as they want, by selecting the right kinds of plants."

The plants that can be used in the tropical garden are common house plants (like aloe, croton and mandevilla), unusual or uncommon tropical plants (like banana, avocado and bird of paradise) and summer bulbs (calla lily, cannas, elephant ear). Annuals and perennials that have an 'exotic 'look can also be utilized. These could include (angels trumpet, castor bean, perennial hibiscus and plume poppy).

Yiesla recommended considering a flower bed that is given a more tropical look by adding a large-leafed plant like castor bean. The large leaves give the garden a tropical feel. Add in the red flowers of a common annual like salvia or sage. The bright color of the flowers accents the tropical look created by the large leaves of the castor bean.

"Tropicals can be used a number of ways," she said. "They can be planted directly into the ground or they can be used in containers. They can be used on a small scale as focal points scattered through the garden or they can be used on a larger scale as a major theme of the garden.

"As we use these plants there will be special considerations to think about with certain plants. Plants with excessively large leaves may be more prone to damage from wind and possible rain storms. These plants may need to be placed in more protected sites or at least kept away from areas where wind is a common problem."

If the tropical garden includes house plants or uncommon tropical plants, there will be the need to acclimate them to the backyard environment. The yard often offers light that is much more intense than the light indoors. Temperatures will be quite different as we move plants out of the house and into the yard.

"We may need to make this move a slow process to let plants adapt to their new environment," she cautioned.

Winter storage of some of our tropicals will also need to be considered. Winter storage option will vary by plant group. Annuals will need no storage. They will die at the end of the season and can be discarded. Perennials will also be easy as they can stay in the ground all year with no harm. Summer bulbs will need to be dug, cleaned and stored indoors at the proper temperature. Summer bulbs could also be treated like annuals, but this can be an expensive option.

"Also consider that there will be work involved in digging any plants that were placed in the ground for the summer," she said. "These plants are more sensitive to cold. We must bring them in long before the frost comes. When night time temperatures drop into the upper 50's, these plants should be brought indoors."