Salvia elegens 'Golden Delicious' pineapple sage in front of my red fountain. #nofilter

Tropical plants, a hot summer garden’s best friend

Next to colorful annuals, tropical plants are a hot summer garden’s best friend. In Oklahoma and much of the middle South, tropical plants are grown successfully as annuals. Yes, in a mid-south climate, they die at winter’s end, but that’s okay. If you take cuttings, you can keep your favorites going year after year. Many of my best plant combos and those in other gardens I’ve seen involve tropicals in some fashion.

A tropical, native plant paradise of variegated tapioca, Salvia greggii 'Pink Preference' and Melinis nerviglumis 'Pink Crystals' or 'Savannah' depending upon where it's purchased.

A tropical, native plant paradise of variegated tapioca, Salvia greggii ‘Pink Preference’ and Melinis nerviglumis ‘Pink Crystals’ or ‘Savannah’ depending upon where it’s purchased.

What price are you willing to play for beauty all summer even when the weather is scorching hot? My garden would be very boring without annuals and tropicals, and you know how much I hate a boring landscape.

In late summer of 2011, the only border that looked good that dreadful summer was the one by the garage planted with tropical plants. Here, variegated oyster plant, 'Peter's Wonder' coleus, alternanthera and heliotrope make a very pretty picture.

In 2011, the only border that looked good that dreadful summer was the one by the garage planted with tropical plants. Here, variegated oyster plant, ‘Peter’s Wonder’ coleus, alternanthera and heliotrope make a very pretty picture.

I was shopping at a nursery last summer, and I had a big, blooming tropical plant in my basket, a Russelia equisetiformis, red firecracker plant. A woman came up to me and began exclaiming over its coral, tubular blooms. Who wouldn’t? It was a beauty. She wanted one, she said. I pointed to the table where they were. She then asked, “Is it perennial?”

Russelia equisetiformis, coral fountain, firecracker plant

Russelia equisetiformis, coral fountain, firecracker plant grows well in garden beds and in pots.

Instead of banging my head against my cart, I smiled and explained it was tropical. She brushed me away with her hand.

“I only buy perennials,” she said. Her garden. Her choice, but gee whiz, how boring.

If you ever see a plant blooming its heart out in a pot, it probably isn’t perennial unless it’s been brought to bloom in a greenhouse. I see perennials blooming out of season in nurseries quite often, and I wish there were signs telling the customers this. It would save a lot of disappointment later. Some perennials bloom all summer, but most have their special season each year even if you deadhead them.

I’m not anti-perennial. I’m just realistic.

In my garden, the story is rarely just about flowers. Coleus, probably 'Redhead', Acalypha wilkesiana - copperleaf plant and Miscanthus sinensis, maiden hair grass tell the story here.

In my garden, the story is rarely just about flowers. Coleus ‘Redhead’ and ‘Alabama Sunset’, Acalypha wilkesiana – copperleaf plant and Miscanthus sinensis, maiden hair grass tell the story here. Only the grass is perennial here.

You purchase tropicals for your patio containers all the time. Buy them for your garden beds too. Many have larger leaves to give them presence in the garden and break up what my friend, Fairegarden, calls “little leaf syndrome.” Or, their foliage is eye-catching because it is colorful. Just look at what breeders have been doing with coleus and elephant ears lately.

Plectranthus scutellarioides 'Indian Summer', coleus in my garden last summer.

Plectranthus scutellarioides ‘Indian Summer’, coleus in my garden last summer.

Others tropicals bloom when nothing else in the garden does much except survive. In the right place, a tropical plant can change your landscape the same way a scarf transforms the blank area around a person’s neck, suddenly making their outfit chic instead of so-so. Plus, scarves keep you warm in the depth of winter.

Coleus Bonefish with 'The Line' coleus and 'Marguerite' sweet potato vine.

‘Bonefish’ coleus, ‘The Line’ coleus and ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine frame Mary in this view.

Tropicals, with their hot colors, are also a warm presence in the garden. Some like tropical plumbago can also cool things down by reflecting the summer sky.

Below are some tropical plants I won’t do without in my garden. It’s not an exclusive list. There are so many more available. I profiled some of them in The Bold and the Beautiful. I take cuttings of my tropical plants because, as of 2013, I have a greenhouse. It is a tremendous luxury–I waited years to buy one–but if you have a sunny window, or full spectrum lights, and the desire to overwinter plants, you can take cuttings too. I did this for years. I also take in entire small plants for further propagation during the long winter months. That way, I create a small army for garden balance and flow. I could never buy all of these plants each spring. My garden is large, and repetition is an important design element.

Senorita Rosalita® cleome, spider flower. Senorita Blanca® is a much lighter pink version. It also grows shorter.

Senorita Rosalita® cleome, spider flower. Senorita Blanca® is a much lighter pink version. It also grows shorter.

  • Alternanthera ficoidea ‘Red Threads’ and so many of the other plants in this genus. Wonderful for color in the garden no matter how hot it gets in summer. A. dentata ‘Purple Knight’ is another great one, and it can be started from seed. A. dentata ‘Little Ruby’ is gorgeous. All three perform like champs in hot weather growing to their full size before season’s end.
  • Canna lilies. Many cannas overwinter in Oklahoma, but some, like the Tropicanna® series, are more tropical in nature. If you’re going to grow cannas, grow ones with interesting foliage.
  • Cleome Senorita Rosalita® Other varieties of cleome can be grown from seed. They are great too, but Senorita Rosalita® and Senorita Blanca® were created to have no viable seeds or spurs so they bloom continuously all summer and don’t snag you or your clothes as your work in the garden. Senorita Blanca® blooms a much lighter pink that is almost white and grows more compact.
  • Colocasia esculenta, elephant ears, are some of the most exciting plants for shade because, John J. Cho, Ph.D. a plant pathologist and breeder in Hawaii, spent much of his career working on color, size and form. These were introduced under the Royal Hawaiian Colocasias name. Because of his groundbreaking work, we now have beautiful elephant ears including patented plants: ‘Pineapple Princess‘, ‘Diamond Head‘, ‘Maui Gold‘ and ‘Kona Coffee‘. I would love to grow ‘Pineapple Princess’ and ‘Maui Gold.’ ‘White Lava‘ is interesting too. I’ve linked to Plant Delights Nursery which sells many of Cho’s plants. I grow ‘Black Coral’ which I bought at Bustani Plant Farm. Note that many of Cho’s selections can be grown in sun or partial sun in many climates.
'Maui Gold' elephant ear with red begonias at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens

‘Maui Gold’ elephant ear with red begonias at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens

  • Crossandra infundibuliformis ‘Orange Marmalade’, firecracker flower. I guess it does look like soft orange firecrackers at the top of short stems. Maybe, more like sparklers.
Crossandra nilotica is one plant I'll be adding to next year's repertoire. This is also from Bustani and blooming in full sun.

Orange crossandra at Bustani Plant Farm.

  • Cuphea llavea, bat-face cuphea, is one of the best plants in front of a container or at the edge of a planting bed. I really love the red one–so cute–but there’s also a double purple called Lanai Royal Purple, a double bi-colored one and another one called ‘Ballistic’ that I’ve grown. There are even more cupheas, but I like these best so far.
Cuphea lluvea, bat-face cuphea

Cuphea lluvea, bat-face cuphea

  • Duranta erecta. While duranta is a shrub or tree in tropical climates, in a colder climate, it makes a long-blooming and shorter plant. Some duranta have purple blooms. Others are grown for their foliage. ‘Sweet Memories’ has a purple and white bicolor bloom. I have one in a pot that trained as a standard.
'Haight 'Ashbury' hibiscus is a current favorite of mine. With pink or red flowers blooming in front of it, it's a show stopper.

‘Haight ‘Ashbury’ hibiscus is a current favorite of mine. With pink or red flowers blooming in front of it, it’s a show stopper.

  • Hibiscus acetosella ‘Haight Ashbury’. There are many other cultivars, but I think the variegation on this one’s leaves makes it interesting. I had to buy my plants in Texas. Why does Texas get more diverse plants than we do? ‘Mahogany’ can be grown from seed. I also grew ‘Maple Sugar’ in 2012 and 2013, but I no longer see it in the trade. Maybe they renamed it? I don’t know.
One more from Bustani Plant Farm.

Justicia betonica, white shrimp plant with ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus. Photo taken at Bustani Plant Farm.

  • Justicia betonica, white shrimp plant.
Lantana camara 'Dallas Red' next to 'Pink Crystals' fountain grass which bloomed earlier.

Lantana camara ‘Dallas Red’ next to ‘Pink Crystals’ fountain grass which bloomed earlier.

  • Lantana camara ‘Dallas Red.’ Are people tired of lantanas? The market was flooded with them a few years ago. Well, I’m one who still likes them in the right place. My potager (kitchen garden) is colored concrete bricks with brick pavers around a red fountain. All that hardscape, along with the asphalt drive next to it makes for one hot space around the fountain. I use a combination of plants to play off the red, and ‘Dallas Red’ is one of them. The plant list changes from year-to-year depending upon my mood. Lantana is a butterfly magnet.
This photo is from September of last year. I didn't grow variegated tapioca this year, and I missed its large presence in the garden. There really isn't anything quite like it.

This photo is from September of last year. I didn’t grow variegated tapioca this year, and I missed its large presence in the garden. There really isn’t anything quite like it. By the way, not to make you sad or anything, but both of those roses are gone now. I planted two Lagerstroemia ‘PIILAG-V’ Enduring Summer Red™ crapemyrtles instead.

  • Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’, variegated tapioca, has all the best features in a tropical plant. I have to buy this one every year. It’s not cheap, but it’s hard to replicate so I understand. Nothing has the presence that this tropical does.
  • Musa sumatrana, red banana trees. M. sumatrana ‘Rojo’ is a pretty red and green one. Either dig them up and overwinter them in a cool, but not cold place, or grow them all winter in a greenhouse. Some bananas are considered sub-tropical, but I haven’t had any luck overwintering them outside. Too many cold days in an Oklahoma winter. Plant Delights has an interesting selection of ornamental banana trees. Believe it or not, I bought the one in the photo below at Home Depot.
Banana tree, coleus and sweet potato vine in a large container.

Banana tree, coleus and sweet potato vine in a large container.

  • Palm trees. I don’t know enough about palm trees to write intelligently of them. I just grow what I like. Here’s a good post on palms that perform well in Oklahoma, including our one native palm, Sabal minor. Alligator Alley is a local source for palms and other tropical plants that perform well in Oklahoma. They also carry reptiles if you’re so inclined. I am not.
Coleus, probably 'Kiwi Fern' with Tecoma hyb. Bells of Fire® esperanza.

Coleus, probably ‘Kiwi Fern’ with Tecoma hyb. Bells of Fire® esperanza.

  • Plectranthus scutellarioides. Coleus had another name change from Solenostemon scutellarioides. What would we do without these fantastic plants no matter what they’re called botanically?
  • Plumbago auriculata, blue or white, but why grow the white when there are so few easy blue flowers?
Pennisetum purpureum 'Princess Caroline' grass with Senorita Rosalita cleome.

Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ grass with Senorita Rosalita cleome.

  • Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ purple fountain grass, or one of the other varieties. It will grow from a plug to a giant mound in a few months. You don’t want it perennial, trust me. ‘Fireworks’ is smaller in stature and in leaf. ‘Princess Molly’ is green and purple and also quite large. ‘Prince’ is huge, and I’ve seen Vertigo® sold around town, but it’s a bit different because it is a millet. I can’t say how it performs.
Pennisetum 'Pince' with Saliva elegans, pineapple sage.

Pennisetum ‘Pince’ with Saliva elegans, pineapple sage.

  • Ricinus communis, castor bean. I like the red New Zealand type with its dark purple leaves. I grew it from seed last year.
New Zealand castor bean with Helianthus angustifolius, Narrow-leaf Sunflower

New Zealand castor bean with Helianthus angustifolius, Narrow-leaf Sunflower, a perennial.

  • Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious.’ If you can find this little jewel–I ordered mine online from somewhere–it is more striking than the standard pineapple sage shown above. I’ve grown it for two years. It makes a nice color echo with the fountain when it blooms in late summer, and the foliage is great throughout the growing season.
Salvia elegens 'Golden Delicious' pineapple sage in front of my red fountain. #nofilter

Salvia elegens ‘Golden Delicious’ pineapple sage in front of my red fountain. No filter, just backlit with beautiful October sunlight.

  • Tecoma stans and various hybrids, esperanza. There are now so many different types to grow other than the standard yellow bells. I like Crimson Flare®, Solar Flare® and Bells of Fire®. All of these grow to different heights and have various bloom shades. Do a little research if you plan to overwinter them. Once again, Texas has more of these for sale than anywhere else I’ve traveled, and you know how much I traveled this year.
  • Vigna caracalla, corkscrew vine, is perennial in a tropical climate, but here, it will die with the first frost. You can start it from seed, but indoors to get a running start. I bought my plant from Bustani Plant Farm.
No perfume like Vigna caracalla, corkscrew vine, a tropical grown as an annual here.

No perfume like Vigna caracalla, corkscrew vine, a tropical grown as an annual here.

Tropical plants don’t ask for much. They appreciate an enriched soil, but will even grow in a lesser circumstances. The soil around the potager’s red fountain was just builder’s sand leftover from laying brick paths and building raised beds. I put compost in it every year since, but it’s still primarily sand, so when I plant, I place a little granular fertilizer in the bottom of each hole. This seems to get things off to a good start.

Goodness, there are so many more. I haven’t even mentioned Iresine herbstii, copperleaf plants, the bulbines or black-leaved skyflower, among othersbut this post is way too long anyway. Just do your garden a favor and add annual and tropical plants to your plan. Later, let me know what you planted and how things went. I’d love to hear about it. Oh, and feel free to Pin any of these images to Pinterest. I don’t mind. Also, share away on other social media if you want. The more we get out the word about garden worthy plants, the better. Have a great weekend!

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26 comments on “Tropical plants, a hot summer garden’s best friend

  1. Helen at Toronto Gardens

    Gorgeous, Dee! I’ll keep my eyes out for ‘Golden Delicious’ — it’s golden, and delicious!

  2. indygardener

    Great post, Dee. Now I want to grow tropicals, but I’ll have to wait until spring! I hope / think our summers are hot enough, most of the time.

    1. Dee Nash

      Carol, I think they are too because those two guys in Indianapolis had an entire garden full of tropicals. Remember them from GWA?

  3. Emma

    Lovely article! May I say that you have incredible garden with incredible plants! I will definitely plant some of these in my own garden. Regards!

    1. Dee Nash

      Hi Emma, thank you so much! I do my best. I love to garden.

  4. Pam's English Garden

    Great advice, Dee, and a very useful plant list. I favor native plants, but I’m not a purist. My English cottage garden style demands ‘profusion’ and color all summer. Lots of annuals and some tropicals are my answer. P. x

    1. Dee Nash

      Pam, I think we have a similar garden style. I also love native plants, but I’m not a purist either.

  5. Alison

    Dismissing annuals is mind-bogglingly short-sighted. I put in a whole new front garden this year, and used annuals to fill the space between new small trees that will eventually get much bigger. They were a perfect solution.

    1. Dee Nash

      Hi Alison, I couldn’t agree with you more. When Bill and I put in the last garden bed, I filled it with annuals too. It’s the best way to handle a new garden and stop erosion.

  6. Lisa at Greenbow

    Tropicals do give the garden a sort of pizazz. You have showcased some fine selections. I have never seen the pineapple salvia with the yellow leaves. I would love to get a hold of that. I bet the hummers love it. Do you do the Black and Blue salvia? It has returned here the past 4 years. It even increases some years.

    1. Dee

      Hi Lisa, I do have the Black and Blue salvia along with some others. It is definity perennial in my state. In fact, in the sun, it wants to take over. I keep mine in a bit of shade to slow it down. I also really like ‘Mystic Spires Blue’–which isn’t perennial here, and S. nemorosa ‘Blue Hill.’ So pretty. I think I found the pineapple sage two years ago when I was searching online. I bought several unusual plants from some company, but I can’t remember which one. It stays chartreuse most of summer and then turns that yellow as it begins to bloom.

  7. Lady of LaMancha

    OK, OK, you might be starting to convince me. Those purples are very eye-catching. And, I never realized that my garden suffered from “little leaf syndrome”, but now I can’t get that out of my head. I especially like the variegated oyster plant, so now I’m off to find a European supplier. Time to brush up on my French and Dutch…

    1. Dee

      Oh goodie! I do love a convert. Before long, your garden will change. You know, I use to hate certain plants like cannas, but I had a change of heart when the dark-leaved ones started arriving in people’s gardens. Now, I’m a fan. I also peruse a lot of Dutch blogs by the way. They taught me much about forcing bulbs indoors. Love that we can all communicate across the miles.

      1. Lady of LaMancha

        Yeah, I’m not a fan of cannas either. By the way, what is your rainfall like?

        1. Dee Nash

          Thirty-five inches a year, but I have an irrigation system. All of my garden is on drip irrigation.

  8. SmallHouseBigGarden

    Thank you for this! I have bookmarked this post and plan to refer to it when ordering plants.

    1. Dee

      SHBG, that warms my heart. I hope it helps. It’s rather long. I don’t usually write posts that are this long.

  9. P O T A G E R

    Bold and beautiful…..and you have the space to show them off! Love the red sage in front of the red fountain; my favorite.

  10. Nell Jean

    Making a new list, here. I never got around to trying Crossandra nor Manihot. Glad you showed White Shrimp; All the Justicias are wonderful garden plants and do well during the winter in the greenhouse. I’m inspired to go take more cuttings of tender perennials. Later I’ll make a post of my fav tropicals.

    The ladies above are correct: the hotter the better and excessive humidity in my climate makes it more so. The other element for tropical survival is excellent drainage.

    1. Dee

      Hi Nell Jean, yes hot and humid are the watchwords for tropical success. At least it makes our climates compatible.

        1. Dee Nash

          Nell Jean, I really enjoyed your post. Like I wrote on your blog, I wish datura was hardy here.

  11. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening

    I have a climate similar to Layanee’s and beside the shorter season, the summers aren’t as hot. I have discovered many tropicals just don’t grow much without the heat to stimulate them, but I keep trying. I agree–they do add a lot of interest to the garden.

    1. Dee Nash

      Yes Kathy, good point. I guess tropicals are the one blessing for having such a hot summer.

  12. Layanee DeMerchant

    You have shown some great choices for the mixed border. I love that ‘tapioca’ and don’t think I have used it yet. I will have to give it a try. I think my season is just a bit shorter than yours which makes some of the choices challenging but my, you have included many. I am making a list. Thank you!

    1. Dee Nash

      Thanks Layanee. Yes, my season is usually a month longer than yours. Of course, it’s hotter than hell in the summer here too. Tropicals like our summers much more than I.