Tropical Gardening: That tropical look can be achieved with the right plants

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE

    Owner of Caffe Latte Harlem, Younghee Han, and chef Jorge Apango proudly show off their tropical-looking mini garden featuring Paulownia tomentosa, or princess tree or empress tree, for a bold effect.

On our way to Colombia, we have seen gardens with a lush tropical look even in New York City. The long hot summers on the East Coast gives gardeners the opportunity to use authentic tropicals until the first frost.

Some hardy plants with a tropical look can be used as well. Along the West Coast, some hardy palm and banana species can be grown as far north as British Columbia.


Visiting tropical places such as Hawaii is the treat of a lifetime to millions of people a year. One of the highlights for them is to experience the lush tropical gardens and forests that are unlike any place in the continental United States.

Many folks who enjoy gardening go home wishing they lived in a tropical place, where they could have yards and homes filled with palms and other exotics. Some mainlanders create a mini oasis with lots of houseplants.

Others even build solariums or small greenhouses to get their tropical fix, but ambiance can be created in colder parts of the country with the selection of tropical-looking plants with the right landscape design.

The air of freedom and informality in Hawaii gardens is partly because of the exotic plant materials used. It is also because of the casual style of design found throughout the islands. This consists of mixing many bold and colorful shrubs, ground covers and trees in a relaxed, unregimented manner.

This type of landscaping gives a sort of well-maintained jungle effect.

The best part is that the hang loose look can be done anywhere there is a place to grow things. It can be achieved with almost any plants, but to develop that kind of look, the selection should be those with a bold lush look.

There are very hardy warm temperate trees such as some species of rhododendron, magnolia and camellia that can give the tropical effect. This combined with global warming has allowed gardeners to grow some plants, for example, that could not be grown in the region 100 years ago.

One tree finding its way northward is the Albizzia julibrissin, or Persian silk tree. Although very tropical in appearance, with its poinciana-like foliage and pink pom-pom flowers, this tree will tolerate conditions below 0 degrees.

The silk tree is native to Asia and can reach heights of up to 40 feet but is usually much smaller, spreading like an umbrella to 20 feet. The tree’s filtered shade allows grass and other plants to grow underneath. It also makes a very good patio tree.

The Gingko biloba, or maidenhair tree, is another from China that will tolerate sub-zero temperatures. This tree is a living fossil from the era when tree ferns and palms were growing throughout North America.

Cities such as New York are using them as street trees to reduce the negative effect of concrete and asphalt.

When it comes to palms and ferns to create a tropical look, there are those that are fairly hardy. If you live in an area where temperatures seldom reach 10 degrees or colder, the Trachycarpus fortunei, or windmill palm, is a great one for the ultra-tropical look. It is relatively fast growing to about 30 feet.

This palm should be used in groups of three to seven for a dramatic effect. The many healthy specimens in Seattle attest to this tree’s ability to withstand cold. They can even be found in Scotland and Switzerland.

Another much slower palm that is equally hardy is the Chamaerops humilis, or European fan palm. This clumping type has been known to sustain temperatures of 6 degrees. There are several other palms that will grow as far north as Coastal Oregon.

There also are several hardy bamboos that will take temperatures below zero. Close relatives of bamboo such as the arundo from the Mediterranean can be used in areas where temperatures are below zero. Although this giant reed can freeze down in winter, give it a protective mulch with a good rich soil and it will grow from 6-15 feet in a summer.

Another popular bamboo relative is Pampas grass, or Cortaderia sellowana, from Brazil and Argentina. This versatile clumping grass will tolerate dry to wet soils and temperatures close to zero if protected by mulching.

The list of tropical-looking but hardy plants is extensive. You might consider trees such as the hardy eucalyptus species. These include the cider gum and snow gum, that survive temperatures close to zero.

When it comes to fruits, the fig, pomegranate, olive and loquat can all be found growing as far north as Seattle on the West Coast.

Your mainland friends can experiment with these and others that nurseries and garden centers carry or try some from more southerly locations.


To avoid discouragement, check with garden books that cover plant hardiness. One good reference is Sunset’s “Western Garden Book,” which can be found in garden shops.

You can also call the UH Master Gardener help line at 322-4893 in Kona or 981-9155 in Hilo.

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