Dreaming of exotic places where palm fringed jungles drip with perfumed tropical flowers and fruits? Their scent hanging heavy in the warm night air may be closer than you think. A taste of the tropics can be brought closer to home through the landscape, as the world of plants can transport us to exotic locations through our senses. Tropical landscapes emphasise the contrasts between plants, hardscape components and other landscape features. Experimenting with different colours, shapes and textures will bring any tropical landscape concept to life.
Go big and go bold
Tropical landscapes are quite easy to create, even in a temperate climate, and you don’t have to play by the rules to achieve effective results. The key to designing an exciting tropical landscape is through effective plant selection: go big and go bold by selecting plants with large vibrant leaves, bright flowers, and differences in foliage colour, which can be achieved without having to rely totally on tropical plants. Plants with broad or strap like leaves, variegated foliage, coloured foliage, palm-like appearance, and ferns, can all add to the element of a tropical effect. Large foliage plants create optical scale that feels tropical, try plants such as Colocasia, also known as Elephant Ears, Strelitzia nicholi, Bird of Paradise and Ensente ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ the red Abyssinian banana, which has wonderful red tones on the foliage underside and the colour will appear through the green on the upper side of the foliage. The stems are also red making this one of the most attractive of all the ornamental banana species.
Most indoor plant species originate from sub-tropical regions as understory plants tolerant of low light levels, so they are perfect for the landscape understorey in creating a tropical effect. Codiaeum vareigatum, Ctenanthe ‘Silver Star’, Philodendron ‘Xanadu’, Dracaena and Cordyline cvs. are excellent selections for a tropical landscape.
Tropical gardens also rely on colour to create drama. Bromeliads make the perfect choice as their bold foliage colour can be striking in the understory or mounted in the forsks of trees for dramatic effect. In warmer climates Heliconia make a striking flowering plant. Iresine herbstii commonly called Bloodleaf is another vibrant foliage plant that can break up the hues of green amongst other foliage plant selections, as will Alpinia zerumbet the variegated Shell Ginger, which will grow in most temperate climates. For something a little more unusual Dichorisandra thyrsiflora the Blue Ginger from Brazil is perfect for those shady moist areas amongst ferns and palms.
The key to creating a lush tropical garden is by planting in layers and defining the living and entertaining areas of the landscape. Tall plants mixed with medium-sized shrubs .and a ground layer of plants will help create the desired effect. In most tropical gardens, palms form the structural element of the garden but other plants are just as suitable such as clumping bamboos or small trees including Frangipani, Qld Umbrella Tree. Bamboos provide an additional sensory experience from the rustle of leaves in the wind and furnish landscapes with a dense green screen that provides a foil for other coloured foliage or flowering plants and provide privacy screening. Even in cooler regions there are palms that can be used to create a tropical effect, Trachycarpus fortunei, the Windmill Palm and Raphis excelsa, the lady finger palm will both tolerate cool conditions.
In creating an understory to the tropical garden, edging plants are perfect for framing the setting providing a definedinterface between other components such as hardscape surfaces or lawn areas. Low growing borders of strap leaf plants or clumping perennials, including grasses and sedges can offer a subtle nuance to the tropical charm of the design. Rhoeo spathacea, Zephyranthes candida, Ophiopogon japonica Mondo grass and O. planiscapus ‘Nigresens’ the black Mondo, Liriope cvs. and flowering annuals such as Portulaca, Petunia or Bedding Begonia are ideal selections for tropical borders.
Establishing canopy cover in a tropical landscape is critical to the success of the understory planting. Canopy not only provides protection to the understory plants, but larger trees also establish the backbone of the design and help anchor all other elements within landscape through their structure and scale. Palms play an integral role in creating a tropical effect and as canopy plants there are selections for all climates, from the tropics and subtropics to the cooler temperate zones. Fast growing Alexandrae palms, Bismarkia nobilis, Wodyetia bifurcate, the foxtail palm are all remarkable species that depending upon local climatic conditions provide an exceptional foliage display. There are of course other species just as worthy and versatile for any tropical landscape.
Nothing speaks tropical more than Frangipani; these botanical beauties offer so much more these days with a palette of delicious colours bound to quench the thirst of any gardener seeking a taste of the tropics. Frangipanis are now available in a variety of colour forms. The ubiquitous white and yellow flowers of Frangipani acutifolia are now competing with stunning varieties in solitary colours, and bicolour combinations
in pinks, orange, lilacs and reds with pastel shades included, all dripping with an exquisite fragrance. These deciduous trees will grow to around 8m but there are also smaller dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties available. At home in containers or in the ground, Frangipani are an ideal selection for tropical, sub-tropical and temperate climates to create a tropical effect. Grown in containers they can become top heavy; select a broad container to prevent plants from blowing over in windy conditions.
Climbing plants also play an integral role in tropical landscapes. Their capacity to cover vertical surfaces and other features that require screening make them an integral part of plant selection. Stephanotis floribunda, Alamanda, Mandavilla, can provide a softer element to many hardscape features and Bougainvillea cvs. the most flamboyant of climbing plants can be a true focal point in tropical design. The smash of colour screams subtropical garden. Its thorns allow it to clamber over fences, walls and pergolas, but it can also be trained as a shrub or ground cover. The dwarf ‘bambino’ varieties are also perfect for pots and smaller gardens.
Trachelospermum jasminoides, commonly known as star jasmine, is a beautiful climber worth growing for its few short weeks of profuse flowering. Its seductive scent is intoxicating, and this plant will also flourish in shade conditions.
Installation of a water feature in a tropical landscape gives it authenticity. Water features are also a good way to maintain humidity around tropical plants and provide a water source or habitat for a range of fauna. Garden lighting can be used to dramatic effect to accent the shadows of large foliage plants and strategically placed garden art, such as large Balinese carvings and ornamental containers, which can solidify a tropical landscape theme together exquisitely.
It is however the plants selected within a tropical landscape that bring the design to life. To provide a definitive list of plants suitable for tropical landscapes is a near impossible task. Those listed in this article are but a few that can be relied upon to provide the desired effect across a range of conditions. Each site will have its limitations in terms of macro and microclimate characteristics and other biotic that will influence plant selection and overall performance. One thing is certain and that is tropical landscapes are filled with colour, contrast, texture, and drama.