July 25, 2009

In Search of the Tropicalesque

One of my projects this year is to install a "tropicalesque" garden. What exactly this means is somewhat open for interpretation, but I generally think of it as a garden that intends to look tropical with plants that may or may not necessarily be tropical. Cooler-climate gardeners often attempt this as a sort of challenge, and this season I am one of them.

What exactly is a “tropical look”? This, again, is open for interpretation, as tropical climates range from rainforest to grassland to desert. There are certain plants that are strongly associated with the tropics, and can be found throughout the zone. These include palms, bananas, and ficus. Often it is large leaves, spiky leaves, or palmate leaves that characterize a lot of these plants, and generate what is considered a “tropical look”. Some are even hardy in zone 6 Syracuse, believe it or not.

There are also many other plants that are not necessarily tropical (and quite hardy in Syracuse), but are able to connote a tropical “look”. Many of these are native, such as yucca, pawpaw, catalpa, sumac, and various lilies. Large ferns, such as ostrich, contribute as well. The creative use of broad-leaf evergreens can really contribute to a tropicalesque garden. Rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, hollies, and camellias can be used for their glossy, evergreen foliage. Yes, camellias! I have a few here in my Syracuse garden. There is a family of camellia cultivars called the ‘Ackerman hybrids’ which can withstand colder winter temperatures as low as zone 6, possibly even zone 5.

Of course, there are plenty of traditional tender perennials that can be thrown into the mix. These include cannas, dahlias, gladiolas, and calla lilies. These make good fillers for the little spaces left in the garden. They are usually not hardy here, but a select few might be able to make it through the winter with some mulching.

The crown jewel of my experiment is definitely the Musa basjoo, or 'Japanese fiber banana'. This plant is the cold-hardiest banana in the world, possibly being able to handle temps down to -30 F. This is accomplished with heavy winter mulching of course, but even without mulching this banana may be able to survive zone 6. This upcoming winter will be my first experiment with leaving the banana outdoors. I got it last May, and grew it in a pot indoors throughout last winter, but now it is sizable enough to be outside.
The 'Tropicalesque' garden. Musa basjoo center-
left.

1 comments:

Rainforest Gardener said...

I can't wait to see how this turns out! Its kind of my specialty after all.