University of Illinois Extension

Tropical-Looking Plants for the Garden

Home gardeners might want to consider using some perennials to give their garden a tropical feel, said Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator based in Cook County.

“Many perennials can bring the feel of the islands to a Midwestern garden,” he said.

Examples of such plants are: Arunucus (goatsbeard), Flipendula (meadowsweet), large ornamental grasses such as Erianthus (hardy Pampas), Rheum (ornamental rhubarb), Crambe, and many hardy large-leaved ferns. Hardy hibiscus with its large flowers (eight to 10 inches across) is also good.

“Some of the large-leaved hosta cultivators such as ‘Sum and Substance,’ ‘Blue Mammoth,’ and ‘Sun Power’ can add a tropical look as well, “ he said. “Other winners in the big foliage category include Butterbur with huge two-to-three-foot leaves and ornamental rhubarb that grows to an imposing specimen with two-to-three-foot wide leaves.”

One of the most basic, diverse and dramatic garden plants is the canna. Cannas are easy to grow, offer a vast array of foliage and flower colors and range in height from 18 inches to over six feet.

“They are easy to over-winter and can be used just about anywhere a tropical accent might be needed,” said Stack. “They prefer full sun for best performance and can tolerate moist to wet areas such as those around water features.”

Many seed grown annuals can easily be used to portray a tropical look, he added.

“Castor beans grow into huge imposing plants, six-to-eight-feet tall with large colorful leaves and interesting flowers and seedpods,” he said. “Candleabra tobacco has large green leaves reminiscent of large tobacco plants along with white fragrant flowers that give the look and feel of the tropics.

Stack recommends that home gardeners visit U of I Extension’s website, Tropical Punch ( ) for additional information.

“Tropicals fit almost every situation in the garden ranging from full sun to shade,” he said. “Whether tropicals are grown in the ground or in containers, attention will need to be given to moisture and fertility. Most tropicals prefer soils that are uniformly moist so water thoroughly.”

Allowing tropics to dry out, Stack cautioned, affects foliage quality. Tropicals are heavy feeders and should be fertilized once every week or two with a liquid fertilizer.

“Fertilizers high in nitrogen will help keep the plant actively growing and producing large, healthy leaves,” he said.