Tropical Sirens

Wednesday, April 25, 2012
With well-drained soil, fertilizer monthly and sunny sites, tropical plants can become bedding plants for months and some will return from their roots or will reseed in place to continue their stand. Many tropicals root readily and can be carried over the winter indoors or in protected storage outside. Two of my favorites in this category: copper plant (Acalypha wilkesiana) and variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’). The red-orangey, sometimes pinkish, copper colors paint themselves in random patterns of dark, light, and patterned designs. Equally bold in full or part sun sites are variegated ginger and sanchezia. Their displays will vary depending on the amount of sun you give them. Each coleus label suggests preferred conditions, but leaf colors tell you more. The greener a coleus is, the more shade it can take without losing its color, and green coleus will usually wilt first in a planting with red-leaved varieties in full sun. You can take advantage of this quality to plant a wilt detector, one green leafed coleus in an otherwise red bed or pot. Water when the green one starts to droop to prevent drying out the rest. Sanchezia takes on more yellow with more sun and will be almost solid green in shade. Still a nice form among fatsias, acuba and hardy ferns, and a nice shade of green. I see huge flowers in my mind when I think of tropical plants, from bird of paradise and lobster claw to hibiscus and plumeria. None of these cannot be considered shy, yet they make good garden companions to many other plants. Delicate-looking for a Clerodendrum (think Mexican hydrangea and bleeding heart) with thick, rounded leaves and sky blue flowers, each year I see more butterfly flower (C. ugandense). Like we needed any more flowers named butterfly anything, right? But this one is quite sweet. Lotus vine (L.maculates), or parrot flower, has leaves that look spiny but are really quite soft to touch. It took mine months to bloom, but it has been well worth the wait for the weirdly bird-shaped flowers. Maybe it’s evolution in difficult climates or the need for pollination that causes the disparities, but some tropical plants are downright strange looking. Their flowers, leaves, trunks and stems do not look like they could come from the same plant, yet they do. Sometimes one plant boasts strong contrast in itself, like chunky flowering aloes that also have ethereal flowers. It is a large group with solid and bicolor yellow, orange or white blooms and may be interesting for collectors, from the big and spiny to small and spotted ones like the soothing aloe vera. Their flowers arise from sometimes spiny, rosettes of fat leaves. Meanwhile, the bloom spikes appear to be thin straws covered in little bells. About those bananas – no, I didn’t set out to collect them. But like other tropical plant families I have fallen for, one is not enough. Remember the children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? Tropical plants are like that! Get one pink hibiscus and soon you want a yellow, a double apricot, and a bright red… As soon as the new book comes out, Lakeland has agreed to host a signing. Watch this space for date and time!
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