Tropicals add bold colors and dramatic patterns to landscapes and gardens. It's a great time to plant summer tropical bulbs, as long as there is no more threat of frost and the soil begins to warm. While some spring-blooming plants may wither and die during our hot Texas summers, this is when tropical plants do best, making your garden seem like a South Seas paradise throughout the warmer month.
Below are some of our easy-to-grow favorites that give your landscape that "tropical feel". In our Southeast Texas region, these can be considered perennials. Though some may go dormant in the winter, there's no need to dig them up and store during the cold months as they will reappear on their own late the next spring.
*Note: The USDA Hardiness Zone map puts Houston in Zone 9a, and communities just north of the city (Montgomery County) are in Zone 8b.
1. Elephant Ears (Alocasia variety)
If you're going for a lush and tropical look, grow one of the large-leaved elephant ears. Given plenty of heat, the heart-shaped leaves become eye-popping and enormous. They're like caladiums on steroids! A common color of elephant ears is rich lime-green, but there are variations ranging from purplish-black to brown and gold, sometimes containing mid and side veins of a contrasting color, such as green, purple, cream ivory, yellow, and pink.
Water & Soil Requirement: Tolerant of drought and standing water; they thrive in rich soil with ample moisture.
Light requirement: Elephant Ears like high humidity, heat, and thrive in partial to full shade. Think of them in their native habitat of a deep, tropical jungle.
Mature size: 2 to 6 feet tall (Colcasia variety). The Xanthosm variety is the giant type of elephant ear that can grow to be as much as 12 feet tall.
Planting tips: Consider the mature height and tendency of these giants to shade out smaller plants when you choose a location, and give them plenty of space. Beware of planting the Colocasia variety of bulbs as they can be invasive and will take over your garden.
USDA Zones: 7 to 11
We love, love, love the gingers! If the exotic blooms of gingers don't entice you, their classic tropical-looking foliage will. Because of the diversity of this group, it's impossible to cover them all today (there are over 300 species currently available in the U.S., and thousands world-wide). Here is are just a few of our favorites:
Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium variety): If you like fragrance give white butterfly ginger a try. Its white blooms have the most lovely sweet and spicy smell that resembles that of gardenias. It gradually stretches upward 4 to 6 feet with fragrant white blooms during summer through fall. Hedychiums need some sun to prevent flopping, such as morning sun and filtered afternoon light.
Dancing Lady Ginger (Globba variety) Usually peak at 2' height. Globba gingers prefer full shade. Keep moist in the summer and dry in the winter.
- Peacock Ginger (Kaempferia variety): This group of gingers also thrive in shady areas where other plants tend to struggle. They are lovely in mass plantings for a full, luxurious effect. They are easy to maintain and are seldom bothered by pests. Many Kaempferias bloom exotic-looking flowers, but their dramtic foliage is what really stands out.
- Variegated Shell Ginger (Alpinia zerumbet): Shell gingers are quite sun-tolerant. Each stalk only flowers once, so they are grown more for their impressive jungle-like foliage than their blooms.
- Hidden Gingers (Curcumas): There are over 40 different species of curcumas or "hidden gingers", named such because the flower stalks are often tucked among the banana-like leaves. This group of gingers range in size from miniatures reaching a height of less than two feet to monsters reaching over 8 feet. Plant in filtered light or light shade.
- "Purple Prince" (Curcuma variety):A repeat blooming ginger with dark green lush foliage and long lasting purple and creamy white flowers that appear in summer. They mature to a height of 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide, and prefer full shade.
Water and soil requirements: The Gingers tolerate a variety of soils, but prefer rich, well-drained soils high in organic matter, and with ample moisture.
Light requirement: Varies, but most are grown in semi-sun to shade.
Mature size: Varies, but those listed here usually do not exceed 8 feet tall.
Planting tips: If growing gingers in zones 9 to 11, reduce watering in winter to allow a dormancy period.
USDA zones:7b to 11
**Although gingers are sometimes difficult to find, they are well worth the effort! Those of you interested in gingers of all sorts, shapes and sizes will certainly want to make plans to attend the “Summer Color Sale” at Mercer Arboretum & Botanic Gardens located just south of Spring at 22306 Aldine Westfield Rd, Humble, TX 77338. This sale will include a wide range of natives, old roses, and much more, but will be specializing in tropicals and gingers. Get there early for the best selection. Be sure to check out their website for up-to-date sales and events. For more information call them at 281-443-8731.
Who can resist fast-growing, BIG,tropical-looking flowers that bloom all summer and fall, and thrive in our Texas heat? Once established, this gorgeous plant will provide years of color.
The two main groups of hibiscus that we most commonly grow in our gardens are tropical hibiscus and hardy, or perennial hibiscus. They are very similar, however with two visible differences: Tropical Hibiscus looks more contained in it's structure, and it's blooms are the size of saucer plates. Whereas the Hardy Hibisucs is shorter in mature height compared to Tropical Hibiscus, and appears more like a bush or shrub in structure, growing bigger blooms the size of dinner plates. There are many different hibiscus varieties and colors to choose from, one being hardy hibiscus ‘Lord Baltimore’, which is on the Texas Superstar list!
Water & Soil Requirement: Thrives in moist, well-drained soil, and is relatively drought-tolerant.
Light requirement: Full sun
Mature size: Tropical Hibiscus typically reaches between 3 to 8 feet, while hardy hibiscus reaches about 3 1/2 feet tall and wide.
4. Sago Palm (Cycad)
The Sago Palm, with it's dark green foliage and tropical effect, can really enhance any landscape. It's easy-to-grow, adaptable, and very drought-hardy. Sago Palms are not actually a palm, but rather a Cycad, which is interestingly one of the oldest living plants still alive today (they pre-date the dinosaurs by millions of years!).
Water & Soil Requirement: Once established, do NOT overwater as Sago Palms will continue to thrive even in drought conditions.
Light requirement: Best grown in full sun and up to partial shade
Mature size: The Sagos are attractive small and large, but they are slow to gain height, eventually reaching as tall as 20-25 feet.
Planting Tips: Be careful when choosing a home for your Sago Palm as they will easily spread out 6' - 8'. Yellowing of the foliage usually signals a nutrient deficiency, which can be remedied with a fertilizer such as palm food. Prune minimally, if at all, and only the completely dead foliage.
USDA Zones:8b to 11
WARNING: Sago Palm is highly poisonous to animals (and humans) if ingested.
We grow them in for their beautiful evergreen foliage, but as a bonus, plants put on tall spikes of yellow daisy-like blooms in late summer and fall. There are 3 types of Ligularia: Regular, Leopard Plant, and Crested. Leopard Plant sports bright yellow spots on the leaves, making it easy to see why this plant earned its common name of “Leopard plant". Regular ligularia is pictured on the right, and crested has rippled edges to it's leaf.
Water & Soil Requirement: Prefer a moist (not soggy) but well-draining soil, and regular fertilizer.
Light requirement: Grows best in a shady spot, although they can tolerate some direct morning sun or dappled sun through the day.
Mature size: Generally, Crested Ligularia grows to 2' tall and wide. Regular and Leopard Plant Ligularia grows to 3' tall, and 4' - 5' wide.
Planting Tips:Once the flowers are done blooming in the fall, fuzzy beige balls of seeds will appear. Remove these when they are dry, and plant in rich soil in small containers to grow ligularia perennial plants from seed.
USDA Zones:3 - 9
*Warning: Many tropical bulbs may be toxic if consumed by pets and sometimes even humans. Below are links to toxic plant lists for humans and pets:
-Above are just a few of our choices available to give your garden that exotic and tropical look. But there are many perennial plants that offer up beautiful blooms during our hot summers and beyond, AND are low-maintenance, AND heat tolerant! Check out our recent blog about our selection of Texas-Tough Summer Bloomers.