To us, tropical-looking plants are plants that thrive in the heat and that add a lot of bright color to the summer garden. They are perennial but disappear for the winter. A bit farther south they are evergreen and don’t freeze to the ground. A bit farther north and you have to replace them every year. It is great that they freeze to the ground every winter here in our region. It means that once the gooey mess is cleaned up, there is a clean slate for the plants to show off again in early spring. Since tropical plants can often be big and boisterous, freezing to the ground gives other plants a chance to grow and do their thing before it warms up enough for the heat lovers to really begin growing. As the spring bloomers start to lose their shine, the tropical plants start to power up. Here is a sampling of some of our favorite plants for hot southern summers.
Willow-leaved jessamine produces an abundance of blooms throughout summer
(Cestrum parqui and cvs., Zones 7–11)
Willow-leaved jessamine is a good-size bushy herbaceous shrub (up to 6 feet tall and wide) that features clusters of orange or yellow tubular flowers. It usually begins blooming in May and continues abundantly until it freezes in the fall. The butterflies and hummingbirds both like it. It needs plenty of sun but tolerates some shade. Also quite drought tolerant, it sacrifices leaves before flowers if it gets too dry. Regular fertilizer helps keep it blooming and looking its best.
Butterfly ginger entices with its wonderfully fragrant flowers
(Hedychium coronarium and cvs., Zones 7–11)
Butterfly ginger is one of the best-smelling tropical-looking plants we have in the garden. The big, white butterfly-shaped flowers are held in cones at the top of the foliage. The fragrance is particularly nice in the evening. The plants bloom and grow in full sun, but we like them better in afternoon shade. The foliage is bigger, and the flowers show up better. Butterfly ginger can be very big, easily reaching 8 feet tall and about half as wide. It spreads underground, but it is pretty easy to pull up and usually pretty easy to give away. Keeping it consistently moist is a necessity for it to look its best.
Pink velvet banana is the epitome of a tropical-looking plant
(Musa velutina, Zones 7–10)
You can’t get much more tropical looking than the pink velvet banana, with its huge 3-foot-long leaves. This herbaceous banana tree gets to about 8 feet in height and forms a nice clump over time. A few weeks after it begins growing in the spring, it starts to flower and produce tiny dark pink to red bananas. They are really eye catching. The bananas taste like bananas once they are ripe but are mostly seed. For the best performance, give this drought-tolerant dynamo a place in full sun.
Angels’ trumpets dazzle with grand size and showy blooms
(Brugmansia spp. and cvs., Zones 7–11)
If stunning size and form is what you are looking for, look no further than angels’ trumpets. These plants can get to 10 feet in one summer and produce big pink or yellow trumpet-shape flowers that elegantly dangle from the top of the shoots. The very showy flowers can be 12 to 15 inches long. There are white and red varieties, but they don’t generally make it through our winters. Angels’ trumpets usually begin to bloom once the weather is good and hot, about midsummer, and keep flowering until the nights become cold. Sun is important for good flowers. This plant likes ample fertilizer and water but is quite drought tolerant.
Shrimp plant is a great pollinator-friendly favorite
(Justicia brandegeeana and cvs., Zones 9–11)
Shrimp plant is a fan favorite with the hummingbirds and butterflies. Red bracts hold white tubular flowers in a long spike that bends over at the end like a shrimp. The plants reach up to 3 feet tall and wide. The flower heads sit atop the foliage in easy reach of pollinators. The abundant production of flowers makes shrimp plants bright and colorful additions to the summer garden. They perform best for us in full sun.
Tropical-looking plants with enough cold hardiness to survive our winters are a great deal of fun in the garden. They love the heat and look good in it.
—Shelley and Jason Powell own and manage Petals from the Past, a garden center in Jemison, Alabama.
Photos, except where noted: Shelley Powell