July 19, 2011

It’s tropical, all right

Two guests from tropical climates have been surprised by the diversity of plant life in my garden. The first was a visitor from Hawaii who spent a year here as part of a temporary career relocation. Unfortunately, she and her family had to endure the harsh, subzero winter. But when late May rolled around and she stopped by for a visit, she remarked, “Wow, this is every bit as beautiful as Hawaii.”

I remember thinking, “Really?” And, “I suppose but it only lasts a few months.” Instead, I believe I said, “Why, thank you…” and we launched into a discussion about climates and plants and other such comparisons.

The second was a recent guest on a warm afternoon. She looked out into the backyard and said, “Wow, that looks tropical!” Coming from someone who grew up in the Caribbean and travels back there frequently, the comment gave me pause.

I thought about the word “tropical.” Merriam-Webster defines tropical as:
1. Of, typical of, or peculiar to the tropics; or
2. Resembling the tropics, especially in being very hot and humid.

Well, the latter definition definitely fits during our current heat wave. And the Midwest climate is definitely as lush and fertile as the tropics during the fleeting, lovely warm season.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the annuals we grow here—plants that are native to the tropics and that thrive here in the summer but die when the temperatures freeze. It must be nice to have some of these beauties as perennials:

  • Common Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana). Native to East Africa, these bright, summer annuals grow like bushes under the right conditions. Some botanical gardens plant them directly in the ground, although I tend to plant them en masse in pots with other annuals.

  • Skyflower (Duranta erecta ‘aurea’). I recently discovered this plant because I was searching for chartreuse foliage for a potted arrangement. It’s native from Mexico to South America and the Caribbean.

  • Bleeding Heart (annual) (Fuchsia magellanica). How wonderful it would be to walk out into the woods and find this beauty growing in the wild. Native to Central and South America and the Carribean, Fuchsia thrives in summer hanging baskets in warm Midwestern shade gardens.

  • Common Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides). Sometimes Coleus foliage, alone, can be the standout in a potted arrangement. There are so many varieties of Coleus, each striking on its own, but especially vibrant when planted with other varieties. Coleus is native to tropical Africa and Asia.

  • Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas). Another plant with stunning foliage, the ornamental Sweet Potato is available in several colors and forms. The chartreuse variety complements bright pink Impatiens and Bleeding Heart. Sweet Potato is native to tropical North, Central, and South America.

We’re tropical here in the Midwest, all right. At least as long as the summer lasts. I won’t say I look forward to winter, but I’m thankful most of our summer days hover around the 80s. And that we have a chance to appreciate some tropical plants as annual plantings.


  1. I think those of us who lose everything during the winter appreciate the foliage and "lushness" of our summer landscapes more? I know in the winter, I look back at summer photos and can't believe my yard was really that green and full when everything is white & bare outside! Great topic and interesting conversation your guests brought out.

  2. When I was in Costa Rica, I wandered around amazed at all the plants we grow as annuals and houseplants growing naturally in their habitat. It really is a global world.

  3. It's interesting how untropical we think our plants are until we learn where they're from! Great post!! Your hostas are beautiful!

  4. Yes I can see that your garden does look a bit tropical and its lovely with the various greens, it looked shady and nice to have a quiet moment there. Coleus is my favourite foliage to brighten up the garden among the other greens.

  5. Interesting. Your post really made me think about the meaning of "tropical". We are supposed to be sub-tropical here, and most of the plants that you list would still be annuals. I guess for me tropical means not only lush, which your garden certainly is, but also very brightly colored, especially in the shades of orange, magenta, yellow and red.

    Speaking about Hawaii, I frequently consult Western Gardening Book by Sunset, a gardening bible around here. In the book, there is a page devoted to each gardening zone. The person writing about Hawaii said, "My weeds are your houseplants." I could never forget that :).

  6. I've often said I'm not "into" tropicals because I don't grow a lot of the plants I consider to be tropicals. I'll have to stop saying that now, because I grow all of these, except the duranta. Very interesting about all their origins!

    It certainly does feel like the tropics here these days. As much as I'd like to be able to grow these plants year-round, I'd hate to give up the cooler days of spring and fall in the Midwest. Winter I could do without; I was just thinking yesterday that it wasn't that long ago I was complaining about snow and freezing temperatures:)

  7. I will agree with Kathleen above, in Winter when I look over the photos of the past growing season, hard to believe it is the same garden. I have some postings on "contrast" for that reason. Had some interesting comments about them. Good to appreciate the moment. Jack

  8. That Fuschia is gorgeous. Not many people groe Coleus now but I think they are fab, a great splash of colour.

  9. @Kathleen: Yes, I agree that we appreciate it more. But I found it surprising that the visitors from tropical climates were so surprised. It's a pretty basic garden, but they seemed surprised we could grow so many plants here.

    @Donna: I know what you mean. The same thing has happened to me on tropical trips. I'd love to get to Costa Rica someday!

    @TS: Thanks! The funny thing is the guests were actually looking at the native perennials when they made the comments. Maybe I should have focused on them more. :)

  10. @P3: I remember you mentioning the Coleus on your blog. I just love to plant several varieties together. Sometimes I don't even include any other plants in the grouping because the Coleus foliage is so variegated and interesting on its own.

    @Masha: I like that--"my weeds are your houseplants." I guess that's also true for people in tropical climates who plant spring flowering bulbs indoors because they don't survive the heat outdoors.

    @Rose: Did you notice that I didn't complain about the heat? ;-) It was really hard to hold back, but I must not complain! Truly, I'd much rather deal with the heat than subzero weather!

  11. @Jack: Yes, your contrast pictures are great! I have to admit, I prefer the spring, summer, and fall photos--but that's just me.

    @Bridget: I can't believe the rich colors of Fucshias. They seem like fake plants! And Coleus plants are so fun to play with--there are so many different varieties!

  12. Bleeding Heart is a beautiful flower! You have a cery nice tropical garden, and it's so hot these days, I can picture myself right there!

  13. You are right! These are definitely very tropical. I would know. :) And its good that you have great weather. Everyone else seems to be complaining about the heat.

  14. Very interesting! I'll go and look at my plants again. Maybe, I also have tropical garden?

  15. @Bumble: Thanks. I agree that Fuchsias are incredible flowers! I'm always sad when it's time for them to fade away after a frost in the fall.

    @One: Thanks for the confirmation. :) I really can't complain because I love summer weather, and our summers are way too short. Winter will be here way too soon!

    @Tatyana: Many of the plants that we use as annuals are tropicals. They'd probably be invasive if they didn't die with a frost. So I guess it's OK to enjoy them for our fleeting warm season.

  16. Your tropical plants are beautiful, but the most beautiful thing is that we have 4 gorgeous and different seasons following one another.

  17. @Dona: Thank you! And you are so right--thanks for the reminder about the blessings of four seasons. I absolutely love three of them. The fourth wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so long.