Humbled by the tropics

I’m totally thrown by tropical gardens, or at least by tropical plants.  I can’t shake the conviction that, given a tropical climate, I wouldn’t have a clue how to use them effectively together.

Playing with plants in my home climate, its clear that there’s no virtue in restraint when it comes to foliage textures.

You simply have to use the full range of leaf sizes available, from the biggest, boldest (and sometimes coarsest) through to the finest at all times if you’re going to love the effect.

Cannas are more subtropical that tropical, but illustrate the point. This fabulous variegated form at Butchart on Vancouver Island only stands out from its surroundings because of the predominantly finer foliage in the background. Surrounded by other cannas, or bananas, for instance, it wouldn’t be nearly so powerful.

The trouble I know I’d hit straight away when working with tropical plants is that the balance is tipped enormously in favour of huge leaves, with not nearly enough fine-leafed plants to stop all the large ones simply cancelling each other out.

Ornamental banana leaves. I’d kill to have an equivalent for temperate gardening, but I’d need all the finer foliages that my climate provides in order to make sure those big leaves don’t lose their punch

Size is, after all, only ever relative, and large leaves only look effectively large or dramatic if they’re contrasting with smaller ones nearby.

Cooler or drier climates suffer from a glut of small foliages.  The trouble in them is to get enough really BIG leaves.  That’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge I’m used to facing.

Flower textures aren’t nearly so important, but still need some consideration.  Again, in the tropics there’s a leaning towards the incredibly bold, showy flower, like those mad heliconias.  They’re totally arresting in a tall vase with nothing else, but put too many of them together in the garden and they lose their power and clarity.  In temperate planting, I’m forever thinking about using big bold flowers alongside finer, fuzzier ones.  In the tropics there just doesn’t seem to be enough of the latter to carry off the former.

Acalypha foliage – so ‘novel’ that it’s hard to know how to integrate it, without it upstaging everything in eye-shot

Finally there’s all that crazy foliage colour available in the tropics.  I’m of the opinion that there is some virtue in restraint when it comes to foliage colour – that its power is in indirect proportion to its usage.  Even in temperate climates where there’s nothing like the options or extravagance in foliage colour, you’ve got to be careful.  This isn’t a matter of good-taste squeemishness, its about maximum impact, and the moment you’ve played the foliage-colour card too often, the trick gets boring.  Tropical plants offer just so much punch in this department that it requires more restraint than just about any gardener has to stick to a basic reference palette of green, and to use the foliage colour available as an occasional highlight.  Having said that, I’m immediately thinking that it could be fun, if bizarre, to make a whole garden of pinky-red leaves, and use green as the occasional aberrant highlight.  It’d be as if you were looking at the whole thing through pink-red glass.

Nup.  Delete that. I’m bored with the idea already.  I think I’d better stick with my comfort-climate.


  1. Horses for courses, eh, Michael. I’m not sure your generalisation about big and colourful leaves is necessarily true. It is the commonest way gardeners in the tropics approach their plantings but the best tropical gardens I have visited have generally been green, placid places, shady, dappled for the most part with large informal plantings of flowering shrubs in place of perennials where birds and butterflies provide ephemeral colour and movement. The worst are full of mixed crotons and broms, blended as if pushed through the Magimix. Not a good look.

    1. I’m glad it’s not true, Paul. Obviously I’ve seen way too many of the latter Magimix-type. And I’m sure that my generalisation about the lack of fine-textured plants is dodgy as well – it’s more likely that they just don’t get much of a look in when there’s so much LOUD stuff to choose from. I love your description of green, placid places. It just want to be in them. My own gardening could do with some placidity..

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