tropical plants

Top 10 Plants for a Tropical Garden

Tropical plants are bang on trend this summer! Even in UK’s cool temperate climate, its easy to create an exotic paradise in your own back garden. Choose your plants carefully for dramatic foliage, dazzling blooms and evergreen structure to create that distinctive swaying canopy and leafy understorey.

Try teaming up hardy structural plants with frost tender beauties to develop a multi-layered jungle effect – be sure to bring the tender plants indoors for the winter to protect them from the cold. For more tips on creating a tropical planting scheme, take a look at our handy blog.

Here are our top 10 plants for creating tropical-themed garden in the UK.

Trachycarpus tree

1. Hardy Palms and Tree ferns

With their fan-like foliage, hardy palms deliver year-round structure - the bare-bones of your planting scheme! Choose Tracycarpus fortunei and Chamaerops humilis which will remain evergreen and need very little upkeep.

Australian Tree Ferns make a superb investment for adding a true jungle feel. Their enormous fronds unfurl each spring, reaching up to 1.5m long on mature plants. Although hardy to -5C (23F), these prehistoric beauties are best grown in a sheltered position. Wrapped them in a cosy layer of straw and garden fleece to protect them from the worst of the winter weather.


2. Canna

Exotic, striped, paddle-shaped leaves deliver a luxuriant jungle feel – but it’s the bold blooms that really pack a punch! The tall flower stems rise majestically above the foliage, crowned with vibrant, fluttering petals in the brightest shades of orange, red, cream and pink. Try the sultry dark foliage of Canna ‘Tropicanna Black’ or pin-striped ‘Tropicanna’.

Despite their tropical looks, Cannas are surprisingly easy to grow. Lift and store the tubers in autumn for replanting next spring – or simply grow them in a pot and move them to the conservatory during the coldest months!


3. Musa

Imagine yourself on a desert island, the warm touch of the sun and the rustle of swaying banana leaves above you. Well actually you don’t need to travel that far because banana plants, particularly Musa basjoo, can be grown in the UK if given winter protection from the cold.

These stately plants may look tree-like but they are actually herbaceous perennials, and that upright trunk is formed from tightly curled leaves. Find a sheltered spot away from strong winds which can shred the colossal leaves.


4. Caladium

Colourful tropical foliage is a ‘must-have’, and Caladiums deliver this in abundance! These tender perennials have taken UK gardens by storm in the last few year, and even been welcomed onto our windowsills as an exotic houseplant.

The heart-shaped leaves are painted with streaks and speckles, some with an alien, other-worldly appearance. For colour look no further than Caladium ‘Cherry Tart’ or ‘Pink Beauty’. If more subtlety is preferred then ‘Fantasy’ will bring a luminous quality. Best of all, they love a shaded spot, which makes them perfect for dotting splashes of colour among the leafy understorey of your tropical garden.


5. Coleus

If Caladiums feel a little too much of a challenge then you can create a similar effect with these easy to grow annuals! Coleus is quick growing from seed or plug plants so you can raise fresh plants every summer.

With funky foliage in every colour combo imaginable, they are perfect for adding some zing to the lower layers of your tropical scheme. Try Coleus ‘Stained Glassworks Royalty’ for eye-popping colour or the autumnal tones of ‘Walter Turner’. They’re versatile too, thriving in sun or shade – what more could you ask of a plant?


6. Strelizia

The bird-like flowers of this well-known evergreen perennial are instantly recognisable. More commonly seen in UK conservatories, but in summer Strelitzia reginae can be woven into an outdoor display to great effect! The large leaves are grey-green, rising upwards on tall stems, and making the perfect backdrop for its extraordinary blooms.

Grow this plant in a pot that can be moved to the conservatory in winter. It creates a thrilling focal point for a sunny spot.


7. Gloriosa

This intriguing climber is perfect for meandering through your planting scheme. Its leaves are tipped with curling tendrils that cling to other plants, or any other support that it can find. The exotic summer flowers boast flame-like, reflexed petals adding unexpected dashes of colour to a lush and leafy backdrop.

Gloriosa superba is the most commonly found variety, and arguably the most striking. But other varieties with paler blooms can be found. Whether you grow it from a tuber or from seed, you will need to start your plants off in warm, cosy conditions that mimic the tropical climate of their native home in Asia and Africa.


8. Fatsia

It may seem hard to believe that this lush-leaved, glossy shrub could withstand a hard frost – but you’ll find it exceptionally hardy and reliable! Fatsia japonica is perfect for adding a permanent evergreen understorey to your jungle garden.

As the years pass it will form a spectacular spreading shrub, that makes a magnificent focal point. The spidery white blooms in summer add further interest to this architectural plant. If you are a fan of variegated foliage, try speckled variety Fatsia japonica ‘Spiders Web’.


9. Calla

Calla Lilies, or Zantedeschia to give them their proper name, come is a dazzling array of tropical colours. Their striking flower-spathes make these perennials distinctive, but their glossy, silver-flecked foliage is equally attractive.

Although most need winter protection, the species Zantedeschia aethiopica with dazzling white blooms is hardier than many of the colourful cultivars available. In a sheltered spot it will often survive the winter outdoors. Other varieties will need to be brought into a frost-free location either in their pots, or lifted and stored in trays of loose, dry compost.

passion flower

10. Passionflower

Passiflora caerulea is a familiar climber in the UK. This exotic looking beauty is the perfect choice for covering walls, fences and unsightly sheds to give a truly tropical feel to your planting scheme. This vigorous climber produces a spectacular display of summer flowers followed by large, peachy-coloured fruits. It is perfectly hardy so you can enjoy it year after year.

If you are keen to grow your own Passion fruits then opt for Passiflora edulis which has a much better flavour. This is a frost tender variety, so it is best grown in a heated greenhouse or conservatory where it makes a spectacular evergreen climber.

Sue Sanderson T&M horticulturalist

Written by: Sue Sanderson

Plants and gardens have always been a big part of my life. I can remember helping my Dad to prick out seedlings, even before I could see over the top of the potting bench. As an adult, I trained at Writtle College where I received my degree, BSc. (Hons) Horticulture. After working in a specialist plantsman's nursery, and later, as a consulting arboriculturalist, I joined Thompson & Morgan in 2008. Initially looking after the grounds and coordinating the plant trials, I now support the web team offering horticultural advice online.

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