Tropical Selections for Sun Rich Gardens

Canna 'Mellow Yellow'

Canna ‘Mellow Yellow’

The Garden Writers’ Association has released its report on garden trends for the coming year. Since fall is the most favorable season for planting, the new year has, in a sense, already begun.
One of the trends that should bring a sigh of relief to Valley gardeners is the replacement of cottage/English gardens with tropical ones. The English garden is meant for England, or perhaps Seattle or British Columbia, where constant rain is in stark contrast to our own dry Mediterranean climate. The understated colors of the English garden, which are generally pastels or modest pinks and blues, show up well enough against the overcast skies of Great Britain but do not make much of a statement in sunny Southern California.
Tropicals are a different story. They are consistent with our long, bright summer days – and as horticultural special effects, their dramatic foliage and brilliant color grab our attention. The curvaceous bronze or rainbow-striped leaves of certain Canna cultivars, complemented by hot orange flowers, command attention. Or if green leaves are your preference, you can choose Cannas in flaming red or yellow or impetuous pink.
The flowers of irises, which they resemble, are the only garden blooms that can compete with Cannas for sheer opulence. Banana trees with red leaves (Ensete ventricosum) or red blotches on the leaves (Musa acuminata ‘Zebrina’) make fine background plants for the tropical garden. They grow to 15 feet or more. Black elephant’s ear (Alocasia plumbea), 5 feet tall with 2-foot-long deep violet leaves, is a fitting red banana companion.
Toward the front of such a planting, you might choose the smaller black calla (Calla palaestinum), quite similar to the more familiar white calla except for its dark purple spathe and spadix.
Finally, Italian arum ‘Pictum’ (Arum italicum) is a year-round tropical eye-catcher thanks to its arrowhead, white-veined foliage and large clusters of orange fruit.
If you have it in mind to plant a low hedge around your tropical retreat, you must consider the red ‘Luna’ hibiscus. This species grows no more than 3 feet tall and has burgundy red flowers that expand to 8 inches in diameter. Although it dies back to the ground in a freeze, ‘Luna’ revives in the spring, quickly puts out new shoots and leaves, and flowers all summer long.
Use of disease-resistant plants, especially roses, is on the upswing. Choose from shrub roses such as ‘Knock Out’ red, blush and white, floribundas such as ‘Iceberg’ white and semi-pink, and ‘Flower Carpet’ red, pink, apple blossom, white and (recently introduced) yellow. Be aware that these rose varieties, which flower virtually year-round, require steady fertilization for maximum bloom.
Yet another trend acknowledges the proliferation of products that supposedly build a plant’s immune system so that chemical sprays will not be needed to fight off diseases and insect pests later on. A compost tea called SoilSoup (, a disease-fighting protein known as harpin (, soil nutrition formulas, and beneficial soil-organisms such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria and mycorrhiza have been packaged for garden use.


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