Tropicals Provide Dependable Color for the Summer and Fall Garden
June 19, 2015 Release for Tallahassee Democrat
By: David W. Marshall
Photo by David Marshall
If you have lived in north Florida long, you know that our summers are incredibly hot and muggy. If you’re a gardener, you have also noticed that not just any wimpy plant will make it through one of our summers.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of tropical is “of, being, or characteristic of a region or climate that is frost-free with temperatures high enough to support year-round plant growth given sufficient moisture”. Though north Florida is not tropical, our summers are somewhat akin to summers in a tropical rain forest. Furthermore, two-thirds of our year is typically frost-free, from mid-March to mid-November. And our winters are really pretty mild. So, when we are looking for plants for summer and fall color, it makes more sense to look at tropicals than at the plants our northern relatives are looking at in garden catalogs. Actually, many of the plants we’ve been growing for years, such as impatiens, could be considered tropicals. We just haven’t thought of them as such. So don’t let the term “tropical” scare you.
My interest in tropicals really started after spending six months in the South American country of Colombia back in 2005. I returned to Tallahassee in July and I remember thinking how drab the summer landscape looked here and thinking that there could be many more possibilities than what we were currently growing. So I immediately started looking for south Florida sources of some of the plants I had seen in Colombia. The following spring, with the help of Master Gardener volunteers, we planted a section of the UF-IFAS Leon County Extension demonstration garden with tropicals. We were pleased that the plants gave us color from summer through fall. As expected, almost everything died to the ground in winter, but we were pleasantly surprised when some of the plants returned the following spring. If you visit the garden at 615 Paul Russell Road today, you will find that a number of these tropicals are still returning after all these years. Here are some of the tropicals I recommend for use in north Florida gardens.
Firebush is a shrub with a huge native range, from south Florida down through South America. In north Florida it will grow to a height of about five feet and die completely to the ground in winter, then return the following spring. The small red-orange flowers, borne summer through fall, are very attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. In the fall, the leaves turn to tones of orange and burgundy. There is also a non-native variety of firebush that has flowers of a yellowish-orange. http://www.hoeandshovel.com/2013/07/firebush-native-or-non-native.html It doesn’t seem to grow as large as the variety with the darker red-orange flowers. Plant firebush in full sun in the perennial garden.
Yellowbells (Tecoma stans) grows to be a small tree in frost-free areas. But in full sun here it just grows to be a large bush, maybe five to six feet tall. It has clusters of bright yellow bell-shaped flowers summer through fall, flowering especially heavy in the fall. As with firebush, yellowbells dies to the ground in spring and emerges again reliably in the spring if it’s in a sunny, well-drained spot.
Variegated shell ginger will grow in full sun, but it’s probably most attractive in a shaded to partially shaded area where its bright yellow and green variegated foliage is eye-catching, particularly when planted against darker green foliage. Give this shell ginger some room, as it can grow three to five feet tall and almost as wide if it adapts well to the site. It can be killed to the ground in hard freezes but returns in the spring.
Tibouchina urvilleana (princess flower) grows best in full sun. Though it will flower some in the summer, heaviest blooming is in fall as the temperatures drop because it is native to higher elevations in the tropics. On a site in full sun the shrub can be literally covered with the lavender blue flowers in the fall. As with the other tropicals discussed so far, Tibouchina dies to the ground in winter and returns in spring.
Bush allamanda is a bush form of allamanda which is more cold-hardy than the vine form with which you may be familiar. It usually returns every spring. The yellow flowers, borne summer through fall, are smaller than those of the vine form, and the growth habit is a small bush, three to four feet tall and wide. Plant it in full sun for the best flowering.
Duranta ‘Gold Mound’ is grown for its fine-textured chartreuse foliage. It can be grown in sun to light shade. It may be killed to the ground during a hard winter but nearly always returns in the spring here, normally reaching a height of two to three feet or more with each season’s growth.
Euphorbia cotinifolia ‘Burgundy Wine’ has leaves that remain burgundy-red all season long. Grow it in full sun where it will reach a height of four to five feet with an equal spread. Burgundy Wine will not normally return in spring here after being damaged in the winter. But, it is easy to propagate from cuttings, and so you can root small plants that you can carry over in a protected location. Or you can just buy a new plant next spring. After all, it gives you color from spring through fall.
Croton is also grown for its colorful foliage. The most commonly sold cultivar, ‘Petra’, has leaves of orange, yellow, and green. Croton is not a fast grower, normally only reaching a couple of feet in height here, depending on the size of plant with which you start. Croton is normally thought of as a full sun plant, but it can be grown in a little shade. It will not return after winter damages it, so you will have to buy new plants in the spring. But, a single purchase in the spring will give you nine months of color.
Among other good tropicals to grow here are copper plant (Acalypha spp.), mandevilla, variegated tapioca, lantana, Thunbergia battiscombei, coleus, canna, Colocasia, small-flowering heliconia (H. psittacorum or H. hirsuta), Sanchezia, caladium, Turk’s cap, agapanthus, butterfly ginger, Angel’s trumpet, Persian shield, plumbago, and jacobinia.
David W. Marshall is landscape consultant with Esposito Garden Center and author of Design & Care of Landscapes & Gardens in the South. David is also Extension Agent Emeritus and a volunteer writer for Leon County UF/IFAS Extension. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov