Just because we live in the Midwest doesn't mean we can't enjoy a taste of the tropics for at least part of the year. Many tropical plants grow very well in containers and are adaptable to a wide range of light conditions. And, unlike some of their northerly relatives, they can take all the heat and humidity our Midwest summers have to offer.
Tropicals flourish through the dog days of summer. They contribute brilliant color and bold leaf shapes that are rare among our typical Zone 5 plants, adding vibrancy and contrast to container or landscape plantings. As an added bonus, many of these exotic beauties can be enjoyed as houseplants when temperatures begin to cool in the fall or dug up and stored to keep for next year.
Nothing says the tropics like a lush, bold, large-leafed plant. Alocasia and Colocasia certainly fit that description. Their strong, upright stems and huge, arrow or heart-shaped leaves make a dramatic statement in large patio containers or shady borders. Grow Mojito for its dark, irregular blotches on lush, lime green leaves -- it's a real eye-catcher!
Elegant Elephant has enormous leaves -- shiny green on the top, burgundy on the underside. For an unusual camouflage effect, try 'Hilo Beauty' - its impressive green leaves are irregularly marked with chartreuse, creamy white and yellow, creating a striking play of colors that really stand out in the shade.
These varieties grow 2 to 3 feet tall in containers, and prefer partial shade and moderately fertile, consistently moist soil. Fertilize every two to three weeks with a balanced fertilizer.
Bananas are a must in a tropical garden. Big, bold and majestic, they are fast growing to umbrella-like stature. Bananas are best planted in a protected site to prevent their leaves from wind damage. Siam Ruby has ruby red foliage spotted with chartreuse flecks. The large green leaves of hardy banana are tinted with burgundy.
Bananas thrive in full sun and need consistent moisture. An organic mulch around the plant will help conserve moisture in the soil. Fertilize every week with a balanced fertilizer.
Fill your deck or patio with the sweet scents of gardenia or jasmine. Aimee Yashioka gardenia boasts large, fragrant, double white flowers. It is available as a bush and as a small patio tree. Either would be beautiful in a large pot. Jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda) is a climbing beauty with intensely fragrant white blooms -- one breath will take you back to your high school prom!
Pump up the color even more with a planting of Iresine, also known as beefsteak plant because of its brilliant, often red-toned foliage. This South American native is a member of the Amaranthus family, and it performs wonderfully in containers, by itself, or as contrast to green-leafed companions.
Blazin Rose features bright rose, pink, and dark red foliage and has an open, mounding habit that makes it ideal for mixed pots, window boxes or hanging baskets, or as edging in the landscape. It grows 12 to 14 inches tall and up to 20 inches wide. Beefsteak plant needs full sun for the best leaf color and should be pinched to increase bushiness. Fertilize regularly during the growing season.
For those who desire brilliant flowers with their foliage, Cannas cannot be beat. These showy, exotic flowers are available in a wide range of dazzling hues, and plants vary in size from dwarf, container varieties to towering giants for the back of the border.
Pretoria is a striking, colorful variety reaching up to 7 feet in height, with orange flowers and green and yellow-striped foliage.
Cannas need full sun and fertile soil. Water them during dry spells, and remove faded blossoms to ensure continuous bloom.
And if tropical blooms are what you desire, choose mandevilla. Gorgeous pink or red trumpet-shaped flowers bloom continuously throughout summer. There are vining types that can cover a trellis with color and sprawling types perfect for mixed container gardens or hanging baskets.
Plant mandevilla in full sun in organic-rich soil. Water regularly to keep the soil consistently moist, and fertilize every two weeks.
Another plant known for its tropical flowers is hibiscus. Hibiscus have active periods of plentiful blooms followed by a period of rest. If your plant has stopped blooming, don't worry -- with a little time blooms will return.
For more and larger blooms, plant hibiscus in a spot where it will have some protection from the hottest sun in the afternoon. Hibiscus will not tolerate wet feet so good drainage is a must. Water them just enough so they do not dry out. A layer of mulch around plants will help converse soil moisture. Fertilize with a slow release balanced fertilizer.
Include tropical plants in your plantings this summer and get away to Bali, Costa Rica, or even Hawaii -- all in your own backyard.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040 or visit planterspalette.com.