Fast Growing Tropicals - Delicious Colors and Form for the Outdoor Garden
By Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin
Create an exotic, defining look in your outdoor garden by using fast growing tropical plants. Large leafed bananas make a dramatic statement in a mid-summer’s design, while exotic climbing vines with bright yellow or pink flowers make an arbor sing with excitement. Or simply use tropicals as border plants and bring color and beauty to a garden walkway. We especially like the “Hardy Banana” or Musa Basjoo banana for an exotic look. It’s a tall grower, up to 12 feet when grown over several seasons and forms a clump or a stand of multiple plants that becomes a show stopper. The good news is this banana can be left in the garden after the season is over and wintered over. Other bananas we use for foliage color are Musa ‘Zebrina,’ also known as the “Blood Leaf Banana,” and Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ or the “Abyssinian Banana.”Musa ‘Zebrina’ is unique in that the young foliage is colored with maroon spots and patterns and unlike other bananas, it can grow from a 2 1/2 inch pot in the beginning of summer and reach heights of six feet or more. With full sun, lots of water and lots fertilizer ‘Zebrina’ will reward you with eye-catching color all season.
The last banana that we like to grow outside for summertime is the Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’, the “Abyssinian Banana.” Although classified in a separate genus, it looks and acts like a banana. A native of Ethiopia , it is an extremely rapid grower with huge red leaves that fill out quickly. Unlike most bananas this one has a single stem and doesn’t form offshoots but remains a solitary plant. The “Blood Leaf” and the “Abyssinian” bananas can be wintered over in pots in a cellar or garage that doesn’t freeze. If planted in the ground they can be dug up or lifted and placed into pots. The foliage, which is left on over the winter, will turn brown and dry up, however the trunk and base of the plant will remain alive. In the spring they can be trimmed back and brought out to the light. With increased water and warm temperatures they will start to re-grow. Light and food is not needed during the winter and only enough water to keep the soil from becoming parched.
Our next group of plants that we love to grow along a garden walkway or use in mixed containers is Salvia’s. The annual salvia has for many years been used to brighten the summer garden however there are many tender perennial varieties that create beautiful splashes of color. They are usually taller plants and tend to be looser and often wispier in form yet add a charming effect to the garden. Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ is one of those with bright red and white flowers that stand tall and wave in the patriotic summer sun. Salvia coccinea ‘Peach’ has soft color tones, is a fast grower and one of the few truly everbloomers in our collection even flowering throughout the winter. Its tall sprays of bloom add whimsical summer color to the lazy days.
Our list wouldn’t be complete without Brugmansias, better known as Angel’s Trumpets. These dramatic flowers will grow to astounding size with large fragrant flowers in one season. Start with 4” pots in springtime and by the end of the summer you will enjoy a salutation of foot long flowers dangling off a five-foot tree. Angel’s Trumpets can also be wintered over in a basement or cool garage. The trick to growing them is sun, fertilizer, water and more. As one gardener put it, if you think you’ve given them enough feed, give them some more.
We have two begonias that perform like champions in our outdoor spaces. ‘Christmas Candy’ is fast, free flowering, blooms under varying light conditions and does exceptionally well in hanging baskets, window boxes or mixed containers. You can also bring it in and it will keep flowering, under full sun, through the winter months. Like most begonias it take a hard pruning with ease. And Begonia ‘Tea Rose’ which sports small pink flowers with an intermittent fragrance is not quite as fast a grower yet will do well in filling out pots for a summer show. For best results, grow this one in some direct sunlight, which darkens the leaves and heightens the flower color. Both begonias are awesome summer performers.
Another fast grower that can be used in baskets or mixed containers is Impatiens Repens. This little know relative of the common impatiens is mainly used as a foliage plant though it will sporadically bloom with bright yellow flowers. It has a draping habit and trails over a pot’s edge making an accent to any upright form, and it’s fast.
Finally, three vining varieties that will quickly cover a stake, arbor or wall are: Stictocardia beraviensis ‘ Hawaii ,’ Passiflora ‘Blue Bouquet,’ and Thunbergia 'Sunlady,'Stictocardia is a fast growing vine that does not like to be contained. Let it run around an arbor or latticework and by the end of the summer (August and September) you’ll be amazed with its 2” orange-red blooms. If you grow it in a pot and train it on a stake it will flower all winter in a sunny spot. Passiflora ‘Blue Bouquet’ has dark blue flowers and blooms heaviest from August to September.
We have had over 100 blossoms open at a time on a spring planted vine. We have used Thunbergia 'Sunlady,' to cover our mailbox post and love the feel of glowing bright yellow flowers with its dark eye watching our street. This is similar to T. alata however it will flower in our greenhouses 365 days out of the year even under the diminished light. Enjoy a different look this spring with these amazing exotic tropicals.