By Fiona Cumberpatch published
Choosing the best tropical plants makes creating a lush, green garden sanctuary achievable even in cooler climes. Large, bold leaves, rich colors and interestingly shaped flowers are the hallmarks of this style of planting.
There are a few easy rules to follow for making a tropical-inspired garden. Blend a mix of shapes and sizes to create a jungle feel, layering the foliage to achieve a luxuriant effect. Choose plants with flowers in bold, exotic colors such as hot orange, purples and almost-black.
Another trick for achieving authentic looking tropical garden ideas is to pack plants close together to mimic the way they would grow in a natural setting. Restricting the space they grow in should mean that they will not overwhelm each other.
Opt for a mix of leaf shapes and sizes, including some long, strappy leaves, plus paddle-shaped and round ones. Plants with contrasting foliage color work well, and select some with big, bright blooms. Raised beds planted up with the best tropical plants is also an effective way of creating a leafy enclave, as the added height creates the effect of a canopy of green.
The best tropical plants: 24 picks for gardens big or small
Ready to introduce some of the best tropical plants to your plot? Whether you have a compact courtyard or a spacious backyard, you'll find plenty to choose from in our selection.
With stunning flowers in hot colors, cannas are a top choice for the best tropical plants. Choose from sizzling orange, punchy pinks and red on huge architectural leaves.
They add height (up to 5ft/1.5m) and drama to garden borders, and they’re easy to grow. Plant the rhizomes in late spring (April or May) in a sunny, sheltered position and keep watered. They will then flower from June to September.
Cannas dislike cold winters, so lift the rhizomes and store somewhere dry and frost-free and replant the next year. In warmer regions, they can be left in the ground with a thick mulch of composted bark to keep them warm. You'll find more info on mulching in our guide.
Try Canna ‘Durban’ for hot orange blooms, and ‘Tropicanna Gold’ which has enormous black/bronze leaves and gold flowers.
2. Fatsia Japonica
One of the simplest to grow of the best tropical plants, fatsia japonica are perfect for adding an instant jungle vibe to your small garden ideas.
These plants are grown for their large shapely leaves which stay green all year round. They thrive in shady, sheltered spots and dry soil, though they will need to be watered once a week in the summer. They will also be happy in a pot if you're keen to include them in your container gardening ideas, but they can grow up to 13ft (4m) in height and width, so make sure it’s a roomy one.
3. Phormium tenax
Arching, strappy evergreen leaves define this large plant, also known as New Zealand flax. It provides year-round interest and structure, and in hot summers, it will produce tall stems of red flowers.
They are hardy plants, and can survive frosts, but if a particularly fierce winter storm is forecast, wrap in some horticultural fleece as a precaution.
There's more tips on how to protect plants from frost in our guide.
4. Black bamboo
The slim, polished black canes of Phyllostachys Nigra make a beautiful contrast with its fresh green leaves. Perfect for creating a living screen or for boosting your garden privacy ideas, bamboos also help to absorb sound from noisy roads and neighbors.
Black bamboo is hardy, so no winter protection is needed. Just plant in moist soil, in full sun or part shade, and water regularly until it is established. It does spread but is not as rampant as some varieties of bamboo.
There's more tips on how to grow bamboo in our dedicated guide.
5. Tree fern
If you love the tropical look, it does not get much better than a tree fern. They are more of an investment than other options on our list of best tropical plants and they do need special care, but you'll be rewarded with a stunning garden feature.
They are best planted in moist soil in sheltered, dappled shade, so they are also a good choice for shade garden ideas. Make sure you leave plenty of space, as the fronds can grow to 6.5ft (2m) long. Mist the crown and trunk regularly, and regularly add a diluted seaweed-based feed.
In winter, the trunk and the crown need protecting from cold temperatures with fleece. Some gardeners also advise adding a thick layer of straw to cover the tree crown as an added measure in colder climates.
6. Musa Basjoo (banana palm)
Exotic and dramatic, it's easy to see why this plant makes our list of the best tropical plants. They have huge, purple-green paddle shaped leaves on a sturdy stem and grow up to 8ft (2.5m) tall.
Although they look as if they would be tender, they can happily survive in the UK or similar climates with only precautionary fleecing in very cold snaps. The foliage will die back after frosts. Just cut the plant down to ground level and it should sprout again in late spring. For best results and to encourage healthy growth, feed monthly with an all-purpose soluble plant food.
With textural, spiky leaves in greens and purples, this palm-like small tree is evergreen, and it will thrive in a pot. Young ones may need some winter protection, so do bear this in mind during cooler spells of weather.
8. Ginger lily
Also known as Hedychium densiflorum, these large-leafed plants will produce tall spikes of fragrant flowers in exotic orange and they grow up to 6.5ft (2m) tall. In a border, plant in groups in moist soil to create a fabulous focal point. Mulch over winter.
They will also thrive in garden planters, and this means you can easily move them to a sheltered spot after the first frosts.
Looking for something with a touch of drama for your best tropical plants? Beautifully shaped rosettes of fleshy leaves on branching stems make aeoniums a great choice, particularly as some varieties are purple-black which gives them a really exotic appearance.
They need a sunny spot to maintain the dark color, and should be planted in gritty, well-drained soil. Not sure about what sort of soil you have in your garden? Our guide to soil types explains what you need to know.
Aeoniums won’t survive freezing temperatures, so grow them in a pot, and move them inside for the winter months if you live in a cool climate. A north-facing kitchen window ledge or a conservatory is ideal for them. Allow the soil to dry out before watering in the colder months, or they may rot.
10. Bird of paradise
When it comes to the best tropical plants, there can surely be few more stunning than the Bird of Paradise, also known as Strelitzia reginae. Native to South Africa, it has striking bright blue and vibrant orange flowers that resemble the profile of an exotic bird.
They grow best in well drained soil and need plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures to guarantee the best blooms. They will do well when planted in garden borders in warmer climates such as USDA zones 9 to 12 (they will produce flowers all year in tropical or sub-tropical climates), but you can also try growing them outdoors in containers in slightly cooler zones (such as the UK) over summer.
In these cooler areas, you will need to being them indoors over autumn and winter to protect them from the colder temperatures. Growing them in pots makes this an easier task as they can easily become part of your indoor garden ideas too. Keep them indoors, ideally in a bright, light spot such as a south-facing room, until the risk of any frosts has completely passed.
11. Pineapple flower
These intriguing flower spikes are studded with tiny flowers. They're topped by a tuft of leaves, which adds to their interesting shape and look.
Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has dark purple leaves and tall stems for added impact. Plant them from April-May, and they will grow to a maximum height of around 30in (75cm). These plants are also borderline hardy.
12. Peacock tiger flower
The attention-grabbing Tigridia pavonia from Mexico is a striking option for the best tropical plants as it comes in bright shades that pop up on slender leaves from small bulbs.
The peacock tiger flower is an exotic Mexican corm with three-petalled summer blooms in bold, bright colors. In milder areas it can stay in the ground all year; elsewhere it should be grown in a pot that’s overwintered indoors.
13. Crown imperial
The stems of these tropical plants grow up to 5ft (1.5m) and bear striking orange flowers with white anthers.
This very hardy crown imperial variety blooms in early summer. Do bear in mind that the bulbs will need very well drained soil – consider digging in some grit when planting – and plenty of sun.
14. Byzantine gladiolus
Early summer sees spikes of elegant magenta flowers that will add interest to any space. Corms are inexpensive and perfect for edging borders, but they work equally well when planted as part of a wildflower meadow.
Look for G. communis subsp. Byzantinus in autumn. Grows up to 23in (60cm) in height.
15. Chusan palm
Want one of the best tropical plants that can deal with lower temperatures? Trachycarpus fortunei or Chusan Palm is the one for you as it's capable of dealing with temperatures down to -4˚F (-20°C).
It forms a mass of 3ft (90cm) wide, fan-shaped leaves on stalks that emerge from the top of a stout trunk. A more compact species is Trachycarpus fortunei x wagnerianus, which is ideal for small gardens.
16. Dwarf fan palm
This dwarf fan palm is a slow-growing species that can reach 6ft (1.8m). It is fairly bushy while young, forming a distinct trunk as it matures.
Tolerant of exposed plots, it will grow best in semi-shade. Make sure you feed and water it well and cut off any spotty leaves.
17. Cardinal climber
This is a type of annual ipomoea native to tropical America. It bears small, bright red trumpets against feathery leaves and will bloom throughout summer. The flowers are a magnet for hummingbirds and other pollinators too.
Sow in poor, well-drained soil in full sun from May-July. It grows up to 13ft (4m) in height, and is a great option if you're looking for something to grow up your garden fence or over a garden arbor.
18. Trumpet vine
Trumpet vine, also known as Campsis radicans, is vigorous and self-clinging. This woody climber needs plenty of space to grow, so it's more suitable for including in large gardens.
Its standout feature is the numerous clusters of bright orange or red trumpet-shaped flowers (hence the common name trumpet vine), each over 3in (8cm) long.
Best grown against a sunny garden wall to offer it some protection from cold winds, it will happily cling to the brick or stone wall to aid its growth. It flowers from late summer into autumn, typically July to September.
19. Cobaea scandens
Cobaea scandens is a vigorous tropical annual that loves heat. It's a half-hardy perennial that easily climbs trellis by tendrils at the ends of the leaves.
Large purple (or slightly greenish white) bell-like flowers open all summer, twining over a large area of wall or fence. Sow seed early and pinch out the growing tip for bushy plants. Pollinated by bats, it will flower from July until the first light frost of the year.
20. Clematis armandii
This Chinese native is a luxuriant climber, whose richly fragrant ivory or pink tinged blooms open in spring against a backdrop of older leaves and a swarm of new shoots. Reaches 10-15ft (3-5m) and is hardy in most areas.
You'll find plenty of advice on how to grow clematis in our expert guide.
21. Passion flower
Passifloras are one of the best climbing plants and will jazz up any wall or fence with exotic, eye-catching flowers from July to September. Orange fruits follow the flowers to give you added interest once the blooms have faded. Passiflora caerulea is the variety most often found in garden centers.
Best grown in a sheltered spot on a sunny wall as this can be a delicate plant. Make sure it has some protection from cold winds. It will also grow well in a container.
It grows up to 32ft (10m), and in cold areas of the UK it can be semi-evergreen.
22. Chilean glory flower
Eccremocarpus scaber, also known as the Chilean glory flower, is a slender climber that is smothered in pinky orange, tubular flowers from June to the first frosts.
In a sheltered spot in a mild garden it may be perennial; otherwise treat it as an annual.
23. Akebia quinata
If you're a fan of dark-toned flowers for your garden color scheme, then make sure you include this option in your selection of the best tropical plants. Semi-evergreen chocolate vine gets its name from the beautiful maroon-chocolate flowers. Produced in spring, they have a spicy vanilla scent.
The five-lobed leaves are bright green and, during warm summers, purplish sausage shaped fruits may form. It flowers from April to May.
Tropical-looking begonias are super for hanging basket ideas hung from a branch of a tree. ‘Santa Cruz’ from DT Brown produces cascades of fiery flowers, and are available as plugs to plant in June. Trails to around 15in (40cm).
How often do tropical plants need watering?
Plants with large leaves tend to need watering more frequently than those with smaller ones. If your best tropical plants are in pots or grown as part of your raised garden bed ideas, you need to water if you can push your finger into the soil and it feels dry all the way down. You will need to be watering plants frequently during hot spells, except for succulents, which have water-retaining leaves.
What is the easiest tropical plant to grow?
Calla lilies are one of the easiest options for a beginner. These striking flowers grow from inexpensive bulbs and are reliable performers. It is just a matter of digging a hole, planting the bulb and letting nature do the rest.
Looking for more of the best plants for beginners? Our guide is a great place to start your search.
Which tropical plants are fast growing?
According to plant expert and designer Laura Heybrook of Dale & Heybrook, the Japanese banana plant (musa basjoo) is a rapid grower. 'It will grow a mile a minute when it is happy,' she says. A small plant can reach 3m tall in 3 years. These plants prefer moist, well-drained soil and full sun or part shade. When planting, dig in plenty of well-rotted compost to boost growth and feed them regularly.
Will tropical plants survive outdoors in winter?
Not all of the best tropical plants are needy, but some do require extra care and attention. Tree ferns, cannas and banana plants will need protection to survive cold, wet winters, but there are other hardy plants such as bamboo, which can happily survive unaided. The trick is to mix them up, so that looking after your tropical patch is not too labour intensive.
'For some tropical plants, you will need either a frost-free greenhouse to store them in, or some horticultural fleece to wrap them in over winter,' says Laura Heybrook.
Laura also has a top tip for a trouble-free tropical look for your flowerbed ideas. 'Blend in some frost-hardy plants such as fatsia japonica, bamboos and an evergreen magnolia, with one or two favorite tender plants which need extra care, such as a banana palm or some cannas,' she advises. 'That way, when winter comes, you won’t be looking out at a garden full of fleece-covered plants.'
An experienced freelance journalist, editor and columnist writing for national magazines and websites, Fiona now specialises in gardens. She enjoys finding and writing about all kinds, from the tiniest town plots to impressively designed ones in grand country houses. She's a firm believer that gardening is for everyone, and it doesn’t matter if you have a single window ledge or an acre, there’s always peace and joy to be found outside. The small town garden of her Edwardian terraced house is currently a work in progress as she renovates the property, but her goal is always to fill it with flowers, climbers, colour, fragrance – and as many of her treasured vintage finds as she can possibly fit in.
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