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From the garden of Beth DiGioia

Do you love to travel to tropical islands?  Do you long for the bright, colorful blooms and opulent foliage of the plants that grow in these locales?  Do you want to step into your backyard and re-create the mood of being at a resort on holiday?  Well you can! Most of the plants that grow in tropical locales are hardy in Zones 9-11 (which means that they won’t survive the winter in our Zone 8 gardens), but with careful plant selection, you can create a tropical garden here in McKinney.

I must emphasize that this style of landscape is either all in or all out – and details count.  Paint outbuildings in tropical colors, search for umbrellas or gazebos that are thatched, cover upholstered furniture in tropical prints or brightly colored solids, and choose accessories with an island theme.  A source of water is essential; it doesn’t have to be a pool, a pond or rill may be enough to set the mood (choose a traditional white or blue bottom to emulate the sea, or a dark bottom for a lagoon inspired ambiance).

When designing the garden the goal is a lush, full look.  Place plants so that they will slightly overlap when they reach their mature width, and intermingle heights to create a layered effect.  Choose a mixture of leaf sizes, textures and colors, and create a riot of color with masses of blooming perennials and annuals.


Palms are standard in tropical inspired gardens.  Depending on the size of the garden, choose one or three.  Here are a few that we can grow in north Collin County:

  • Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix)
  • Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei)
  •  Pindo Palm (Butia capitate)

***With all palms, make sure they are watered regularly, but the soil should not be soggy.  As a precaution, some growers recommend that you wrap the trunks of palms when the temperature is predicted to dip below 32°.


If palms don’t appeal to you, or if you want to mix it up, small fruiting trees are always welcome in the tropical garden:

  • Ornamental Banana (Musa X ‘Bordelon’)
  • Figs (Ficus carica)
  • Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)


Shrubs anchor the trees and account for the majority of plants in a design; these shrubs have a tropical quality:

  • Yellow Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii)
  • ‘Little John’ Bottlebrush (Callistemon X ‘Little John’)
  • ‘Lemon Lime’ Nandina (Nandina domestica ‘Lemon Lime’)
  • ‘Sunshine’ Ligustrum (Ligustrum sinensis ‘Sunshine’)
  • Oleander (Nerium oleander)
  • Thryallis (Galphimia gracilis)

***Fill in shady areas of the landscape with these shrubs:

  • Camellias (Camellia sasanqua)
  • Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica)
  • Japanese Aucuba (Aucuba japonica)
  • Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides)


Perennials add another layer of plants to the garden and many have colorful blooms:

  • Angel’s Trumpet (Datura stramoneum)
  • Canna (Canna spp.)
  • Orange Crush’ Cestrum (Cestrum X ‘Orange Crush’)
  • Stella d’Oro Daylily (Hemerocallis X ‘Stella d’Oro)
  • Black Coral’ Elephant Ear (Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Coral)
  • Firebush (Hamelia patens)
  • Gerbera Daisies (Gerbera jamesonii)
  • Hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.)
  • Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus X ‘Headbourne Hybrids’)
  • Dwarf Mexican Petunia (Ruellia X brittoniana ‘Katy’)
  • Montbretia (Crocosmia X Curtonus ‘Lucifer’)
  • Shell Ginger (Alpinia zerumbet)
  • Torch Lily (Kniphofia uvaria)
  • Umbrella Plant (Cyperus alternifolia)

Many perennials in tropical places are considered tender perennials in our area (which means that they will survive if protected in an unheated garage or brought indoors to enjoy in the winter). While it may seem like a lot of work, these plants are worth the effort:

  • Brazilian Sky Flower (Duranta erecta ‘Gold Edge’)
  • Dragon Wing Begonia (Begonia X ‘Dragon Wing’)
  • Elephant Ears (Alocasia spp.)
  • Esperanza (Tecoma stans)
  • Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)
  • Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrrima)


Annuals are chosen for their striking foliage or their blooms.  Flowers are best planted in masses for the most dramatic effect.  They complete their life cycle in one season, so they are heavy feeders (fertilize them at least once a month).  Those that will complement a tropical garden include:

  • Red Abyssinian Banana (Enset ventricosum)
  • Candlestick Tree (Cassia alata aka Senna alata)
  • Celosia (Celosia cristata)
  • Croton (Codeaium variegatum)
  • Tropical Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
  • Lemon Lollipop (Pachystachys lutea)
  • Spider Flower (Cleome hasslerana)
  • Variegated Tapioca (Manihot esculenta)


Vines are valuable to hide anything unattractive, soften hard surfaces, and add a vertical textural element to the garden.

  • Bougainvilla (Bougainvillea spp.)
  • Hyacinth Bean (Dolichos lablab)
  • Mandevilla (Mandevilla sanderi)


Ground cover is the finishing touch to a garden, protects the soil from erosion, and helps keep plants clean:

  • Philodendron (Philodendron bippinnatifidium)
  • Moss Rose (Portulaca)
  • Hardy Ice Plant (Delosperma cooperi)

You don’t have to travel or go on holiday to enjoy a verdant tropical garden.  Choose a selection of these beauties and your back yard will be the resort you can step out and enjoy any time you wish.  Just remember the goal:  a lush, full look, densely planted and layered, with a mixture of leaf sizes, textures and colors – and a riot of blooming perennials and annuals. And don’t forget to pay attention to the details – including the little umbrella in your tropical cocktail!

If you want a quick guide to the plants, there is an expanded version of this article on my blog:



For more information about gardening, visit our McKinney Gardens page

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