Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

Creating a tropical garden in the Midwest

Published July 15, 2011

The tropical look can be a unique idea for your garden, even in the Midwest, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Adding tropical and tropical-looking plants can give the yard a different look, create a unique feeling, add focal points to a traditional landscape, and enable us to have a good-looking garden even in the hottest part of summer," explained Sharon Yiesla.

"A number of different types of plants can be used to give the feeling of a tropical paradise. Some are common house plants such as aloe, croton and mandevilla. Additionally, unusual or uncommon tropical plants such as banana, avocado, bird of paradise and summer bulbs such as calla lily, cannas and elephant ear can be used. Annuals and perennials that have an exotic look can also be utilized. These could include angels trumpet, castor bean, perennial hibiscus and plume poppy.

Yiesla recommended giving a flower bed a more tropical look by adding a large-leafed plant like castor bean. The large leaves give the garden a tropical feel, along with the red flowers of a common annual like salvia or sage. The bright color of the flowers accents the tropical look created by the large leaves of the castor bean, she said.

"Something to keep in mind is that plants with excessively large leaves may be more prone to damage from wind and rain storms," Yiesla said. "These plants may need to be placed in more protected areas where wind isn't a common problem."

If the tropical garden includes house plants or uncommon tropical plants, you will need to acclimate them to the backyard environment. The yard often offers light that is much more intense than the light indoors. "Temperatures will be quite different as we move plants out of the house and into the yard," she said.

"We may need to make this move a slow process to let the plant adapt to its new environment," she cautioned.

House plants and other tropicals will need to be stored indoors in containers. Before choosing these plants, be sure there is enough room in the house to store them for the long winter.

"And,remember, these tropical plants are more sensitive to cold, so you'll need to bring them inside before the frost comes. When nighttime temperatures drop into the upper fiftys, these plants should be brought indoors," she said.