Archives For tropical-looking plants for Chicago

Towering palms, bold swaths of color, and tropical plants have transformed the Chicago Botanic Garden into an exotic paradise this year for Brazil in the Garden.

To create the “Brazil effect,” floriculturist Tim Pollak and Andrew Bunting, the Garden’s assistant director and director of plant collections, drew from designs by renowned Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who was known for his bold, modernist style.

We talked with Pollak and Bunting to learn how you can grow a Brazil-inspired tropical garden.

Aechmea 'Blue Tango'

Aechmea ‘Blue Tango’

1. Find color in foliage

Burle Marx used bold, bright colors such as purple, orange, and green in his gardens. When planting your garden, Pollak recommended choosing foliage plants with various shades of green. Foliage tones are endless: silvers, blues, bronze, and burgundy. Foliage plants can also bring out the colors of flowers, and vice versa. For instance, if your garden’s foliage is silver, blue, and purple, pops of white flowers will enhance the foliage colors. “Remember,” Pollak said, “there are no rules when it comes to color.” Complementary or monochromatic schemes are subject to taste. But gardens can still be attractive without flowers. Instead, think of flowers as icing on the cake.

Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum 'Pie Crust'

The bright, speckled foliage of Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum ‘Pie Crust’ provides a host of contrasting color all in one plant.

2. Use contrasting textures and shapes

Burle Marx was known for using large swaths of contrasting textures and forms in his landscape designs. Get the Burle Marx effect by choosing plants with various surfaces and shapes. For instance, Pollak said to think about the foliage of your plant—is it shiny or muted? Waxy or fuzzy? Is the venation (patterns of veins on the leaf) netted or in parallel lines? Are the shapes of the leaves long and thin, or short and wide? When shopping at your local garden center or nursery, follow Pollak’s trick: Lay your plants next to each other on your cart or on the floor. You’ll see which plants have different styles, which create a lush, biodiverse mood in your garden.

Calathea burlemarmii 'Burle Marx' and Heuchera 'Dark Mystery'

This Burle Marx peacock plant (Calathea burlemarmii ‘Burle Marx’) surrounded by the dark purple leaves of Dark Mystery coral bells (Heuchera ‘Dark Mystery’)

3. Think: thrillers, fillers, and spillers

Pollak and Bunting often advise gardeners to think “thrillers, fillers, and spillers” when planning their garden design. By using a combination of these kinds of plants, you can easily create a varied garden design. Here’s a breakdown of the three types:

  • Thrillers: Tall plants are your “wow factors.” They’re dramatic, and stand out in your garden. Think of these plants as conversation starters. Pollak and Bunting recommend palms (Arecaceae), elephant ears (Colocasia), and cannas (Canna generalis) for Brazil-themed “thrillers.”
  • Fillers: Medium-sized plants fill space in your garden. They can be interesting foliage plants or flowers, or flowers with interesting foliage. Pollak and Bunting recommend Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus) and firecracker plants (Cuphea ignea) for Brazil-themed “fillers.”
  • Spillers: Low plants spill out of a container, or trail along the foot of your garden bed. Pollak and Bunting recommend sweet potato plants (Ipomoea batata) and purple spiderwort (Tradescantia pallida) for Brazil-themed “spillers.”
"Thrillers," "spillers," and "fillers" in the Crescent Garden.

In the Crescent Garden, Bismarck fan palms (Bismarckia nobilis) and canna (Canna × generalis ‘Orange Punch’) create “thrillers.” The spectacular foliage of Grecian urn plant (Quesnalia marmota) and bromeliad Neoregelia ‘Sunkiss’ fill in the planting (“fillers”). Mexican bluebell (Ruellia brittoniana ‘Purple Showers’) and Purple Heart spiderwort (Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart’) create the “spillers” in the grouping.

4. Create repetition for effect

When arriving at the Garden’s Visitor Center, you might imagine you’ve landed in Miami. Rows of swaying coconut palms, towers of bromeliads, and beds of elephant ears greet visitors as they walk through the Garden. The tropical illusion is deliberate: We repeated similar plants in our beds to broaden the Garden’s designs, making small spaces look larger. In your own garden, you can use swaths of similar plants in rows or curving shapes. The result may transport you to the tropics.

Repetition for effect: planting areas with a single plant create an effect of making an area seem larger.

Repetition for effect: planting areas with a single plant create an effect of making an area seem larger. Golden yellow Duranta erecta ‘Aurea’ is planted around a Buccaneer palm (Pseudophoenix sargentii). Dark Neoregelia ‘Royal Burgundy’ is planted at the front of the bed alongside a grouping of fine-textured Stipa tenuissima feather grass. Behind the palm, a grouping of spiky-leafed Naranjilla contrasts with the fuzzy-leaves of Tibouchina grandifolia.

5. Add a touch of tropics

Planting a tropical-themed garden doesn’t require you to use 100 percent tropical plants, said Bunting, but a few plants can have an impact. To create a Brazil-themed garden, do as Burle Marx did: Find plants within your reach. That is, at your local garden center or nursery, find palms or other tropical plants that can be brought inside for the winter. To care for tropical plants, keep in mind they thrive in heat and humidity, and need plenty of moisture. Use supplementary fertilizer to keep them healthy and thriving. And remember, if you want the tropical effect without tropical plants, there are plenty of ways to think creatively by using bold houseplants, annuals, and perennials.

Aechmea 'Yellow Berries'

Vase plant (Aechmea ‘Yellow Berries’) adds a perfect touch of the tropics to your summer displays.

Learn more about the flora and fauna of Brazil in our upcoming conservation talks, held on the following Thursdays from 2 to 3 p.m. in the Linnaeus Room, Regenstein Center.

AUG
10
Birds of Brazil
Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist, The Field Museum
AUG
17
A Butterfly Adventure in the Amazon Basin
Doug Taron, chief curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
SEP
28
Plant Diversity and Conservation in Brazil
Pat Herendeen, senior director, Systematics and Evolutionary Biology, Chicago Botanic Garden
OCT
12
Mycological Adventures in Brazil
Greg Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science, Chicago Botanic Garden

Photos by Tia Mitchell Photography
©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

It’s officially summer in Chicago, and you’ll start to notice a plethora of begonias, impatiens, marigolds, cannas, dahlias, and elephant ears, all planted for a temporary taste of the tropics.

If you’ve dreamed about creating an exotic vacation look at home, but wanted to reduce your yearly investment in annuals, consider pairing them with tropical-looking hardy perennials that come back yearly. The following additions will help give your garden that south Florida feel.

PHOTO: Hibiscus 'Midnight Marvel'

Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’

Midnight Marvel hibiscus

You don’t have to live in Hawaii to grow hibiscus. There are actually two species native to Illinois. Several others occur in the southeastern states. These hardy plants emerge late in the spring, get quite large and shrubby, bloom their hearts out in late summer, and then retreat underground when winters comes along.

Midnight Marvel is a spectacular hybrid with very deep wine-colored foliage and dinner-plate-sized crimson flowers. Each flower lasts just a day a two, but are so plentiful that the show lasts for weeks, and hummingbirds love it. After each flower passes, the light green calyx tubes look pretty set against the dark leaves. Midnight Marvel reaches 4 to 5 feet tall, so is best placed at the back of the bed in a site with full sun.

PHOTO: Belamcanda chinensis 'Freckle Face'

Belamcanda chinensis ‘Freckle Face’

Freckle Face blackberry lily

Orange is a hot color, perfect for a tropical garden. The flowers of Freckle Face blackberry lily (Iris domestica ‘Freckle Face’) are a gorgeous carroty shade with many vivid red spots covering each petal. The blackberry portion of the name refers to shiny black seed clusters that pop out of the split open pods. Sprays of flowers bloom for several weeks in late summer on these 2-foot-tall plants.

Despite its name, this plant isn’t actually a lily at all, but resides in the iris family. The blue-green spiky leaves even resemble bearded iris foliage. Taxonomists very recently changed the name, so when searching online, you will most likely find it under Belamcanda chinensis ‘Freckle Face’.

PHOTO: Aralia cordata 'Sun King'

Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’

Sun King udo

Here’s a statuesque perennial for the part-sun area of your tropical garden. An enormous specimen, reaching 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, Sun King udo is mistaken for a shrub, but is completely herbaceous. This is definitely a shade plant, but providing it with just a few hours of sun will really enhance the gold color of its foliage.

In summer, Sun King udo’s many umbels of greenish-white flowers are total bee magnets. By autumn, the spent flowers have changed into densely fruited clusters of wine red berries. The fruits are attractive, but best left for the birds, since they are not remotely tasty.

Shieldleaf rodgersflower

If you’ve got shade, consider mixing bold and tropical-looking foliage for a jungle effect. The perfect non-invasive perennial for this is shieldleaf rodgersflower. Formerly in the genus Rodgersia, Astilboides tabularis produces gigantic 2 to 3-foot-wide parasol-like leaves.

PHOTO: Astilboides tabularis

Astilboides tabularis

While the leaves are the most striking part, creamy-white astilbe-like flowers do sprout up through the dome of foliage in late June. With enough moisture, the foliage remains light green and attractive until autumn. This is not a plant for dry shade or windy spots, but perfect for moist, rich soil. For additional large leaves in the shade, try Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’, Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’, and Rodgersia.

PHOTO: Dryopteris goldiana

Dryopteris goldiana

Goldie’s fern

Tropical gardens are meant to invoke a relaxing vacation, and what is more cool and calm than ferns? Many gardeners grow ostrich fern, which is one of the largest and most tropical-looking spore producers in the Northern Hemisphere. However, ostrich fern can be a bit of a thug if space does not permit. Instead, try growing Goldie’s fern, which is a slow spreader and the largest species of Dryopteris in the United States. Under the best conditions, it will reach 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. The fronds are a soothing shade of dark green and not golden as the name implies. (It is actually named after Scottish botanist John Goldie.)

The trick to getting the tropical look to work in your garden is to create a framework of dramatic, large-leaved perennials, and lacy, soothing ferns, then surround those with some hot red, orange, and yellow annuals. Top it off with some tiki torches, bamboo fencing, and a few lawn flamingos and you’ll have the perfect paradise for a hammock and mai tais!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org