What Makes A

August 12, 2011

by Diana Maley, Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
With more than 500 varieties, plumerias have large clusters of blooms ranging in colors from white to those in the rainbow and have a wide range of scents. This Aztec gold variety is particularly bright and fragrant. They can be planted in the ground or in pots, but caution should be taken to protect plumerias from frost.
Left:  Also known as frangipani, the plumeria has most all characteristics for a plant in a tropical garden area. It is one of the more colorful and fragrant plants and has a unique shape that forms into a small tree. Brittney is a compact variety that remains low and fragrant with its magenta and white blooms that have yellow throats.
Right:  Variegated shell ginger has foliage in green with shades of yellow and white. It has similarly colored blooms in the spring of white, yellow - and soft pink, but is usually planted for its foliage rather than its flowers.
Almost no landscape is complete without tropical or tropical-looking plants that make up a tropical garden area.


Tropical plants present a lush area in the landscape, and most are easy to grow and care for. With good bed preparation using plenty of organic matter, such as compost and mulching, they will require less watering. Planted in groups, they will form a cooler micro-climate. This is a benefit to homeowners because it will help bring down temperatures of exterior walls during summer months.


Characteristics of a tropical garden area are an abundance of color, shape, various heights and fragrance.


When adding color to the garden, flowers are the first thing that come to mind, but don't forget colors of foliage and to include different shades of greens and variegation. Think also of shrubs that will change color during the seasons.


The shape of the leaves and plants will add interest to the garden. When picking plants, consider planting a round leaf plant near a skinny, long leaf plant; a lacey leaf next to a round leaf - and so on.


Height is also important in the tropical garden. When placing plants, stagger them so that there are varying heights. Don't line them up like fence posts. Your garden should look natural.


For fragrance, do your homework. Plants bloom at different times of the year. Pick plants so that they will not be competing with each other, and also pick plants so that there will be fragrance through all the seasons.


There are many tropical plants to choose from to achieve fragrance. One of the favorites is the plumeria, also known as frangipani. It has all the characteristics - bloom color, unique shape and fragrance. And when left to grow, it forms into a small tree. With more than 500 varieties, the large clusters of blooms range in colors from white, to rainbow colors, with a wide range of scents.


A unique tropical for blooms is the heliconia. It is great for a tropical garden. It is also called lobster-claw or false bird-of-paradise, and is a beautiful flower with multi-color bracts. The bracts can be orange, purple, red, yellow, pink, green or their combinations.


Another highlight in a tropical garden is hibiscus. There are numerous varieties of hibiscus including single and double blooms. They are easy to care for and grow best in full sun. Continuous blooms are a big bonus with the hibiscus.


Variegated shell ginger that will bloom in spring, split leaf philodendron's large leaves and height, and Louisiana iris with long spear-like leaves and blooms in the spring are all good examples among many for green variety.


Another good source of fragrance is herbs. They can be planted between rocks placed in the garden, near a pathway, or in a container placed in a bed.


Perennials are perfect for tropical gardens. They will be the framework for the garden and can provide colorful foliage and flowers until your tropical flowers bloom. Mixing in some evergreen shrubs will add protection for tender plants during summer heat and winter cold.


Annuals are the icing on the cake. They can be added for additional color, fragrance or both. Use annuals to fill in open spaces under trees and shrubs or to build a border of color.

Examples for fragrance include sweet alyssum, which has small clusters of flowers with a sweet scent. Stock has fragrant blooms that grow on spikes. Verbena grows in clusters of fragrant and bright blooms.


Consider adding in some vines. For evening fragrance, the moon flower vine is an excellent choice. The white blooms begin opening in late afternoon and are fully open by dusk. Soon after a wonderful fragrance drifts over the garden. The huge white blooms also add some sparkle to the garden in the evenings. For springtime fragrance, the Carolina jasmine is a good choice.


Trees are an important part of the tropical garden. Palms are a staple to any tropical area, but other trees to add are crepe myrtle, Norfolk pine and banana trees.

The trees will add aesthetics and provide protection from the weather to tender annuals and tropical plants.


For added touches, place a bench in a shaded area. Put some groupings of large rocks in the beds.

Add in a water feature, like a bird bath, fountain or pond. Hang bird houses and feeders for the feathered friends that will visit your new garden. A gazebo or arbor would be a great accent also.

When all is done, sit back and enjoy your tropical garden area.
Some hibiscus have double layers in the bloom, like this peach-colored, double-ruffle variety. This brilliant bloom was one of five on the plant when it was photographed.
Various hibiscus blooms have a highly distinctive center to them like this white with its contrasting maroon throat.
Annuals are often added in a tropical setting for seasonal appeal. Alyssum with its tiny white flowers and sweet fragrance can be added in pockets or as a border plant in cooler months when the more vibrant tropicals are dormant in bloom.
Characteristics of tropical plants

Lush growth

Abundance of color

Mixed shapes

Various heights

Seasonal fragrance

Has cooler microclimate when planted in groups


Plants in a tropical garden

Bright and fragrant blooms

Green or variegated foliage

Perennials that provide color with dormant tropicals

Annuals that add seasonal color or scent

Vines that provide texture and fragrance

Trees that provide aesthetics and protect other plants
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.