In the cool and frost-prone climate of Britain, to grow many of the lush, tropical and sub-tropical plants there’s no way round the fact that you are going to need a heated greenhouse or conservatory.
However, if it’s more the general look of warmer lands that you are after – and you’re not just so bothered about which plants you use to achieve it – then it can often be possible to recreate a little bit of “jungle” in your own backyard.
If your garden offers just a small amount of shelter from the worst of the winter winds and weather, some quite remarkable results can be had and even if it doesn’t, all is not necessarily lost, as there should still be some plants to suit.
Palms Around the Patio
Few plants look quite so exotic as palms, but many of them are too tender to be grown outdoors in temperate countries. However, a number of true palms are candidates for British gardens, while there is also a variety of palm-like plants which can help give an instantly exotic feel to any site. Amongst the true palms, Trachycarpus fortunei – known as the Chinese Windmill or Chusan palm – is probably the best known and can tolerate temperatures as low as minus 15 degrees C.
A close relative, T. wagnerianus is another good choice for the British weather; although it is slightly less frost resistant, it has stiffer leaves which offer greater resistance to wind-damage.
Many non-related plants mimic the appearance of palms, while often being much hardier, making them ideal for capturing all the look of the tropics without the tenderness. Good examples can be found in most garden centres – plants such as Phormium (New Zealand flax), Cordyline (cabbage palm) and many of the varieties of Yucca.
In very windy areas it is often a good idea to tie up the leaves of cabbage palms during the winter to protect them, while most of the kinds of Yucca commonly sold – especially Y. gloriosa and Y. filamentosa – are surprisingly hardy and make few demands on the grower. As an added bonus, most will also flower annually, under the right conditions.
For those lucky enough to have well-sheltered gardens in parts of the UK which are not particularly frost-prone, there are still more options. Native to Mexico and the south western United States, Brahea armata (Blue hesper) is sometimes seen in garden centres, along with Butia capitata (Brazilian jelly palm). Though neither grow to the size they manage back home, they make striking focal points in a suitable space.
Completing the Look
While palms and their look-alikes form the essential framework for an exotic ambience, a few other well chosen plants can really help to complete the picture. For out-and-out lushly tropical greenery on a grandiose scale, it is hard to beat the massive leaves of Gunnera – looking for all the world like an overgrown rhubarb patch from the set of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
Where a suitable support is available, such as a pergola or trellis, climbing plants can be very useful to give the garden a feel of the tropics and act as a very good backdrop for the more architectural plants in the display. If the garden is frost-free and sheltered – ideally enjoying its share of southerly sun – then it should be possible to offer a home to some of the genuine warm-weather climbers such as Passiflora and Bougainvillia.
However, for those of us who live in less mild areas, it is amazing how effective the likes of Wisteria, Clematis and Lonicera (honeysuckle) – or even Polygonum baldschuanica (Russian vine) if growing conditions are really harsh – can be at producing the same effect.
Growing exotic plants out of doors is probably the one aspect of landscaping which depends the most on the position, aspect and climate of the garden itself. For those lucky souls blessed with a sheltered, south facing plot, in a relatively frost-free spot, tree ferns and even bananas may be possible; for the rest of us, even if we are left with only the hardiest of yuccas and Chusan palms, it should still be possible to capture the exotic look. In the end, it is not so much about the plants as the planting – and with a little imagination, it’s surprising what you can achieve.