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Wednesday, May 9, 2007 10:01 pm

Tropical punch

Bring a touch of Florida to your Midwestern garden

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Untitled Document Change the look of your traditional flower garden this year by incorporating some plants that will add a tropical feel. Using tropical plants in the landscape is nothing new — it’s a revival of Victorian-era gardening practices — and it’s easy to create a car-stopping display with just a few tropical plants. Tropical plants include many popular houseplants, such as Dieffenbachia, spider plant, croton, ginger, ficus, and palms. Others plants to consider include tropical hibiscus, banana, Cordyline, and elephant ear (Xanthasoma). You can grow tropical plants directly in the ground or in a container. Tropical plants like sun, heat, and humidity, so they’re most likely to thrive July and August. Place containers on a patio or deck, or arrange them as accents in the garden.
Most tropical plants prefer moist, fertile soil. Be sure to keep the soil uniformly moist and water plants thoroughly. These plants are heavy feeders, so be sure to fertilize weekly or every other week with a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer. Some perennial plants can add a tropical feel to the garden. These include meadow sweet (Filipendula), ornamental rhubarb (Rheum), large-leaved ferns, large ornamental grasses, large-leaved hostas, and hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos). Candelabra flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), an annual, can also give a tropical look to your garden. Flowering tobacco has large green leaves that resemble tobacco leaves and fragrant flowers. Summer-flowering bulbs yield a feeling of the tropics. Cannas, which are easy to grow, come in an array of foliage and flower colors. Flower colors include red, orange, pink, yellow, and cream, as well as bicolors. The large paddle-shaped leaves range from green to bronze or may be variegated. Plants grow between 1.5 and 8 feet tall. Be sure to dig the rhizomes in the fall and store them in a cool, dry area. Caladiums are grown for their bold, colorful foliage. The leaves resemble small elephant ears. The arrowhead-shaped leaves of these plants may be white, pink, red, various shades of green, or combinations of these colors. They prefer a part-shade or filtered-sun location with moist soil. In the fall, dig the tubers and store them in slightly moist peat in a dark area. For more information on using tropical plants in the garden, visit the University of Illinois Extension’s “Tropical Punch!” Web page, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/tropicalpunch/intro.html.
You can also learn more about using tropical plants at a University of Illinois extension program, “Four Seasons of Gardening,” that will be presented twice next week. Greg Stack, an educator with the extension, leads the presentation at the extension’s office on the state fairgrounds at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 15, and at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17. To reserve a seat and a packet of information, call 217-782-4617. The cost is $2 per session. Remember: Even if you can’t go to Key West, you can always bring Key West to you through the addition of tropicals to your garden. 

Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon. 
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