Georgia Gardener Newsletter Design Tip: August 7, 2008

Southeastern Natives for a Tropical Garden

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Piedmont Native Magnolia macrophylla

Lush tropical gardens seems to possess a soothing quality which makes them an extremely popular garden style. Of course, when most people think tropical their thoughts go to banana trees, exotic orchids, tropical hibiscus and the like. Most of these plants (there are hardy bananas) often do not survive winter outdoors in most of Georgia. However, we have a entire selection of southeastern native plants that are either tropical in origin or appearance yet will survive outdoors year round. Our native "pseudo-tropicals" include trees, shrubs, perennials and vines. Some are for shade, others are for sun, but almost all of them can be grown in your garden.

Tropical-Looking Trees & Shrubs

We have several species of deciduous magnolias which are collectively lumped together and referred to as the bigleaf magnolias. These include the Magnolia macrophylla pictured above with the largest leaves of the group - reaching upwards of 15x36 inches. White flowers are produced in the summer, some of which are 12-15 inches across. I find the bigleaf magnolias to be the perfect substitutes for the banana. Bigleaf magnolias can become large trees, so plan accordingly. A dwarf bigleaf magnolia for smaller gardens would be the Magolia ashei. The bigleaf magnolias are hardy in zones 5-9, depending upon the species.

An old southern favorite and the subject of poems and songs is the pawpaw tree. This Georgia native produces the largest fruit native to North America and is the only temperate climate relative of several tropical trees. The fruit which is edible tastes like a cross between a banana and a fig, but is difficult to reliably produce. The tree itself with its bold and somewhat drooping foliage is easy to grow in average to rich garden soil in full sun to partial shade. Healthy plants often sucker.

The Florida anise is a south Georgia into Florida native of low moist woods. It's thick evergreen leaves provide winter interest in the garden yet the deep green foliage and star-like flowers have a tropical appearance. This shrub prefers to grow in rich, moist but well-drained garden soil in partial shade.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum)

Palms are very popular for tropical gardens for obvious reasons, yet when I visit nurseries the most common "hardy" palm that I see being offered is the Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) which is only hardy in zones 8-10. I'm peeved that our native needle palm isn't more readily available. This evergreen shrub-like palm grows in partial shade and has been noted to withstand temperatures to -20. Take that Chinese windmill palm!

Another evergreen for the tropical garden is actually a native of the Piedmont and Georgia mountains. The mountain doghobble (aka drooping leucothoe or fetterbush) is an arching shrub that grows in partial shade up to 5 feet in height. In spring, it produces clusters of white bell-shaped flowers below the leaves. It's hardy in zones 5-8. In the southern parts of the state, the coastal doghobble (Leucothoe axillaris) makes a good substitute.

Other native shrubs for a tropical garden include: oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), rhododendrons, etc.

Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) Mountain Doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana)


Hardy native ferns can be used in tropical gardens to provide the ambiance of a rainforest. Most of our native ferns are very easy to grow and can even be maintained in containers. The cinnamon and maidenhair ferns grow best in moist soil in partial to full shade and make excellent plantings near water features. Both are deciduous but will return each spring. Other native ferns for a tropical garden include: royal fern, Christmas fern, lady fern, etc.

Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)


Vines bring about images of the tropics and its vast primate population or if you're a fan of old movies - Tarzan. We have several native vines suitable for a tropical-looking garden. The passion vine (aka maypop) is the only temperate member of the passion vine family. All of the others originate in the tropics. Like its tropical cousins, the passion vine blooms with large complex flowers on vines with large, deeply lobed leaves. It does produce an edible (but to me not tasty) fruit. The passion vine also hosts the Gulf fritillary butterfly. On the other hand, this is a hard vine to keep contained and requires some maintenance to keep in check. It prefers to grow in full sun to partial shade in almost any type of soil and is hardy in zones 6-9.

The pipevine is another deciduous vine that is most often seen in the Georgia mountains. Once commonly used as a vine for porches because of the shade provided by its large leaves, it has become almost forgotten. In the mountains, this vine can be seen scrambling up trees and structures at the edges of woods. Initially, you would think it's Kudzu. A host plant for the pipevine swallowtail butterfly, it produces some of the strangest flowers. This vine grows in full sun to partial shade and is hardy in zones 4-8.

Other native vines for a tropical garden include: bamboo vine (Smilax smallii), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia), crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) and (native) climbing hydrangea (Decumaria barbara).

Passion Vine (Passiflora incarnata) Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla)

Flowering Perennials

There are also native flowering perennials that have tropical characteristics. These include foam flower (Tiarella spp.), coral bells (Heuchera spp.), rain lily (Zephyranthes atamasco), the pond plant pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata), fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata), wandflower (Galax urceolata), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and many others.

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