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Garden Tips

By: Bob Beyer, Travis County Master Gardener

“Poor Man’s Umbrella” (Gunera) On a recent 12 day eco-tour of Costa Rica, I was astounded by the lush, fast growing, beautiful plants, flowers, and the wildlife they attract. In fact, Costa Rica has created a healthy eco-tourism economy by deciding to leave significant portion of their natural environment alone. This was accomplished by placing 26.6% of their land into national parks plus other preserves totaling 31%. This fact drew us to see for ourselves a pristine and healthy rain forest ecosystem that thrives from sea level all the way to volcanic mountain ranges above 6,000 ft. Exotic plants like this “Poor Man’s Umbrella” (Gunera) can only grow like this in their native tropical environment (right).

There is a combination of native and introduced plants from similar tropical regions around the world, but all share one thing in common – they not only survive, but thrive in their chosen adaptive environment. How I wished I could have dug up every different plant I saw and put it in my central Texas garden – wishful dreaming!! In fact, when living along the Gulf coast in SE Houston, I tried growing every exotic plant I thought I could get through the winter months. But on our trip through Costa Rica, I came to a clear understanding of why growing native and adaptive plants is important in any region of the world. Never can we duplicate the rain forest's tropical environment of Central America and never can Costa Rica duplicate the unique beauty of the dry climate plants that grow in Texas. I also observed the very important relationship and interdependence between the plants and wildlife that occurs in a specific ecosystem.

That little Ficus plant bought in Austin grows to over 100’ tall and wide with aerial roots in its native environment producing fruit eaten by monkeys, birds, lizards, and other wildlife. The philodendron and other tropical foliage plants grow leaves over 2’ wide as they meander up huge kapok trees up to 20’ diameter. The Episcas and gesneriads we grow as indoor potted plants are used as a year round ground cover. This is not to say we shouldn’t grow these plants as house plants or seasonal outdoor plants, but to really appreciate a plant’s potential, it must be seen growing in its ideal, natural habitat. So, the tropics beckon and amaze those who can travel there to see firsthand, the glory of the tropical rain forests that are being destroyed at an alarming rate during our lifetime.

OK, so we can’t grow many of the tropical beauties well or at all in Austin, such as Heliconias, many gingers, tropical Hibiscus, various tropical fruiting plants, Crotons, ti plants, orchids, bromeliads, ferns, etc, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be fascinated enough to want to learn about them. I find this to be as stimulating as actually trying to grow the plant. At least it will live in my mind, and not dead in my garden. I do grow some tropical plants for seasonal color in my garden, either as an annual, or by greenhouse overwintering, but never expect them to come close to achieving what they can when grown in their native environments. That's OK.

So, if you want to have a “Tropical Look” garden, that is possible. Some plants associated with the tropics can be surprisingly adaptive to even our Austin environment, if you are not too choosy. There are many cold hardy palms, cycads, and citrus that can provide a year round tropical look. Knowing which ones is the trick. Plants that grow in the tropics but could survive as root hardy in Austin in a protected, shaded area include large leafed philodendron, Clerodendron, Duranta, Plumbago, Pride of Barbados, Cannas, Hedychium and a few species of Gingers, especially Hedychiums. Other hardy native and adaptive plants that possess a tropical look include the Mexican Bird of Paradise, Rose of Sharon (in place of the Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), Crinums, hardy Manihot, Oleander, and Esperanza.  Many tropical plants look very much like temperate zone plants, but are genetically tropical. Texas and tropical Central America do have some plant types in common. For example, agaves and yuccas are found frequently in the tropics, albeit different species, but they still add to the diversity of the tropical ecosystem. Climate wise, it is much cooler in Central America than central Texas in summer. Average temperatures range from 70 – 85 degrees year round and this stability in temperature allows such a diversity of plant life to thrive whereas we are limited by extremes in environmental and climatic conditions.

tropical gardens

Tropical Gardens in Costa Rica provide year round color.

tropical gardens

Tropical plants in central Texas can provide a seasonal tropical look during our warmer months.

Also, in the tropics, rainfall is greater than 100 inches per year so plants recommended for a tropical look in central Texas are those that can adapt to our 30 inches per year in central Texas but still provide a tropical feel. I always recommend that any gardener study the native region that a plant comes from in order to understand how to grow it best.  By simulating it as much as possible, the more successful we will be in growing plants not native to our area.  But bottom line is that we shouldn’t push past rationality which will only lead to gardener’s frustration. I have accepted the fact that there are just some plants I can’t grow well or at all, so why create unneeded stress when gardening is supposed to be therapeutic and relaxing. Go with the flow and grow what grows best in our unique ecosystem instead of dreaming of all the plants you wished you could have in your garden from elsewhere. We all long to grow what we want rather than what we can.  Zilker Botanical Garden does a great job of displaying many mature tropical plants during our warmer months, but they are stored and grown in a greenhouse during our winter months, a luxury most gardeners don’t have.

So that’s what vacations and travel are for – to explore the wonderful world of plants and wildlife in different ecosystems around the world where they live if possible. Put Costa Rica on your wish list!!

tropical plants at ZBG
Tropical plants displayed on parking lot islands at Zilker Botanical Garden for your seasonal enjoyment.

©Zilker Botanical Garden,
Austin Area Garden Council