Top tropicals for dazzling containers

Plants that thrive in summer's heat and humidity.

Photo courtesy of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center
DRAMA: Big-leaved tropical elephant ears (Alocasia and Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic') make an impact in the yard. In left foreground: carex and a chrysanthemum.

Looking for a quick way to spruce up your home’s curb appeal or create the outdoor living room in the backyard that you’ve always dreamt about, even in midsummer?

Think container gardening and tropicals.

“Nothing brightens up a front porch, patio or balcony like an assortment of pots and containers filled with vibrant, healthy plants,” says Byron Martin, co-owner of Logee’s Tropical Plants.

“You don’t need a green thumb to grow container plants, and the results are both fast and impressive. It’s like an extreme home makeover without the enormous budget or the demolition crew.”

Mr. Martin knows what he's talking about. When Martha Stewart needs a container plant or houseplant expert on her television show, she calls Byron Martin.

According to Martin, one secret to successful container gardens is choosing the right plants and putting them in the right spots.

For a back patio that bakes in the afternoon sun, choose a heat- and sun-loving plant. For a shady spot that gets little or no direct sun, select a plant that naturally grows comfortably in the shade of a canopy of trees.

Another key to success is choosing the right plants for a mixed container planting.

“Plants need to have the same rate of growth, so one plant doesn’t completely overtake he others,” says Martin. “Also, typically you want to have one plant in the center as the focal point, such as a papyrus or a banana, and have other plants as fillers and even a variety or two that cascade down the sides of the pot.”

Don’t know a passion flower from a hibiscus? Here is Martin’s list of easy-to-grow container plants for a dazzling summer display:

1. Brugmansia ‘Cypress Gardens
Brugmansias are commonly called angel’s trumpets for a good reason. The prolific flowers do look like heavenly trumpets, hanging down gracefully from the treelike plant.

‘Cypress Gardens’ is a variety that flowers quickly as a young plant, often at just 3 feet in height, with dozens of trumpets opening at once. (The mature plant reaches 4 to 6 feet tall in a container.)

The white flowers are fragrant at night, have the pendant grace typical of Brugmansias, and fade to a light salmon with age. In no time, you will have more trumpets than a royal wedding. Brugmansia ‘Cypress Gardens’ loves full sun, and it blooms in spring, summer, and fall.

This plant is hardy only to USDA Zone 8, so most gardeners will need to bring it indoors during the winter.

Another great choice is Brugmansia ‘Inca Sun,’ which boasts yellow-peach flowers that continuously bloom during the warmer months.

2. Colocasia ‘Black Magic’
A perfect plant for accenting the summer garden or potted container, Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ is fast growing and has eye-catching appeal with its gigantic leaves that resemble elephant ears.

The black-leafed taro, as it is sometimes called, has leaves and stems that are actually a dark purple — not quite black.

When this plant is well watered and placed in a bright growing area it quickly fills out to become a stunning specimen. This is a cultivar of the taro root that is used as a food staple in tropical regions.

‘Black Magic’ will reach up to 3 feet tall when grown in a large container. Plants grown outside in summer in Zone 6 and colder can be wintered-over as potted plants inside.

3. Hibiscus ‘Stolen Kiss’
If you are looking for colorful flowers, try ‘Stolen Kiss.’ The flowers of this new hibiscus variety are not quite sure whether to blush slightly around the edges or deeply fill with a hot pink color.

Either way, ‘Stolen Kiss’ lives up to its name.The large 9- to 10-inch blooms emerge on the first day as bright pink, then fade to a lighter pink with frilly two-toned yellow and hot-pink edges on the second day, and fade to white the third day.

This plant is a vigorous grower and bloomer with dark green, heavily serrated leaves. Grow in full sun and add lots of fertilizer, and this plant will grow from 2 to 4 feet tall in a container.

Other great new hibiscus varieties include ‘Fall Harvest’ and ‘Tsunami.’

4. Allamanda ‘Golden Butterfly’
Most Allamanda varieties are lovely vines that sprawl profusely. Allamanda ‘Golden Butterfly’ is the perfect choice for a potted garden because it has all of the brightness and floral form of the vining types, but its growth habit is bushy and contained.

The plant produces a profusion of fragrant, bright yellow flowers from early spring to late fall. ‘Golden Butterfly’ loves full sun, and it needs a period of dryness between waterings to keep its roots healthy.

It will reach about 2-1/2 feet tall and wide. Before cold weather arrives in the fall, bring this plant indoors and its extravagant beauty and pleasing fragrance will delight you all year long.

5. Musa acuminata ‘Siam Ruby’
Small banana plants grow well in containers, and there are now several new varieties that make a stunning addition to any potted garden. Musa acuminata ‘Siam Ruby’ is a rare and unusual new banana cultivar with reddish-bronze leaves with flecks of chartreuse.

Grown for its foliage, ‘Siam Ruby’ makes a colorful accent in the summer garden or a centerpiece in a mixed container. Although it will grow up to eight feet tall, restricting the pot size can moderate its height.

As an indoor plant, it thrives in any sunny exposure, bringing a tropical look to an interior setting. Give ‘Siam Ruby’ full sun and plenty of moisture and fertilizer to intensify the red color.

For a small fruiting banana, try Musa cavendish ‘Super Dwarf,’ which reaches a manageable height of just 3 feet and will produce 3- to 6-inch fruit, often in a single year.

6. Passiflora ‘Blue Eyed Susan’
This large and floriferous passionflower hybrid has remarkable traits that make it a star performer in a container garden. Passiflora ‘Blue Eyed Susan’ is a fast and vigorous grower with blossoms that are both fragrant and colorful. The deep, rich bluish-purple flower is highlighted by a full and ruffled corona.
Each blossom is over 4 inches in diameter.

Grow ‘Blue Eyed Susan’ passionflower in full sun, where it will reach 2 to 3 feet tall as a container plant. It looks particularly stunning as a hanging basket plant. Kudos to plant breeders Roland Fischer and Carolee Anita Boyles, who created this wonderful variety.

7. Agastache ‘Tutti-Frutti’
Tall spires of raspberry-purple flowers will grace the garden border or container garden with this perennial herb. Agastache ‘Tutti Frutti’ grows 2 feet tall in full sun. It is a drought-tolerant plant that can stand up to heat and less than perfect soil.

The flower spikes appear in summer and continue through the fall, and the small tubular flowers attract hummingbirds from miles around. Agastache’s strongly aromatic foliage is an added bonus for the adventurous gardener.

8. Aloysia virgata ‘Sweet Almond Verbena’
Byron Martin recently introduced this plant on the Martha Stewart Live TV show as one of his favorite fragrant plants.

The long white spires of this intensely fragrant ever-bloomer will delight your senses. Boasting one of the sweetest flowers you will come across, Aloysia virgata ‘Sweet Almond Verbena’ is also known as the incense bush.

Treat it as an annual or grow indoors in a sunny spot during cold weather and this fast-growing Argentine native will flower year-round. When grown outside in a container for the summer garden, bees and butterfl ies will reward you with their presence.

9. Cyperus isocladus ‘Dwarf Papyrus’
Papyrus plants make excellent focal points in a mixed container. This miniature version of papyrus only grows 20 inches tall, so you can get that cool Egyptian look without the huge growth.

Adaptability to various growing conditions makes this Madagascar native attractive for the busy gardener. Grow it in a pot in full sun and keep it well watered, or grow papyrus as a bog plant – constantly keeping its feet wet.

Simply keep the pot saucer filled with water and ‘Dwarf Papyrus’ grows extremely fast. Add this plant to any mixed container planting as long as the other plants are also fast growers. I

If you have the space, grow 4- to 5-foot tall Cyperus papyrus ‘Paper Plant’ in a container with cascading plants around it.

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