The flowers of canna lilies attract butterflies and hummingbirds. (Photo by Grace Chapman Elton)
Looking for a way to add flair to your summer planting beds? Try dramatic tropical plants. Grown for foliage, not flowers, many tropical plants have large, broad leaves in a range of shapes, sizes and colors. The beauty of using foliage plants is they look great all summer long, rather than just for a short blooming period. Tropical foliage plants do well in mixed containers, in annual displays, or placed in bare spots in your perennial garden. You can find them in most local garden centers as full-grown plants, or by mail-order as dormant tubers or rhizomes. Three tropical plants I always add to my garden designs are elephant ears, bananas and canna lilies.
After a few years, bananas can grow to 12 feet. (Photo by Grace Chapman Elton)
Bananas are a great plant to add a vertical element to the garden. Musa basjoo is a banana that is hardy to zone 5 and can easily be grown in Richmond, returning year after year. After just a couple of years, hardy bananas can grow to 12 feet. Although they do produce edible bananas, our growing season is usually too short for the bananas to mature. One of my favorite banana relatives is the Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum), which has bright red foliage. The edible part of this plant is its roots, which are Ethiopia’s most important root crop.
Elephant ears are a great way to add new foliage colors. (Photo by Grace Chapman Elton)
Elephant ears (Alocasia, Colocasia, Xanthosoma) are lower growing, spreading tropical plants that give the benefit of needing fewer plants to fill an area and shading out weeds with their large floppy leaves. They are also a great way to add new foliage colors to your garden. A few of my favorites are Colocasia ‘Black Ruffles’ which has jet-black foliage and Colocasia ‘Mojito’ which has green foliage with dark purple speckles. To brighten up a dark spot, Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ has shocking chartreuse foliage and Alocasia ‘Lutea’ has green foliage with bright yellow stems. There are also elephant ears with uniquely shaped leaves. Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’ has upward-facing leaves forming the shape of a cup, and Alocasia ‘Stingray’ has an oblong shape and structure that looks like a stingray’s stinger.
Canna lilies are an old garden favorite for both their foliage, which comes in colorful variegation, as well as their flowers, which attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Canna ‘Australia’ has dark red foliage with bright red flowers. Canna ‘Pink Sunburst’ not only has pink flowers, but its leaves are variegated with pink, white and green leaves.
Elephant ears, bananas, and canna lilies all have fleshy stems and underground storage organs, much like a potato. Because of this, these plants can be removed from the garden and stored for the winter where they will live off their stored food. Simply dig up the plant before the first frost, cut off all foliage, and either brush or wash all soil from the roots to prevent rot. Then, store them in a cool, dark place, such as a basement. For nonhardy bananas, it is essential to let them dry out a bit, so I let mine drain under my deck for a couple of weeks before bringing them inside. In the spring, either plant them in a container or plant directly in your garden beds.
Grace Chapman Elton is director of horticulture at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. She also serves on the board of directors for the Central Virginia Nursery Landscape Association and for the American Public Gardens Association.