Stroll down the east end of Park Avenue in the Fan, and you'll stumble into a tiny Caribbean oasis — an unusual tropical garden grown by local attorney Steven Benjamin and filled with banana leaves nodding in the breeze next to spiky palm fronds along with huge, deep-green elephant ears.
These exotic beauties aren't the usual pot-bound, hothouse varieties, though. They're true tropical plants grown right here in Richmond soil. "It's very exciting each spring. I swear they grow right before your eyes," Benjamin says.
Tropicals are perfect for growing in Virginia, says certified horticulturist Mike Wallace of Earthscapes in Oilville. Unlike many native species, tropical plants thrive in our summer heat and humidity. They can grow feet, or even yards per year, compared with many native plants that grow only inches, Wallace notes. They also are wildly eye-catching with neon-bright flowers and multicolored foliage. Surprisingly, most tropicals can't take full sun and should be planted in full to partial shade.
Tropicals do exact a price for all their beauty, requiring a good deal of extra maintenance. Some need to be cut back and covered with mulch for the winter, while others need to be dug up and brought indoors altogether. Most should be both watered frequently and fed at least once a week, Wallace adds. Benjamin contradicts the experts' advice, however, saying his tropicals do pretty well under his "benign neglect." He only goes so far as to cut down and cover his banana plants in the colder months. One interesting note: Although tropicals are non-natives, the cold winters here generally keep them from being invasive, says Kathy Brooks, a Virginia-certified landscape designer in Richmond.
Our sources agree, beginners should start with just a few plants. "They're meant to grow fast and big. You owe it to your neighbors to keep it tidy … and not let it become an eyesore," Benjamin says. And too many tropicals can look out of place, Wallace cautions. He recommends planting only a few as focal points. ′dsfsd
Tropical vines A few that deliver major tropical punch with large, brightly colored flowers are Plumeria (Plumeria rubra) , Mandevilla (Mandevilla boliviensis) , Tropical Passion Flower (Passiflora) and Orange Trumpet (Campsis radicans) vines. Note: Be sure to purchase the tropical, not the native passion-flower vine, which is an invasive species in Virginia.
Elephant ears (Alocasia) Their broad leaves earned them their name, and they've become a big favorite for area gardeners. They can overwinter in the ground if the soil doesn't freeze too hard.
Banana plants (Musa sapientum) There are at least two varieties that are winter-hardy in Richmond, and they're an easy tropical to start with. Some will set fruit, but it generally won't ripen because the growing season is too short here. Church Hill resident Chuck Wrenn received his first banana plant more than 18 years ago as a gift from a friend, and each year his 10-plant grouping produces at least two to three baby plants, which he happily gives away to friends and neighbors. "I have two going out this week," he says.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) A medium-sized shrub, hibiscus sport large, even dinner-plate-sized blooms in bright pinks, purples and reds. Their rather traditional foliage fits well among native plants and can be a nice tropical touch. "It has great big flowers and is very showy," Brooks notes.
Palm trees These may be the toughest to establish, although European and Chinese fan palms (Chamaerops humilis and Livistona chinensis) tend to be hardy here. Look for palms with hairy trunks; it generally indicates a palm that's able to handle colder temperatures. They're particularly interesting through the winter, Benjamin says, when they stay green and leafy — a fun, if incongruous, sight in the colder months.