Need help with tropical plant design

davinakuhliaJuly 15, 2003

I am in need of tropical landcsape help in Southern California in Los Angeles area. I am in need of a landscape designer or anyone that can create a planting plan for me for that tropical garden.

We had out yard landscaped and they used the traditional tropical landscape plants. Queens, Pygmy dates, tropicanna, agapanthus and other plants which we feel do not go with our tropical theme. Overall it is missing that true tropical touch. I have read lots of books and lots of postings to get ideas but I am just not that creative.

Your recommendations are very appreciated.

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JohnnieB(Washington, DC 7a/b)

I'm not sure why you think those plants aren't "tropical"--is it simply that they're too common in your area?

Can you be more specific about what you want that's missing? Big-leafed plants like elephant ears (Colocasia, Alocasia, and/or Xanthosoma) are about as tropical-looking as they come. More flowers might help too. Things like Hibiscus and Passiflora can really add to the tropical look. You could also try going to a local botanic garden, and write down the names of the plants you like.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2003 at 11:51AM
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Maybe you just need more, --more palms so that you are practically overwhelmed and then add Monsteras and Philodndrons and Bromelliads and tree ferns and staghorns and such. Get Tillandsias growing up all your palms and add some vireya rhododndrons that flower easily there and are tropical to boot. Alocasia, bannanas, giant Strelitzias and cycads will help to. The variegated mondo grass adds color. Put in three palms for every one that the landscapers put in, they will sort themselves out. A grove of palms does wonders for the tropical look.

    Bookmark   July 17, 2003 at 9:11PM
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Thank you for your recommendations on the plants. JohnnieB you have a great plant list. We do think we have a start to a tropical garden but felt like it was really missing the personal touches to give it depth, color, and variety. We get lots of wind and sun so it is difficult to figure things that would work well.

Does anyone have recommendations for any palms that can take full sun and lots of wind? Also for a good groundcover for a sunny spot?

    Bookmark   July 20, 2003 at 1:59AM
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girlgroupgirl(8 ATL)

I am just reading an older magazine, it's a Better Homes & Gardens special interest "Garden Ideas and Outdoor Living" Summer 2002. They feature a spectacular and very enclosed tropicalesque garden in the Pacific NW.
What I personally like about it, is that it is enclosed with plants in "walls" - this creates a very lush look. Vines are grown on tall fences and sturdy trellises to create the walls, then there are narrow boarders with various layers of plants and small paths maybe 2-3' wide (and no more) which lead around in a mazelike effect to small garden 'rooms'.
Plants listed are: Phorium, flax, bananas, tibouchina, bougainvillea, gunnera, sambucus, plume poppy, fern, evergreen clematis (for the vine 'walls'), passion flowers, aralia, crocosmia, ribbon grass, magnolia, brugsmansia - and many plants that provide "tropical" effects through color like zinnia, coleus and other annuals (they use red and pink). Scented plants such as lilies provide another dimension.
None of the plants are unusual to the tropicalesque style, it's how this garden is put together that makes it so special.


    Bookmark   July 23, 2003 at 9:27PM
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kerrican2001(z9b CA)

It seems that your designers' original list is not only somewhat uninspired, but probably includes plants that are easy to find and will therefore keep your plant costs low. Some of the others mentioned will have to be special ordered (but not all).

Here is my list of recommendations (includes some of the above):

-Melianthus major - honey bush (this is a must against a wall!! trust me!) - check out link to photo below
-Hibiscus - go for some of the orange or yellow flowers
-Ensete ventricosum 'maurelii' - red ornamental banana (should be easy to get in your ara)
-Philodendron selloum - beautiful and easy to get
-Fatsia japonica
-Bird of paradise (small or giant)
-Hedychium - ginger lily
-Palms: king palm (easy to find, cheap, very tropical), kentia (also very tropical, more expensive), parajubea cocides (a wind-resistant, coconut-like palm for CA)

Here is a link that might be useful: Melianthus major

    Bookmark   July 27, 2003 at 1:51PM
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pianodoctor(CA 23/24)


I am reluctant to offer a lot of specifics as I am new to So Cal myself and am learning about my microclimate which is not neccessarily the same as yours in L.A.. (See my member profile page)

But I'm fairly certain you can do well with many Musa species (they are bananas, but many are known more for their ornamental flowers or leaves, and are not the eating species), a few species of Heliconias like H. tortuosa or H. Schiediana (SP?), gingers, Bromeliads, possibly Costus, ferns, bamboos, and many others.

As to palms, I think you have wonderful tropicalesque choices, perhaps hundreds of possible species. I urge you to peruse for species that mostly will grow in So Cal assuming their light/nutrition/watering needs are met. Read their pages on care, adapting a palm to different conditions, etc. They are really knowledgable, believe me. I was surprised how flexible exotic palms can be as to climate. For a really tropical look you will probably like the many "Bamboo palms", so called because of their green, ringed trunks.

Now I'm not saying that the abovementioned plants can all be just stuck in the ground and forgotten about. The most easy and sure plants are the ones the landscapers put in. You already have those or see them everywhere. If you want a "humid tropics" look you will probably need to pay attention to what each plant needs in your particular microclimate. It's a look that is totally achievable but requires research and thought. For instance, while Musas seem pretty happy here in terms of temperatures, if you don't put them in a place that is fairly wind-protected, the leaves will get shredded. That is just one example. You may also find yourself needing to get into major soil improvement, deep mulching, etc. Transforming near-desert to something friendly to humid tropical plants can require some work.

Keep at it. Find gardening orgs to join. Network with other people doing tropicals; local knowledge is the best. Know that there will be some tricks to learn. A tropical that takes full sun in it's native land may need some shade here. Having some canopy can be important not only for that shade but also to help keep the immediate area a bit more humid. Lots of little tricks.


Rick Clark

    Bookmark   July 28, 2003 at 10:32AM
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davinakuhlia -
They planted the "cast iron" SoCal semi-tropical stuff. Let it get established as the "backbone" of the garden while you research what to add.

The overwhelming characteristic of "tropical" is that plants are abundant and overgrowing and flowering all over and in lots of varieties. I've seen some "tropical" looking landscapes here that were done with mostly desert natives, just in great abundance.

Flowering plants ... hibiscus, bougainvilla, cuphea, sages

Trailing plants ... asparagus ferns, even good old spider plant

Sculptural plants ... the shade-loving aloes, jade plants, sanseveria

Viniong plants ... pandorea

    Bookmark   August 1, 2003 at 5:00PM
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I know that the Washingtonia palm is excellent in California, but is it too common? An alternative to palms to privde some shade in the garden would be planting temperate trees that have more of a tropical look such as Silk Oak (Grevillea robusta), jacaranda, who knows. Or, even build a small arbor over th patio and garden that will give you a place for vines and more shade-loving plants to thrive.

Even the clumping bamboos would be nice to add (Bambusa spp) for a tall weeping "tree" effect, or the mexican weeping bamboo is very handsome (Otaea sp.) with bromeliads underneath.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2003 at 9:54PM
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"I know that the Washingtonia palm is excellent in California, but is it too common?"

Too fast-growing, large and messy for most landscapes ... they make lovely formal edgings on streets and in the distance (on someone else's property), but in the usual back yard they have all the appeal of a freeway support column.

The smaller species stay closre to the ground and in scale with a home

    Bookmark   September 14, 2003 at 11:33AM
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For a great tropical look, you can't go wrong with CROTONS, as long as they are in partial shade and get enough water. They market them in the nurseries as indoor plants, but mine are thriving outside here in Laguna Niguel.

I also didn't notice too many suggestions for CANNAS. They grow like crazy, come in a fabulous array of color. They can handle the sun, too.

The GIANT Bird of Paradise is also a good pick, they can handle the sun and wind, unlike the bananas which shred easily. They also grow fast and are very dramatic.

If you want to add plants that not only give a tropical feel, but also attract hummingbirds and butterflies, I'd suggest trumpet vine and any red or hot pink salvia. They aren't necessarily tropical, but they are lush, colorful, and long-flowering -- plus good for wildlife!

Plant Depot in San Juan Capistrano, and Green Thumb Nursery in Lake Forest, are pretty good sources for tropical plants.


    Bookmark   September 23, 2003 at 5:40PM
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I think I know what would be near perfect or perfect for making a tropical yard looking tropical. Borassus Flabellifera would be a great tree to add. I am not 100% sure on its hardiness but I am pretty sure it s good there, as well as Areca Vestiaria, which I am not 100% sure on its hardiness either, but I heard they could grow there(the are a crystostachy renda look alike) Then a JOey palm(J. maginifca) is a must, as well as a ficus columnaris or a true banyan tree, maybe a ficus macrophlla or ficus elastica also. If it were all palms it would look too tropical. Also the coconut palm would be good, although I am assuiming they would stay small, but they may also thrive. I still question their tolerance as well as christmas palms. CAryota gigas is must also. Metrosideros robusta would be a good one also, since it produces aerial roots very easily which look very tropical. Musa species, Corphya(If hardy, most likley is). Canna, Ficus benjimina too, African Oil palm, elephant ear, trmput tree, tree ferns, regular ferns, ficus aurorea on a tree you don't want(it will grow over it and turn it into a vine looking tree) calla lily's, orchids, and finally royal palms.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2003 at 6:25PM
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I think nothing says tropical like a palm tree, but nothing says tropical jungle like a banyan. I think if you want to get a tropical yard you should get any form of aerial roots producing ficus. Bananas are also a nice, they are fast to maturity. If you have any trees, put bromeliads on them that you see in gift sections of Safeway, and at your local nursery ask for a tropical looking flowering vine, and put that on a tree as well. IF you want to be very creative and a bit overboard, haycarumba (aycarumba??) has a lot of choices also, but some are not good for the conservative gardener, i.e. marginal.

    Bookmark   November 29, 2003 at 8:47PM
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Hi I just dropped in and thought I would throw in my two cents worth , I lived in So. Ca. before moving here . I had a huge bougainvilla , hibiscus , the large split leaf philodendrums and vining types , cymbidium orchid , camellia , bird of paradise , broms . a meyer lemon :) I know not tropical ,but can't beat the smell when in bloom . Gin

    Bookmark   December 25, 2003 at 9:26PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

some of the better palms for full sun and wind would include Phoenix roebellenii, Phoenix reclinata, Butia capitata or Butia edulis, Brahea edulis or Brahea armata,(beautiful silvery foliage but slow growing), Chamaerops humilis. For more sheltered locations the various Chamaedorea palms are wonderful as understory in shaded conditions, C. plumosa is like a dwarf refined Queen Palm, C. tepelejote is also very elegant, and the various Rhapis palms such as R. excelsus or R. humilis are choice. King Palms will take wind if given enough water, but look much better in more protected situations.

Strelitzia reginae is a classic tropical looking plant for full sun, and combines equally well with other subtropicals from South Africa such as the various tree aloes such as A. thraskii, A.speciosa or A. ferox/marlothii. Tecomaria capensis is another associate of Strelitzia in the wild, as are the various Asparagus such as A. densiflorus 'Meyers' or A. retrofractus, and Plumbago capensis. Cotyledons are also great for full sun, and give an exotic dry/succulent aspect to the garden, and combine well with Aeoniums, Echeverias, Sedums and other succulents.

Some other shrubs to give long bloom season for full sun might include Duranta erecta or D. stenocstachya, Justicia carnea or J. aurea. Calliandra tweedii does very well in southern California, as do Tecoma stans or Thevetia. For some nice flowering tree accents, I would also include one or more of the Tabebuias such as T. impetiginosa or T. chrysantha, gorgeous in early spring bloom, or Hymenosporum flavum for fragrant late spring blooms or Calodendrum capensis for the dazzling pink flowers. Cussonias can also have a dry/tropical look, and both C. paniculata and C. spicata have very interesting large tropical foliage.

Some other flowering accents which aren't necessarily tropical but do well in sun and wind might include Australians such as Anigozanthus flavidus or Grevilleas such as G. 'Robyn Gordon'.

Lots of choices, and you might want to check out the plantings at the Los Angeles Arboretum, the Huntington or the Quail Gardens in Encinitas for some ideas. I would be tempted to add lots of hardier outdoor bromeliads as well, if you like that look.

    Bookmark   December 26, 2003 at 1:17AM
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Monsteras, Philodendrons, Ferns (lots of them) and Ti (Cordyline fruticosa) in stunning colors in the foreground would all be easy to take care of. The colors of the Ti aren't seasonal and they are so hardy!!! -

    Bookmark   December 29, 2003 at 7:21PM
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spectre(SZ 24, US 10b)


I know your original post is almost 6 months old, so my question is are you still out there and in need of advice? If you are out there, how is your garden turning out? Inquiring minds want to know.


    Bookmark   December 29, 2003 at 8:34PM
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tropicalvibe(z9 CA)


I live in the OC/LA area and love creating and designing tropical landscapes. I personally have over 250 rare palms, cycads, bromeliads, colocasia, alocasia, philodendrum and cannas species. Depending upon where you live I may be willing to stop by and have a look at your current design and offer a few ideas. I am also a member of the Palm Society of Southern California and could direct you to a few specialty nurseries in the area.

Tropical Vibe

    Bookmark   January 4, 2004 at 11:06PM
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Time to list your favorite southern california tropical nurseries for those of us new to tropicals

    Bookmark   January 18, 2004 at 12:19PM
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kickstand778(z23 Vista/San M)

Buena Creek Nurseries
Vista Tree Farm
Rancho Soledad
Jungle Music
JD Anderson
California Fruit Tree Nursery
Plant World
Tropic World
Australian Native Plants

I can get pretty much everything I want at one of those places.

Everyone's idea of what is "tropical" is different, but my take from the original post is that your idea would be something slightly more "jungle-ish."

In such a case I recommend alocasias, colocasias, ensetes, bananas, bromeliads, hedychiums, costus, variegated shell gingers, some of the more hardy heliconias, birds of paradise, giant birds, depending on microclimate maybe a traveler's tree, philodendrons. That is a sure way to get the "lush" look that some people associate with tropical.

If color is your thing, you can save a lot of water and a lot of fertilizer by choosing plants from the Proteaceae family: proteas, leucospermums, leucodendrons, banksias, stenocarpus, telopea, hakea, etc. Given the original post, however, it sounds like you want things a little more packed, and these are mostly full-sun loving shrubs, which don't like being packed together.

It also sounds like the original plan had/has no canopy. The palms listed aren't going to give off much shade. Granted, with a lot of tropicals they don't want to be in full shade, so dappled light is probably better. That being the case, nothing beats an Enterolobium, Jacaranda, or Hong Kong Orchid Tree. Other good bets are Tabebuias, Cassias, Tipu Trees, Schizolobium. These will all grow very fast, far faster than the palms, and will give a great canopy in 5-10 years, at much lower cost than palms/tropicals.

If you need a more specific plan, don't hesitate to contact me.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2004 at 6:12PM
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i dont know if these suggestions will grow in your area but perhaps you could check it out.i was thinking elephant ear plants,calla lilies,cannas,bird of paradise they even have giant ones,palm trees,ostrich fern is really tropical looking,a traveller's palm is very tropical looking,stephanotis vine also called wedding bell vine,coconut trees (i think they come in dwarf form not sure),banana trees,macadamia trees,kiwi vines - again i dont know if these will grow where you live please check prior to making any purchases at a local reputable nursery they will be happy to assist you.i hope this helps you with your endeavours.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2004 at 11:31PM
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mbarnes4104(10b CA)

coconut trees won't grow in S. California unless you are extremely coastal and/or in San Diego. Here in Los Angeles, they sell them but I don't know anyone who has been able to keep them alive for an extended period.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2004 at 12:14PM
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I agree with Kickstand778. You should try to have trees that provide shade first(they do take a few years to reach the right size). Then you will have better success rate with shrubs/vines..etc. Some of the plants will burn in the sun no matter what and you may be wasting some money buying them first(I know I made that mistake). As far as a ground cover in full sun...hedenia has yellow flowers and looks good. Lantana(ground covers not bushes) as well as rosemary are good options.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2004 at 1:49PM
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dear friends,what a delightful dilemma!

    Bookmark   August 13, 2004 at 11:58AM
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Well, I don't know about the original poster but I sure do appreciate everyone's suggestions. I've saved them and expect my garden to benefit from those of you who took the time to post. Thanks.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2005 at 3:24PM
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aikidokap(z9 Southern CA)


I hear your plea. I have the same issue. We purchased a home a couple years ago. Backyard had existing pool and hardscape, surrounded by many plants and fruit trees. We had most prior landscaping removed and I had a "tropical" design done and installed.

I was on a fairly tight budget (I didn't know it was "tight" at the time) so they used lots of queens, agapanthus, hibiscus, bird of paradise, etc. Essentially all the "tropical" stuff you can get at Home Depot.

I began adding/replacing some elements with other plants I bought. The overall look improved as my skills increased. One of the biggest reasons for my success in "getting it" was this book:

It has lots of pictures, but more importantly, he talks about colors, texture and canopy, the three things that change a garden with some tropical plants into a tropical area. Very subtle, but once you read it, you'll get it.

One final caveat that has come up in talking to friends that are doing their yards. I've found I'm in the middle of the road in gardening. I don't hate it, and I do love when an area's plants finally achieve the look that I want. But, if my garden/yard were done, you would not find me whiling away my time gardening. So, I'm sort of an interested amateur.

Now, this matters because as you move up the chain into more and more tropical looking stuff, the more work it takes to maintain them. You have to understand that in So. Cal, you can't just plant the jungle and forget it. It takes nearly constant care of some sort.

The stuff you have now takes little/no ongoing care other than proper watering and very occasional fertilizing.

Hope this helps.


    Bookmark   July 29, 2005 at 12:25PM
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    Bookmark   November 5, 2007 at 8:43PM
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I know you probably aren't looking for a groundcover for full sun anymore but I thought that I would post any way.
Lotus vine is an interstingly different cover. With gray-green feathery foliage and red or yellow parrot beak like flowers makes a great rapidly growing, but not invasive, ground cover.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2008 at 10:01PM
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Central_Cali369(Sunset Z9, Fresno, CA)

Not everything has to be tropical, as someone already mentioned, try adding some desert tropicals. It is also more convinient (for you and for CA) to plant drought tolerant plants. Try some aloes. Tree aloes are an excellent sculptural plant and can add the 'WOW' factor to any landscape. Here are some plants that you might like. Im sure they are easy to find even at Home Depot.

Aloe Ferox or arborescens
Agave attenuata (foxtail agave)
Ponytail palm
Bismarckia Nobilis
Jubaea Chilensis (if you have the space)
Flame thrower palm
Australian tree fern
Dypsis Decipiens (Manambe palm)- slow but worth the wait
Dypsis Decari (triangle palm)
Dypsis Pembana
Dypsis Lutescens
Ravenea (majesty palm)--not drought tolerant
Foxtail palm
There are endless possibilities. go to a specialty nursery and see what they have to offer.

    Bookmark   January 25, 2008 at 3:46AM
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If anyone lives in zone 9 or higher with light shade and a relatively dry area, put in poinsettias. People often over look these as a landscape plant because they are only seen during christmas and after blooming they do seemingly die for a few weeks. Actually they just go dorment for a while and by march are growing again. I enjoy poinsettias for the dark green foliage more than the blooms. if not bloomed they don't really go dorment to the same extent.
great plant. just pick a few up this christmas and put them outside in the spring with a haircut and watch them go.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 6:58PM
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