Look through travel brochures for exotic destinations and you'll discover it's the plants—swaying palms, bold hibiscus flowers, birds of paradise—that give the locales their tropical look and feel. Surrounded by the right plants, you can stretch out in a lawn chair this summer on your terrace or balcony, or in your garden and pretend you're in Martinique—when you're really in downtown Edmonton.
The leaves of tropical plants are long and deeply cut—sometimes few but big and bold. Blooms are large and luscious, and blazing colours—rampant reds, smouldering yellows—positively shout tropical splendour. So how do you get this look on a reticent northern terrace or sun-starved garden?
One of the easiest ways is to start summer bulbs indoors in March so they're up and ready come summer. (They can also be purchased as started plants.) Canna (Canna spp.), with its banana-like leaves in green, purple or variegated forms, is one good choice. The huge flowers, in brilliant reds, yellows, oranges and pinks, appear only on plants started indoors. It spreads by underground rhizomes: divide annually before potting it up in the spring and you'll soon have dozens. Some cultivars are adaptive to aquatic conditions, such as a tropical water garden. Canna likes full sun to partial shade.
No less striking are the various forms of elephant's ears. Caladium (Caladium x bicolor, syn. C. x hortlanum) has large, arrow-shaped leaves in translucent reds, whites and pinks. It prefers partial to deep shade and burns in full sun. Giant taro (Alocasia macrorrhiza) is expensive (more than $10 per bulb), but its huge, dark green leaves—almost as large as the banana plant's—thrive in partial shade or sun. Taro (Colocasia esculenta, syn. C. antiquorum), grown as either a dryland plant or as an aquatic, produces large, bluish green leaves, often marked with dark purple. The leaves of ‘Jet Black Wonder' and ‘Black Magic' are entirely dark purple.
Calla lilies (Zantedeschia) are tropical both in their foliage and in their upright, spiralled flowers. There are lots of smaller varieties in shades of yellow, pink, red, white and purple, but for me, the large, old-fashioned common calla, Z. aethiopica, is unbeatable. Like taro, it can be grown either as a dryland plant or an aquatic.
Banana plants (Musa spp.), with massive leaves atop a faux trunk (made up of tightly wrapped leaf bases), are the tropical tree par excellence for a sheltered spot on the terrace and grow up to three metres tall. Strong winds can tear the leaves to shreds (a bit of tearing along the veins is normal). Don't expect fruit in cold climates: they need heat, humidity and sun year-round for that. Bananas are not true bulbs, but if you chop them back in the fall and store them dry for the winter, they'll resprout from a buried corm in the spring.