Southeast: Southern Sizzle

Cedar Grove, North Carolina. USDA Zone 7a

When I first started gardening, I didn’t care a speck about foliage size. Itsy-bitsy leaves were fine with me as long as the flowers were pretty. (Prime example: asters.) But as 1 delved into garden books and magazines, I discovered that size matters, at least when you’re a leaf. The sexiest pictures 1 saw included plants with jumbo leaves—one, two, even three feet long. Reading further, 1 learned that the rodgersias and rhubarbs, ligularias and petasites I craved would wilt and die when local temperatures reached their normal peak. I wept with zone envy. But knowing I didn’t have the guts for a USDA Zone 5 winter (or even a cool Zone 8 summer), 1 put those plants firmly out of mind and turned south for inspiration.

Cannas—brazen gold-striped ‘Bengal Tiger’, white-striped ‘Minerva’, sultry wine-leaved ‘Intrigue’—were first to join my tasteful, mostly pastel borders. Next came five-foot-tall butterfly ginger lily (Hedychium coronarium), whose stout stems and straplike green leaves resembled corn plants gone Caribbean. When it bloomed, the honeysuckle-meets-mango fragrance of the ginger lily’s white flowers wafted 50 feet in the steamy, late summer heat.

I was hooked; my heart belonged to the tropics.

I discovered Asian elephant ears, such as Colocasia antiquorum ‘Illustris’, whose two-foot green-veined coal-black leaves (they look like x-rays of a Martian ribcage) found a home in the border with silver Artemisia ‘Huntington’ and lacy rose-pink yarrow. Elsewhere, the intense wine-black leaves of Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ became the backdrop for a daylily of a similar but softer burgundy shade.

As I continued to add tropicals to my garden, I realized that my entire color scheme had begun to shift from soft pinks and purples to deeper, more radiant tones. And those pale shades that had looked so lost in the bright light of midday now held their own, anchored by darker, large-leaved companions.

My early years with tropicals taught me several lessons I still use in garden design. Foremost, I learned to look at the whole plant, not just its pretty blossoms. I realized that borders need broad leaves of simple outline to provide visual resting places among the otherwise busy textures of most plants. I discovered a formula to remember: short does not equal small. In other words, 1 learned to bring bold texture right down to knee height, with tropicals like dwarf speckled elephant ear (Alocasia ‘Hilo Beauty’), gold-striped ginger (Alpinia zerumbet‘Variegata’), and cream-edged Curcuma petiolata ‘Emperor’. Rather than leaving my big bananas and cannas sticking out like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I learned to provide tall companions with contrasting foliage: fine-bladed ornamental grasses, the pinnate leaves of popcorn bush (Senna didymotropa), the burgundy, maplelike leaves of eight-foot-tall Hibiscus ‘Jungle Red’. Even a healthy clump of asparagus made an attractive scrim plant.

My next move? Strappy-leaved crinums I think, which I’ve yet to seriously explore. Or maybe kaempferias, whose highly patterned leaves look like hot-climate hostas dressed for Hollywood. And somewhere I know 1 saw a dwarf banana…

Zone envy? I’m totally over it. 

Nurseries of Note: Big Bloomers Flower Farm

Pack a sleeping bag (or at least lunch) t when you head for Big Bloomers Flower Farm in Sanford, North Carolina. You’ll spend hours perusing 17 greenhouse over 30,000 square feet-packed with perennials, herbs, annuals, and tropicals, as well as woodies like roses, clematis. and hydrangeas. Open daily; hours vary.

Places to Visit: The Gardens at UCA

Tucked between tall buildings on the UGA campus, A professor Allan Armitage’s trial gardens test the newest annuals, perennials, and tropicals in lush, well-maintained beds. New additions this year in- elude Alternathera ‘Red Threads’. All plants v are labeled, so plan to take notes; high scorers join Armitage’s elite Athens Select program.

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