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The Main Ingredient

Like many gardeners, I spent several years caught up in the overstuffed container craze. I simplified, and re-discovered that certain tropical plants—by virtue of their strength or flamboyance or natural charm—make dynamic focal points that deserve the spotlight, supported by a few beautiful, secondary companions...
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Like many gardeners, I spent several years caught up in the overstuffed container craze. But with so many plants packed into each pot, my containers started to seem like variations of the same ornamental soup. I began to crave fewer ingredients, distinct flavors. I simplified, and re-discovered that certain tropical plants—by virtue of their strength or flamboyance or natural charm—make dynamic focal points that deserve the spotlight, supported by a few beautiful, secondary companions.

Outstanding Foliage

Gold-vein plant, Sanchezia speciosa, offers eight-inch gold-and-green-striped leaves and ruby stems. At three feet tall, its forms a simple but stellar duet with creeping Acalypha repens, strawberry firetails, whose fruity red catkins echo the sanchezia’s colorful stems. A trio of plants also flatters sanchezia: flashy red Verbena peruviana; the golden needles of six-inch Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’; and a splash of mid-height color from fourteen-inch-tall Salvia coccinea ‘Lady in Red’.

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Succulent three-foot Kalanchoe prolifera resembles a Jurassic brassica, with a broccoli’s thick stalk and deeply lobed foliage. The waxy gray-green leaves have wine-purple edges that are complimented by Iresine ‘Purple Lady’, an indispensable burgundy-leaved groundcover. Three small aloes tucked around the kalanchoe’s base further the prehistoric look. (I use an unknown species with toothed, agave-like leaves, but everyday Aloe vera will do.)

Ruddy Cordyline ‘Red Sensation’ forms a 30-inch-tall whorled rosette whose strong architectural form begs for the simplest of contrasting companions. With its smooth lemon yellow foliage shaped like tiny pebbles, Sedum mackinoi ‘Ogon’ answers that plea, creating a haze of color a mere two inches high. Nest a few hens-and-chickens (Sempervivum sp.)—such as russet-gray ‘Rubra Ash’—among the sedum’s tiny stems for a sophisticated color echo of darker ‘Red Sensation’.

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In the heat of summer, few ornamentals look fresher than shade-loving Curcuma petiolata ‘Emperor’, with its broad, 18-inch leaves liberally edged with white. Two-foot-tall ‘Emperor’ creates a cool scene when combined with frosty white impatiens and dark purple heliotrope, or a shocking one when orange or coral impatiens are used. Shady containers also benefit from rhizomatous Begonia carolinifolia, grown for its palmate compound forest green leaves, which grow to 20 inches across. Looking rather like a two-foot-tall tropical palm, B. carolinifolia excels against a backdrop of three-foot-tall Salvia splendens ‘Van Houttei’, which produces scarlet blossoms held in burgundy bracts. Spilling from the front of the container, Impatiens repens sports rounded, half-inch somber green leaves on burgundy stems.

Tropical smokebush, Euphorbia cotinifolia, produces ruby red leaves that burn with copper tints when they are backlit. I used to surround four-foot-tall E. cotinifolia with masses of Salvia splendens ‘Van Houttei’ and Solenostemon ‘Red Trailing Queen’, but these days I’d rather echo the euphorbia’s delightful response to sunlight and enhance its tree-like qualities by setting it in a simple “field” of grass. The see-through strands of delicate Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) catch the light at the euphorbia’s knees. Where that little grass’s self-seeding tendencies aren’t appreciated, try Muhlenbergia capillaris. Its stiff green blades aren’t showy, but its wine-purple plumes will glow in late-summer sun. Or, where it’s legal to grow, use green and red Imperata cylindrica (Japanese blood grass) to enhance the euphorbia’s ruby tones.

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Black-leaf shooting star, Pseuderanthemum atropurpureum, produces espresso-dark leaves that deserve better accompaniment than the infrequent white flowers it bears. The scrambling vine Senecio confusus makes a willing floral partner, its inch-wide tangerine daisies intensified by the rich java color of the three-foot-tall pseuderanthemum’s foliage. At the pair’s base, a fiery ring of orange-and-gold Lantana ‘Spreading Sunset’ sets the combination aflame. Such incendiary companions would be inappropriate for variegated shooting star, Pseuderanthemum carruthersii, which produces five-inch long, wine-purple and beet-pink leaves. But magenta-blossomed Petunia integrifolia will send a few stems climbing into variegated shooting star’s embrace, while others can trail into the green, white, and pink foliage of tricolor basket grass, Oplismenus hirtellus ‘Variegatus’.

The foliage of acalyphas, collectively known as copperleaf, offers complex color schemes that incorporate brown, orange and coral tones. Three-foot-tall A. wilkesiana ‘Obovata’ bears six-inch milk chocolate leaves edged in fiery coral pink. It pairs well with the slender coral blossoms of Fuchsia triphylla ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ and trailing portulacas in apricot tones. The pastel coral-and-chartreuse stems of succulent sticks-on-fire, Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Rosea’, make a wonderful textural contrast for the broad leaves of cinnamon- and cayenne-splashed A. wilkesiana ‘Macafeeana’. At 40 inches tall, green-leaved Acalypha hispida makes up for its lack of foliar drama with strawberry-red catkins that reach 12 to 18 inches in length. The tiny toothed leaves of low-growing Solenostemon ‘Ruby Ruffles’ highlight the acalypha’s fun, funky dreadlocks.

Intriguing Flowers

Tropical yellow bells, Tecoma stans, produces glossy pinnate foliage on four-foot stems, topped from midsummer to frost with clusters of delightful lemon yellow trumpets. The refreshing color, like that of daffodils, plays beautifully with the rosy lilac blooms of trailing Lantana montevidensis, extending springtime’s soothing shades into summer and autumn. Close cousin to T. stans, Tecomaria capensis (cape honeysuckle) counters with fiery mandarin orange flowers set against delicate lacy foliage. A ruff of coppery Solenostemon ‘Rustic Orange’ suits tecomaria, and spilling over the container’s edges, a skirt of Iresine ‘Purple Lady’.

The woody six-foot stems of Tibouchina grandifolia carry aloft seven-inch sage green leaves whose silvery hairs capture and reflect sunlight. With such inspired foliage, its late summer flowers would almost be an afterthought, were they not gorgeous and borne in huge, 18-inch trusses. The tibouchina’s cupped red-violet blossoms clamor for color echoes, easily provided by low-growing Verbena canadensis ‘Homestead Purple’ or the more delicate V. tenuisecta ‘Decked Out’. Fluffy mounds of wiry Cuphea glutinosa, with its continuous supply of tiny lilac blooms, help disguise the tibouchina’s bare ankles.

By re-envisioning my containers as microcosms of design, I’ve learned to create strong, even stark displays that make exciting architectural statements. I can once again enjoy the unique personalities of my plants and savor the sweet taste of simplicity.