Tropical Plant Treasures

Tropical Plant Treasures

Last weekend I had to get away—from my weedy beds and borders, from garden writing, from turning the composter, from everything. I could have gone to the beach or to a nice air-conditioned bookstore, but I decided that it might be more gratifying to revel in sumptuous flower beds and borders that are maintained by someone else. I got in the car and went to Skylands, the New Jersey State Botanical Garden in Ringwood.

Skylands did not disappoint. Masses of daylilies strutted their stuff throughout the beds, and waterlilies bloomed in the long watercourse. The perennial garden was hosting a veritable butterfly convention and the annuals were beginning to come into their own. The allee of trees was cool and inviting and the bog garden was full of life and dripping with humidity.

Amidst all this inspiration I noticed something. Tropical plants. Sprinkled liberally throughout the cultivated areas were palms, small banana trees and bromeliads either in pots or planted directly into beds. For the most part these tropical specimens were not massed, but used as accent plants. Though one does not usually associate bottle palms with beds of annual marigolds, the effect of that combination was not particularly jarring. I could almost imagine the long-ago owner of the Skylands manor house putting his conservatory plants outside for a summer vacation. Though Skylands is now officially owned by the State of New Jersey and ministered to by the Skylands Association, perhaps the indoor plants still get a summer in the sun.

The use of tropical specimens in the gardens at Skylands mirrors something that I see happening all around me. While my suburban neighborhood does not yet resemble a little corner of Hawaii or the Bahamas, I have noticed more and more cannas, caladiums, and especially mandevilla vines sprouting from beds and flanking doorways. I am not sure whether all of those plants (or their bulbs or tubers) are overwintered, but they are certainly out of doors during the summer months.

Of all the tropicals I find it easiest to like Mandevilla, which has gained in popularity over the past few years as more and more gardeners have recognized the virtues of vines. Sometimes known as “Chilean Jasmine”, Mandevilla is actually native to various South American locales. The most common cultivar is Mandevilla splendens var. ‘Alice Dupont’, named after the wife of Samuel DuPont, creator of the celebrated Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

‘Alice Dupont’ has 2-3-inch rosy pink flowers, that look, to some authorities, like morning glories. To my way of thinking they bear a greater resemblance to vinca blossoms, with whom they share a familial relationship. Either way, they are truly eye-catching. Mandevilla can grow to be 20-feet tall, but the advantage of the cultivated varieties is that blooming starts when the plants are quite young—about 1-foot high.

Mandevilla is a sun-lover, scrambling upward by way of tendrils, so you don’t have to bother yourself with the tedious chore of tying the climbing shoots. Just provide a convenient trellis, arbor, fencepost or other structure and the plant will do the rest. If you have an eyesore on your property (garbage cans, utility area, the view of your neighbor’s garage) that needs screening, all the better. In the absence of rain, water the plant when the soil appears dry, and feed it periodically throughout the blooming season. Remember the general rule: anything that blooms heavily tends to feed heavily.

When fall comes, you do not have to bid your Mandevilla farewell. Cut it back, pot it up (if it’s not already in a pot), and take it inside. Place it in a south-facing window, or the sunniest spot in your house, and water regularly. There is no need to fertilize until it goes out again in the spring. As with most outdoor plants that overwinter indoors, the Mandevilla will grow slowly and probably not blossom. That’s all right, you will have Amaryllis and African violets and kalanchoes for that. The glossy green leaves should remain to remind you of the glories of the summer blossoms.

If pink is not your color, there are white Mandevillas on the market, and the effect is cool and summery. Just recently I saw a brief write-up for a new cultivar, Mandevilla ‘Tropical Dreams’. This variety has yellow flowers and the added advantage of variegated foliage. There is also a more dramatic pink variety, Mandevilla ‘Red Riding Hood’ that features gold-throated rose-colored flowers accented with red.

Almost every garden center and mega-merchandiser carries Mandevilla in various sizes. If you don’t want to try the local retail outlets, you can also get Mandevilla from Glasshouse Works, Church Street, P.O. Box 97, Stewart, OH 45778; tel. (740) 662-2142 (information) or (800) 837-2142 (orders), or online at

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