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A Tropical Revival

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 1999


While half the gardening world has found righteousness in ecologically correct native wildflowers, the other half is swinging, baby.

The once quirky and positively Victorian pursuit of growing tropical plants in our temperate climate has become the rage once more. It's called the banana-canna craze, and the more luxuriant, outlandish and over-the-top you make it, the better.

Even before tropical plants became familiar to 19th century gardeners as houseplants and seasonal plantings outdoors, they were the ultimate mark of status. You needed the resources to build, maintain and staff an orangerie to keep such exotic treasures.

As Dean Norton, horticulturist at Mount Vernon, points out: "The thing that allowed [George] Washington to make it in the social ladder more than anything was his greenhouse. The prospect of seeing an orange or a palm in Virginia was exciting. We are just kind of going back. Everything in horticulture is full circle."

Except today, you don't need a big greenhouse: There are plenty of growers who raise tropical plants for you. And, the choice of varieties has never been richer, or, in the Internet age, easier to obtain. One grower, Glasshouse Works, lists 120 different varieties of coleus alone on its Web site.

Airplanes and telecommunications may have shrunk the globe since Washington's day, but it's still a thrill to grow and admire the flora of lush and romantic places that most of us know only secondhand or in our imaginations.

With a little effort, it is possible to have plants from every tropical and subtropical region of the world, for example, caladiums (South America); calla lilies (southern Africa); bananas (Africa and India); heliconias (Central America and the Pacific Islands); and hibiscus (tropical regions of Africa, the Americas and Asia). Palms are native to virtually every hot region, including the Americas, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Plants in these hot, steamy jungles, where light is scarce, have learned to grow rapidly to gigantic proportions. Some bamboos can grow inches in a single day. It's this very oversized quality that has helped foster the revival in tropicals.

"They're fast, you get easy results, a lot of blooms all season, and beautiful foliage," said Ray Rogers, gardening editor at DK Publishing in New York. "They're also easy to grow in containers, and people are moving to containers because they don't have much land."

The range of tropical plants is boundless because you don't have to limit yourself to plants that make it through the winter outdoors. None of them will. (Around October, you either discard them, or lift them and bring them indoors to store live, dormant or as stock for cuttings the following year.)

In addition to bananas and cannas you can grow such enchanting specimens as coleus, caladiums, taro, various palms and bamboos, tender ferns, calla lilies, castor bean, papyrus or common houseplants, including dracaenas, begonias and hibiscus.

There is no rule against planting them in your garden beds, though we suggest gathering them in large containers for several reasons:

Grouped in one prominent and discrete place, the tropicals are easier to care for and also make a stronger design statement. It's also easier to organize the arrangement with form, color and textures in mind. Further, it lets you place the arrangements where garden beds won't work: on a balcony, close to a terrace, hiding a woodpile or beneath that dark and thirsty silver maple tree.

There's one other reason:

"It's fun," said Janet Draper, a horticulturist at the Smithsonian Institution.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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