We are in the midst of a tropical horticultural revolution. Do we have what it takes?  Can a South Sound garden filled with the requisite rhododendrons, azaleas and Japanese maples find happiness with a plant palette worthy of Jurassic Park? Yes, we “do” have what it takes and it “can” work. . In fact, the marriage of a typical Pacific Northwest landscape to a tropical paradise is a nearly perfect union. They go together very well.

      Consider “Tarzan” without the chimps and “Lost” without the beach. Picture canopies of trees and lush, large leaved foliage underplanted with dense ground covers or ground-hugging vines and you have a scene worthy of Mahi Mahi and Mojitos. The tropical “look” can be accomplished with a little imagination and a lot of plant savvy.

      To get the idea of a tropical South Sound garden, take a trip to Jungle Fever Exotics, a one-of-a-kind plant nursery near the entrance to Point Defiance in Tacoma. This is definitely the place to start for inspiration and education. Owners, Jerry  Cearley and Darlene Allard opened the nursery ten years ago.  Jerry is a native Washingtonian who was smitten by the beauty of tropicals by collecting his own personal jungle of house plants. Then he took a vacation in Hawaii and a lifelong obsession was born. He decided that if he couldn’t grow all of the heat loving tropicals he found in the islands, he could at least come really close by growing plants that had a tropical look and feel. He experimented and found what worked. Jungle Fever is like no other nursery in Washington. Walking toward the front gate, you know you are about to enter a different world. Walk outside the entrance, halfway around the block and there will be no doubt that you have entered a different world. If you want to see what is tropically possible, this is the place to visit. Jerry is the South Sound’s tropical expert.

     The tropical revolution has been slowly building here in the South Sound for several years.  What started out as a passion among plants people like Jerry at Jungle Fever who push the zonal envelope and reach for the “unusual” has turned into an exciting journey for home gardeners who are just a little weary of the sameness of Pacific Northwest perennial and shrub borders. As beautiful as they are and as much as we love our gardens, it’s always a little thrilling to bring in something new and different. Tropical and tropical- looking plants can add a lot of pizzazz.

     The South Sound has plenty of rain, mild winter temperatures and our fair share of winds in what passes for a “normal” year. That’s almost all that a tropical garden needs. Of course, we could use some more heat for the true tropical garden but then we would be shortchanged on our favorite pastime…complaining about the weather.

     Weather-complaining aside, creating a tropical looking garden requires one basic but important garden design principle, “layering”. 

     The fun starts when you decide how to “layer” the plants in your garden using what you already have planted. Then, little by little, adding something new and different becomes the challenge.

    The first layer, the high canopy, sets the stage. Deciduous trees of every shape and size can give an umbrella-like effect.  Trees are the all-important top layer. Even large maples, dogwoods and fruit trees can accomplish tropical-like foliage ceilings. Deciduous trees provide just the right mix of year round light and shade for the remaining plant layers. Windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) are tropical workhorses that withstand most winters and can reach 20 feet or more.  Jerry at Jungle Fever is training a large fig tree to look like a Banyan tree. You have to see it to believe it. Eucalypts are fast growing canopies and if planted where drainage is fast they easily survive our winters. Steamboat Island Nursery (http://www.olywa.net/steamboat/) outside of Olympia has an amazing array of hardy Eucalypts and a long list of tropicals.

      The next layer is the one that creates the illusion that the South Sound is truly tropical. Two words describe the focus of the luxuriant second layer…BIG LEAVES!  The plant list is endless. More common large leaved plants like Fatsia japonica, ornamental rhubarb (Rheum spp.), Elephant ears (Colocasia) and Ligularia are excellent fillers and easily found in nurseries that keep a good supply of perennials and bulbs. Evergreen magnolias are good midstory plants and give some winter interest.  Even large leaved “also-known-as” house plants can be temporary fill-ins, pots and all. If the container is hidden, who’s to know that it isn’t miraculously growing in your tropical garden paradise? These inside plants love being outside in the warmer days and can remain outside throughout our mild autumn. Just make sure you de-bug them before you bring them back in for the winter.

     Once the more common big leaved plants have been found and planted, the “hunting and gathering” fever takes over. Now it’s time to find plants that are uncommon, unusual and ones you didn’t even know you needed.   You’re only limited by your imagination and the remaining credit on your Visa/Mastercard.

      Some amazing pre-historic looking, giant-leaved plants can survive in the South Sound.  Gunnera manicata, Tasmanian Tree Ferns, and the queen of the Northwest tropical gardens, the hardy banana (Musa basjoo) are available at local specialty nurseries. They all take some extra mulching but the rewards are unbelievable. The Gunnera leaves can be 5 feet across, the Tasmanian/Australian tree fern (Dicksonia Antarctica) can reach 7 feet tall, and the hardy banana can tower over all of them. One unusual and effective way to get a really big leaved plant is to do some serious pruning on a young   Empress tree (Pawlonia tomentosa).  Let it grow for 3 or 4 years just to make sure it’s well established and then cut it to the ground in spring. You will be rewarded with a short tree with fuzzy leaves two feet long, a real tropical looking oddity. Granted, this is not for the purist who actually wants to see the beautiful purple flower of the Empress tree in May but for the tropical gardener it’s a secret thrill. I wonder if it would work on a Catalpa.

    The second layer also creates the tapestry; blending texture, depth of color and form. Big Leaves are the anchor for “layer two” but the larger leaves need to be complimented by other leaf sizes and shapes. These produce the garden’s richness.  Texturizing tropical gardens is just like texturizing a typical English style garden. Mix light-absorbing, matte finished leaves and light-reflecting highly polished leaves to give added interest and dimension.

      Color in a tropical garden is achieved with foliage color rather than flower color. Merlot colored foliage mixed with lighter greens can be breathtaking. Leaves of the Cannas are eventually accompanied by their bright flowers but the flowers almost detract from the dark purple, chartreuse and red streaks of the foliage. Grow tropicals for the foliage and if they happen to have a bloom, consider it a bonus. Having few flowering plants makes you appreciate the flowers even more. Flowering maple (Abutillon), Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), and even hardy fuchsias take on a completely new look when they are the flower focus of a garden filled with so many permutations of green.   Variations in leaf form complete the picture. Mix large with  small, round with spiky and palm shaped with fernlike leaves. New Zealand Flax (Phormium), pinapple lilies (Eucomis), clumping (not running) bamboo or even iris leaves bring vertical interest. Just about any fern will work. Mixing evergreen and deciduous ferns adds extra form and texture.

     The third and final layer, and arguably the South Sound gardener’s favorite, is ground cover. We LOVE ground cover! This is what ties it all together. The great thing about tropical garden ground cover is that it is not the typical all-the-same-carpet of vinca, pachysandra and ajuga. This is where the tapestry effect really takes center stage. Be bold! Forget all the usual rules. Use vines, ground hugging shrubs and try experimenting with lots of different perennial ground covers, both evergreen and deciduous. The important thing is to mix it up. It is almost guaranteed that you will end up with surprise combinations that were unplanned and far better looking than you would have imagined. Anything goes. If you can see soil, you don’t have enough plants. Words to live by no matter what kind of gardening you like to do. With mulching and ground covers, weeding isn’t even necessary and watering can be kept to a minimum.

    So, if you can’t go to the tropics, why not bring the tropics to you. It’s a style of gardening that is very attainable and you don’t have to get rid of everything you’re already growing to add a little tropical flavor.

    Reprinted with permission Premier Media Group, South Sound Magazine,

Tacoma, WA