Creative color

By Dee Nash June 2023

Get summer garden color without traditional flowers

Coleus | Photo by HCAST,

In an Oklahoma summer, many flowers hunker down and wait for cool fall temperatures. While others, like pansies, often give up, dying as soon as the sun gets hot.

Gardeners can have a summer landscape by growing fabulous, tropical plants with colorful foliage. Some tropicals, with their hot colors, can be a warm presence in the garden. Others like blue Cape plumbago cool things down by reflecting the summer sky.

In our climate, tropical plants die at winter’s end. But, if you take cuttings, you can keep your favorites going year after year by overwintering them under lights or in a sunny window. Many of my best plant combos call for tropical plants.

Now that I’ve convinced you of their garden worthiness, let’s look at several tropical plants you can add to your landscape this year. This is not an exclusive list, but these are many of my favorites.

Alternanthera ficoidea ‘Red Threads’ and many other varieties in this genus offer brilliant color no matter how high temperatures soar. A. dentata ‘Purple Knight’ has wider dark purple leaves and can be started from seed. ‘Little Ruby’ is as pretty as it sounds. All three perform like champs growing to their full size before season’s end. Visitors to my garden are always charmed by these small front-of-the-border plants.

Coleus scutellarioides, better known as simply coleus, is essential in the summer garden. Once hybridizers discovered how to make coleus sun tolerant, everyone could grow them nearly everywhere. I’m especially fond of coleus with large leaves like ‘El Brighto’ or ‘Saturn,’ along with bright green varieties like ‘Wasabi’ and ‘Electric Lime.’ I use coleus anywhere I need a spot of color while I wait for perennials to bulk up and perform. Coleus also look good behind petunias like Supertunia® Vista Bubblegum.

Many subtropical canna lilies overwinter in Oklahoma, but some, like those in the Tropicanna® series, are not as hardy. If you’re going to grow cannas, grow ones with interesting foliage like ‘Australia’ or ‘Cleopatra.’ Regular green cannas can take over your backyard in just a few years.

Royal Hawaiian Waikiki elephant ears | Photo courtesy of all American Selections

Colocasia esculenta, elephant ears, have come a long way from being tall shade plants with large green leaves. They are tropical plants with a big presence because John J. Cho, Ph.D., a plant pathologist and breeder in Hawaii, spent much of his career working on color, size and form. Dr. Cho’s introductions have Hawaiian names with many introduced under the Royal Hawaiian® name. Because of his groundbreaking work, we now have ‘White Lava,’‘Hawaiian Punch,’ ‘Maui Gold‘ and ‘Kona Coffee’ among others. Many of Dr. Cho’s selections can be grown in sun or partial sun. I grew ‘Black Coral’ one summer in full sun, and it grew well. New to the market this year is Royal Hawaiian® ‘Waikiki.’

Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’, variegated tapioca, has green and white leaves and pink stems. It can handle full sun too.

Pennisetum purpureum, purple fountain grass | Molly Shannon,

Pennisetum purpureum, purple fountain grass, sways beautifully in the garden. From the smaller varieties like ‘Fireworks’ to the large and in charge ‘Princess Caroline,’ you’ll have dark purple color all summer long. Larger varieties like ‘Prince’ will grow from a plug to a giant mound in a few months.

Remember, it’s important to transplant tropical plants once temperatures stabilize with nights above 50 degrees.

So, make room in your landscape for tropical foliage plants. They will ensure your summer garden is more interesting and keep the party going until frost. Plus, they’re so easy to grow. Everyone will declare you have a green thumb whether you do or not.

Category: Gardening

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