Tropical Plants in Your Desert Garden | Tropical Plants in Containers | Gardening in Las Cruces |
Pink and orange hibiscus flower in full bloom. Tropical plants

The desert Southwest, which often receives blazing sun for months and less than 10 inches of rain a year, isn’t a tropical paradise that supports tropical plants. Obviously, only indestructible natives and tough drought-tolerant plants survive — unless one plans to spend the equivalent of a car payment on water bills throughout the summer. And yet — and yet — who doesn’t fantasize about the lush leaves, colorful flowers, and sensuous tangle of a tropical garden? Since I don’t like to spend a fortune on irrigation and, like many, I am concerned about using our precious water resources to maintain a thirsty garden, I prefer to create my tropical oasis in containers on a sheltered patio.

Many tropical plants have large and abundant leaves that droop, pout, and fry in our sun — though they thrive in humid heat. While some tropicals grow directly in water and moist places, we can find many that thrive in soil with regular watering — especially in containers with drainage holes and trays. Luckily for me, many tropical plants have adapted to drought followed by monsoons, so they tolerate my inattention very well.

tropical plants flower with bright pink petals What to know about tropical plants

A tropical plant is defined as one that originates from the geographical region on both sides of the equator, bounded by the Tropic of Cancer to the north and the Tropic of Capricorn to the south. Many of our drought-tolerant favorites may come from these areas, which include Africa, South and Central America, Australia, India, and the Caribbean and South Pacific Islands. The day length is the same every day of the year. The tropics are very sunny, and the temperatures have only minor fluctuations during the year. Seasonal weather patterns mainly cause variations in the amount of rainfall, so there are dry spells.

Most traditional houseplants are tropical plants that originate in the tropics, which means they cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing. However, they benefit from being outdoors in the summer. These tender plants must be brought indoors in winter or treated as annuals that last just one season. Since tropicals prefer humidity, they are at their most abundant and beautiful in the late summer and early fall when we are getting rainstorms and humidity.

Creating Tropical Plant Containers

To create tropical plant containers, choose a sunny to partial shade site, select generous-sized containers, and provide ample moisture and fertilizer. Then go wild with a selection of exotic plants that make you think of steel drums, colorful birds, and paradise. Begin in a spacious area by setting your pots and trays in place. The containers will be difficult to move when filled with soil and plants. When selecting containers for this tropical illusion, choose planters in a range of brilliant colors, a color theme, or simple clay pots to create a subtle background. Perhaps tuck a tiki torch into a pot for height and nighttime drama.

A tropical plant garden is an extravaganza of texture, form, and color. Arrange your containers as if you are creating a floral design with tall pots at the back or center with lower pots in front. Add plant stands, pillars, or bricks to raise containers to the height needed for your design. Remember to envision the height of fully grown plants when you are arranging containers. After all, cannas, bananas, and palm-like plants grow to be 3 to 5 feet tall plus the height of the container.

Create a tropical ambiance by layering plants and flowers. For height, plant dramatic pots of cannas, elephant ears, castor bean, or palm-like plants, such as fan palm, sago palm, or dwarf palmetto. Include vines, such as hot pink bougainvillea or sassy black-eyed Susan vine, trained to climb up a trellis or twine up tall plants. Soften and fill in the design with airy ferns — especially
asparagus-type ferns that take almost anything except full sun. Create impact with pops of color such as red, orange, pink, yellow, lime, or white with tropical plants like impatiens, begonias, geraniums, lantanas, and other bloomers to provide exotic color and texture.

tropical plants in containers on a sunny porch Add hanging baskets of spider plant, wandering jew, or purple heart. Hanging succulents, such as string of pearls or burro’s tail, add interest with their sinuous form. Experiment with variegated leaves in a rainbow of colors and patterns. Search for bi-color agaves, flashy coleus, or striped cannas. While you want the lush ambiance of the tropics, you don’t want to create a tangled jungle. To tame the tropical vibe, echo and repeat the same colors in variegated plants for harmony, such as planting pink and green coleus near a pink-variegated caladium. Tuck in a few
containers with a mass of flowers in a single color, such as a geranium or hibiscus.

Trail over the edges of the pots and along the patio with silver dichondra or lime green sweet potato vine for contrast. Don’t overlook burgundy, purple, and black plants for added mystery and drama. Seek out purple heart, Persian shield, purple fountain grass, or black elephant ear.

Add some architectural contrast with the sculptural forms of agave, cannas, or aloes. In summer, I move my collection of snake plants outdoors into partial shade. They range from tubular fan-shaped forms to vertical spears, often with colorful stripes. Some of our favorite native plants can provide structure and contrast, including red yucca, sotol, and bear grass. Just be sure these natives receive lots of sun and have pots with excellent drainage.

To increase the humidity on the patio and create a soothing sound, consider a tub or low container of floating water plants, such as water hyacinth or tiny, delicate duckweed. Add a pump and
allow the water to run over some decorative rocks or add a small water spray for the soothing mist and sound of moving water. Pick up the tropical theme again with some bamboo wind chimes.

Then twine some lanterns or fairy lights through some of the planters for evening sparkle. Your exotic container garden can provide the perfect escape from our harsh sun and heat — not to mention daily stress — without extreme efforts or giant utility bills. Relax! Enjoy!


Discover other tropical plants like Butterfly Pea Flower here.


Story and photography by Jackye Meinecke

Originally published in Neighbors magazine.

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