Big, Bold, Tropical Foliage Plants

Brilliant crotons and cascading Scaevola aemula ‘Blue Fan’ look striking in this container planting.

Big, bold, tropical plants look amazing in summer gardens and large containers and drink up the summer heat and humidity. Ornamental bananas, exotic elephant ears, upright sansevierias, strappy cordyline, and colorful croton are typically grown only indoors or way down South, but they thrive in any place that’s steamy. Placing them in the right spot in summer with the bedding plant companions is part of the fun.

Big Leaves

Codiaeum variegatum

The multi-colored visual pop of croton (Codiaeum variegatum) leaves look good in any bold planting. The Southeast Asian shrub likes it as hot and humid as it gets and looks great in partial shade or sun. Provide it with quality, well-drained potting soil (Black Gold All-Purpose Potting Soil with RESiLIENCE®) and regular water, it will perform well. There are many varieties with leaves that vary in color and size. (Visit the Croton Society webpage to learn more.) The manageable size of croton makes it a good plant to pair in containers with colorful bloomers, such as Lantana camera, cascading Scaevola aemula ‘Blue Fan’, and tropical Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, which has brightly colored disc-shaped flowers.

Cordyline fruticosa 'Kiwi'
Cordyline fruticosa ‘Kiwi’

Tropicals with bold, strappier leaves include the West Pacific native Cordyline, African Sansevieria, and corn plant (Dracaena fragrans). Plant these in beds or large pots for a dramatic impact. The more colorful the foliage, the better. Cordyline fruticosa ‘Kiwi’ has a soft but notable color with its pink-, cream-, and green-striped foliage. For pretty gold and green variegated foliage, choose Dracaena fragrans ‘Golden Coast’ with its leaves striped with gold, dark green, and medium green. The nearly vertical leaves of the drought-tolerant Sansevieria trifasciata look great on their own in a pot or paired with a cascading accompaniment of plants at the base, like Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ or creeping sedums. 

Bigger Leaves

Elephant ear or ornamental taro (Colocasia esculenta), originates from Southeast Asia and has big leaves that come in lots of attractive colors. Choose extra colorful purple-black cultivars and cheerful chartreuse or gold variants. Bicolors, such as the green-leaved, purple-speckled ‘Mojito’, also make a big garden statement.

Colocasia esculenta ‘Mojito’

Elephant ears are moisture-loving and grow well in wet soils if given the opportunity. They make excellent container specimens and should be planted in an ultra-organic potting soil with a high water-holding capacity, such as Black Gold® Moisture Supreme Container Mix with RESiLIENCE.


Biggest Leaves

Gigantic-leaved plants require tons of space but look spectacular and fun if properly placed in the landscape. Add one plant to a single pot. Abyssinian red banana (Ensete maurelii), with its broad, reddish green leaves, or the massive giant elephant ear (Colocasia gigantea), with its 5-6′ leaves, command visual attention and are best planted where big, focal statements are needed. An open patio area or broad, open

Ensete maurelii

fence line or border would be perfect. The 6-8′, banana canna (Canna ‘Musifolia’), which has reddish leaves much like those of Ensete maurelii, is another impressive easy-to-grow garden plant. Grow these in full to partial sun alongside finer-leaved, colorful companions. Tall amaranths, purple-red-leaved Hibiscus acetocellus, and formidable ornamental grasses are all great choices.

Grow these bold ornamentals if you are seeking to fill space fast and want your garden to feel like a tropical paradise. Once the threat of frost has passed you can plant them outdoors, but don’t expect them to take off until the warm, humid weather of the summer months begins. Then, watch the magic!

Hip, Sustainable Rugosa Roses

Wild rugosa roses typically have showy, single, pink flowers that stand bright against disease resistant, rugose foliage.

If you’re yearning for sustainable, self-sufficient or fast ways to get slow food, add a hip-producing rose or two to your landscape. Don’t choose modern, easy-care types that are too highly bred to be useful. Instead start with the Asian Rosa rugosa, which is more cold hardy and drought resistant than most others along with being a great fruit producer. It’s also nearly pest and disease free, making it the perfect first fruit-producing rose of choice.

Edible Hips

I have always cultivated rugosas for their enormous fruits, called “hips”, that follow the pollinated flower. The tart rugosa fruits are some of the largest of all roses and mature to dark red in the fall. If left on the upright canes, their color pops after early snowfall.

rose rugosa hip
The large round hips of Rosa rugosa are tart, flavorful and packed with nutrients.

Rugosa hips range in diameter from the size of a nickel to as large as a quarter. The soft, astringent flesh inside is chock full of vitamins. When dried, they make an amazing medicinal tea for cold and flu. Their medicinal value was discovered by the British during World War II when citrus importation was limited. Finding a local source of vitamin C was essential to staving off scurvy in the children, and rose hips from English gardens saved the day. Since then, rose hips became coveted for jams and jellies, concentrated syrups or as vitamin rich additives to medicinal teas. Adding fresh rose hips to a quick bread or cookies also lends unique flavor and adds nutritional value.

Rugosa Growth

Rugosa roses have a more brambly growth habit in that they spread via underground rhizomes and can eventually form thickets–particularly if planted in sandy, friable soils. The roots send up canes all along the way to eventually create a large dense plant. This has made rugosas the most popular rose for creating carefree hedges that don’t need to be pampered or sprayed. Rather than planting a hedge of boxwood or some other strictly ornamental shrub, use rugosas instead. There are many cultivated varieties of this rose that bloom red, white or the common pink, you get food and flowers.

Rugosa hips continue to look pretty into winter until they are consumed by wildlife.
Unused hips continue to look pretty into winter until they are consumed by wildlife. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Plant non-grafted rugosas bareroot in spring or from container plants any time from spring to fall. It’s advisable to start with well-rooted 1- or 5-gallon plants spaced apart at between 3 to 5 feet; good spacing allows plenty of room for each to spread out to fill the gaps quickly.

This rose is native to the coastal hillsides, sandy sea shores of China, but it has become established in many temperate, sandy locations worldwide, it grows best in sandy soils. Still it is adaptable and will grow well in all but poorly drained soils.

Planting Rugosa Roses

The easiest planting method for rugosas is to dig a trench, and amend the soil to encourage more adventurous rooting. (Trenching discourages root travel beyond the strict edges of the trench for a more precise linear hedge.) Amend the excavated soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to lighten clay or increase water holding capacity of sandy soils. Enrich it further with alfalfa meal, a favorite natural fertilizer of rose aficionados everywhere. The fertility of poor soils can also be boosted with alfalfa meal for even more nutrition at planting time.

These wild rugosa roses have formed brambly thickets along a sandy beach.
These wild rugosa roses have formed brambly thickets along a sandy beach. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Planting just one rugosa rose in your yard is the genesis for a more extensive fruit and flower harvest in the future. Simply allow plants to become established, then either create new ones by layering the stems, or dig out more adventurous rhizomes, sever and replant elsewhere.

No other rose is as well suited to the sustainable garden, urban agriculture and the hobby farm due to its ease of cultivation, pest and disease resistance and many uses in the kitchen. So plant easy care rugosa roses for hedges and as a fruit crop that bears heartily during the hard times, and ‘tween times, when there’s little else going in your garden.