Gardening - Subtropical plants

Subtropical plants add a bold twist to any garden.

By Lee Ann Bramwell

A friend, who moved here recently from the south, became enamoured with tropical plants and enthusiastically ordered a whole bunch of gingers and heliconiums for her new summer-like garden. She chose what she wanted from a website, but was somewhat deflated when they arrived. They looked cold, miserable and ratty – pretty much like I do in the middle of winter.

However, I have these same flowers at my holiday villa in Northern Queensland, which bask in the glow of sunny, 28-degree days. They look happy, healthy and vibrant, and I decided I could probably revisit the idea of creating a truly balmy area here, just in time for summer.

I already have a heap of hibiscus, and now I’m keen to introduce a few bulbs. Having said that, I’d never do an entire garden of subtropical plants. They have a tendency for legginess, and are best mixed up with plants with fuller foliage all year round. But leggy or not, they are the absolute best for adding that startle factor. They’re bold, noisy and dramatic, they have flowers that can keep you fascinated for a long time, and even much of the foliage bears slow, intense scrutiny. Read on to discover different varieties.


Ginger abounds in Australia’s far north, and it used to grow freely around the banks of our stream. I’d pick the big, yellow flowers and the whole house would smell glorious for weeks on end. The shell ginger Alpinia zerumbet Variegata has gold and green pinstriped leaves, and its shell-like flowers are extraordinary. The flowering peacock ginger (Kaempferia pulchra) has tiny, lilac flowers through spring, summer and autumn. It likes deep to dappled shade, loose soil and is frost tender.

When you have leaves like these, who needs flowers? Actually, the caladium does bloom, but you wouldn’t notice.
When you have leaves like these, who needs flowers? Actually, the caladium does bloom, but you wouldn’t notice.


Blood lilies - (Haemanthus multiflorus) are like grapefruit-sized fireworks going off when the blooms emerge on leafless stalks, and it looks magical. There are several other very desirable species available in New Zealand.

Rain lilies - (Zephyranthes Habranthus) have a similar effect and bloom sporadically throughout the year, with trumpet-shaped flowers ranging from white to yellow and pink.Zephyranthes candida produces very showy, white, crocus-like flowers that open after autumn rain.

Caladiums - have flowers but most enthusiasts take them off to allow more energy to go into the foliage, which can be most astonishing. They rarely flower inside, but for outside, you can just about pick any combination you fancy – pink and green, green and white, red and black, you name it. Researchers are constantly developing new varieties, although looking at the images on Google, you’d think they would have pretty much covered the spectrum already. They love shade and humidity. Given the right conditions, they grow quickly, so even if you live in a cooler part of the country, you can enjoy them outside in summer, and have some inside as well.

Strelizia (left) may be slow to grow but, if you’re patient, it will warm any garden.
Strelizia (left) may be slow to grow but, if you’re patient, it will warm any garden.


Hibiscus plants are the way to go if bulbs are not your thing. There are three main choices: Hawaiian, with large, flamboyant blooms on a smaller shrub; Fijian, vigorous and easy-growing with smaller flowers; and Clarks hybrids, New Zealand-bred and well suited to Auckland conditions. Given the right location and care, any of these will provide spectacular colour, from late spring through to autumn. Strelizia (bird of paradise) will turn almost any garden tropical, even in cooler places. But it isn’t easy to grow and it’s slow, so don’t make it the main feature unless you’re a patient soul. Shop around and you’ll find some great artificial ones to keep you happy, until yours are doing the business.


Crinums are harder to kill than keep alive. They have big, funnel-shaped blooms on stalks around 60cm tall. The hardy crinum (Crinum bulbispermum) has twisted, greyish-green foliage and pink flowers, while Ellen Bosanquet has floppy, untidy leaves and spicy pink flowers. Cannas add height, and if you plant them en masse at the back of the garden, you can camouflage the ratty bits.

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