Never mind that you live in the temperate Midwest. With plants like cannas, castor beans, elephant ears and bananas, you can turn your garden into an exotic jungle.
Cherished by Victorians who grew their make-believe jungles on large estates, these plants with their lush leaves and bold blossoms are once again popular. Today's gardeners bring new drama to the smallest of outdoor spaces by planting tropical plants in containers or tucking them into flower beds.
Cannas offer flamboyant flowers plus tropical foliage. Easy to grow from rhizomes in sun or partial shade, they come in sizes ranging from dwarfs less than two feet tall to giants seven feet tall.
The showy flowers, often called canna lilies, are orange, pink, red, rose or yellow. You can have your choice of foliage colors, too; the big leaves come in bronze, burgundy, green or even multicolor stripes.
Plant cannas after the danger of spring frost. Space dwarf varieties 12 inches apart and tall ones 18 to 24 inches apart, covered with two inches of soil.
Although cannas can't survive a Midwest winter, the fleshy rhizomes are easy to store indoors in the basement or other cool, frost-free space. After the first fall frost, clip off the foliage an inch or two above the ground, then dig up the rhizomes and let them dry for a few days.
Castor beans are wonderful for a quick, showy hedge, or a dramatic accent in a container. An ancient annual that's as easy to grow from seed as most beans, they grow to heights of six to 10 feet with huge, 2-foot-wide leaves.
Castor beans grow best in full sun. You can plant the seeds directly in the soil after the last spring frost, or give the plants a head start by sprouting the seeds indoors. The seeds are poisonous, though, so keep them away from small children.
Elephant's ear, or taro (Colocasia), is another bold foliage plant that is in vogue again. The 2- or 3-foot-long, heart-shaped leaves are sometimes bright green, sometimes dark green, with green or violet stems.
Grown from tuberous roots that thrive in soggy soil, the plants do well in sun or light shade. When fall frost threatens, move plants indoors; elephant's ear makes a good houseplant as long it has a bright spot and plenty of water.
Bananas don't grow on trees. Instead, the giant plants grow from corms, like gladioli and crocuses. After each fleshy stem bears fruit, it dies and is replaced with another stem.
Banana plants grow best in warm weather with full sun. If you want to harvest any fruit, you must move a plant indoors to a warm, sunny spot at summer's end; a banana plant needs at least 10 months to produce bananas. But, even without bananas, the colorful leaves of the fast-growing banana plant are a tropical delight.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden