Skip to site navigation

Important notice: by continuing to use our site you are deemed to have accepted our privacy and cookie policy

Subtropical wonders to grow

Advertise here
Support the RHS

Support the RHS

Free days out at more than 140 gardens.
Join the RHS
Buy as a gift

10 choice hardy plants for a subtropical look

If you've ever visited Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset, and wished you could create a subtropical flavour in your own garden, the good news is - you can.

'Many UK gardeners can grow really good half-hardy plants with a subtropical Mediterranean flavor,' says Curator Stephen Griffith.

'Others with more northerly gardens will need to narrow their choice, but with careful consideration of microclimate, it is still possible for many people to achieve a lush, exotic effect.'

Stephen Griffiths

We asked Stephen to select 10 plants that can be used to give an exotic, architectural quality, while remaining hardy even after severe winters.

1. Trachycarpus fortunei (Chusan palm)

Trachycarphus fortuneiThis species is one of the most cold hardy palms and very familiar in many gardens in temperate zones. In time it can make 8-10m with fan-shaped leaves and a slender hairy trunk. It is not fussy with soil but a rich moist soil will promote faster growth. The leaves can get tatty with age until the new ones emerge in the spring.

2. Aralia elata (Japanese angelica tree)

Aralia elataA deciduous shrub or small tree with large double pinnate leaves, a prickly trunk, and large umbels of white flowers in the autumn. It grows quite happily in part shade and deep loamy soils. The variegated form is much sought after and has a really exotic look.

3. Fatsia japonica

Fatsia japonica aureaThe large green, glossy and palmate leaves have a really good subtropical effect and can mimic more exotic jungle plants. The added bonus is the late white panicles of globular flower heads that appear in October. Good in sun or shade. There are some good forms with variable and interesting colored variegation to the leaves.

4. Phyllostachys vivax f. aureocaulis

Phyllostachys vivax aureocaulisThis is a really stunning bamboo with beautiful golden culms with some green striping. It can make a large grove but is rarely invasive. Height up to 8m and spread 3m. It is cold hardy to -21C (zone 6); in snow the yellow canes can provide superb winter interest.

5. Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo)

Phyllostachys nigraThis is one of the most reliable bamboos for clumping except on very dry soils where it may start to run in search of moisture. Good light is needed to get the lovely black canes to darken. Like most bamboos, this likes a well-fed, rich, moisture retentive soil.

6. Yucca gloriosa (Adam's needle)

Yucca variegataYucca can be evergreen perennials, shrubs or trees, with rosettes of stiff, sword-shaped leaves and tall panicles of bell-shaped flowers.
'Variegata' (pictured) is a medium-sized evergreen shrub with stiff, spine-tipped leaves striped and edged creamy-yellow. Bell-shaped cream flowers to 2m in height appear in late summer and autumn. They like a hot dry, well drained position in full sun.

7. Callistemon salignus (bottlebrush)

Callistemon salignusThe flowers of the bottlebrush really live up to the name. This species has yellow flowers and willow–like leaves, and is one of the hardiest of the bottlebrush family. It does not like shallow chalky soils.

8. Miscanthus x giganteus

Miscanthus x giganteusMostly a clump forming rhizomatous grass getting up to 3m tall and a great statement at the back of the border, with pendant leaves drooping down. It dies down in winter but is reliably hardy.

9. Dryopteris wallichiana

Dryopteris wallichianaThis is a magnificent woodland fern that will contribute to the subtropical exotic ground cover look in a shady spot. It is hardy throughout Great Britain yet surprisingly has a diverse native range from the mountains of the Himalaya, Hawaii and Mexico.

10. Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Madame Galen’

This climber produces very exotic looking trumpet shaped orange to red flowers in late summer. It is a woody, vigorously climbing vine for a large wall in full sun to part shade.


  • You can read more about Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in the August 2013 issue of The Garden

See Abbotsbury for yourself

Abbotsbury illuminated at night

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens is an RHS Partner Garden offering free entry to RHS members (main cardholder) from Jan-Feb and Oct-Dec.

Advertise here

Wild About Gardens

Wild About Gardens

Want to know more about how you can make your garden a great place for wildlife.  Wild About Gardens has a wealth of information.