Exotic and subtropical plants

When creating an exotic-style or subtropical garden, start with a selection of undemanding hardy favourites with an exotic feel but also be adventurous and experiment with some tender species that come into their own in late summer.

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens

Introduction

In recent years, changing climatic conditions has meant a greater range of exotic, subtropical and southern hemisphere plants can now be cultivated in more temperate climates.

Plant nurseries are beginning to provide many of these plants, encouraging gardeners to experiment and successfully grow exotics as summer to autumn becomes warmer and spring arrives earlier.

To learn more about growing these plants see Exotic and subtropical gardening.

Practical considerations

Before choosing which plants to try it is important to understand your garden. Here are a few points to consider before making your choice:

  • Assess the microclimate of your garden - some northern gardens may need to rely on a range of hardy plants with the exuberance and colour of exotic ones. City or southern gardens may have the necessary sheltered, warm conditions needed for a range of tender plants to thrive
  • Consider the ultimate height and spread of your plant choices, many suitable exotic-style plants often grow tall and are wide-spreading
  • Consider the rate of growth of these plants
  • A suitable soil test (RHS Soil Analysis Service) will help identify the soil texture and acidity or alkalinity which will influence the range of suitable plants that can be grown. Acid-loving (lime-hating) or ericaceous plants grow best in a pH range of 4-6 and ideally pH 5-5.5

Suitable plants

This section consists of usually widely available plants for general garden use. Many of the annuals and perennials listed can be grown from seed or cuttings and overwintered in frost-free conditions. Residents in city centres, milder coastal areas, southern counties and owners of warm, sheltered sunny walls might add considerably to these lists.

The following are given a hardiness rating (H) to help decide on their cultivation requirements:

Trees

Albizia julibrissin f. rosea AGM (H4) (silk tree) fern-like mid-green leaves and in summer, clusters of fluffy rose-pink flowerheads. Height to 6m (20ft)
Catalpa speciosa (H6) glossy dark-green heart-shaped leaves to 30cm (1ft) long and large white summer flowers followed by pods. Height 10m (30ft) or more
Cordyline indivisa (H3) (mountain cabbage tree) narrow, lance-shaped mid green leaves. Height 6m (20ft)
Eriobotrya japonica AGM (H4) (loquat) large corrugated dark-green leaves, white autumn flowers and orange-yellow fruits in spring. Height 8m (24ft)
Eucalyptus pulverulenta ‘Baby Blue’ (H5) (silver-leaved mountain gum) peeling white bark grey-bronze beneath, heart-shaped blue-green leaves with a silvery bloom. Height to 10m (30ft)
Liriodendron chinense AGM (H6) (Chinese tulip tree) dark-green lobed leaves, cup-shaped greenish yellow summer flowers. Eventual height 20m (60ft)
Magnolia macrophylla (H4) very large light-green leaves to 1m long, fragrant creamy-white summer flowers. Height 10m (30ft)
Paulownia kawakamii (H5) large heart-shaped, mid-green leaves to 35cm, early white or violet-blue flower panicles. Height 6m (20ft) or more
Podocarpus salignus AGM (H4) (willow-leaved podocarp) peeling red-brown bark and linear, evergreen, dark bluish-green leaves. Height 10m (30ft) or more

Shrubs

Abutilon megapotamicum AGM (H3) evergreen with pendent bell-shaped red and yellow flowers. Height 2m (6½ft)
Acca sellowiana (H3) (pineapple guava) evergreen grey-green leaves, purple-red flowers. Height 2m (6½ft)
Astelia chathamica AGM (H3) (silver spear) arching, leathery silver-scaly leaves. Height 1.2m (4ft)
Beschorneria yuccoides AGM (H3) succulent with fleshy grey-green leaves, vivid red bracts and yellow tinted bright-green summer flowers. Height 1.5m (5ft)
Chamaerops humilis (H4) bushy palm with bluish or greyish-green leaves. Height 2-3m (6½-9ft)
Daphniphyllum macropodum (H4) leathery dark-green evergreen with small purple-pink or green flowers
Euphorbia mellifera AGM (H3) (honey spurge) evergreen lance-shaped dark-green leaves and terminal clusters of scented brown flowers followed by pea-like fruits. Height to 2m (6½ft)
Fatsia japonica AGM (H5) evergreen, with glossy, large, palmate-lobed leaves and white flowers in large clusters. Height 1.5m (5ft) or more
Hibiscus sinosyriacus ‘Lilac Queen’ (H5) large pale lilac-mauve flowers with red centres. Height to 2.5m (8ft)
Phormium tenax (H5) (New Zealand flax) clump-forming evergreen, dark-green strap-shaped leaves and dull-red flowers on stout stems to 4m (13ft) tall. Height 3m (9ft) 
Pittosporum tobira AGM (H3) (Japanese mock orange) evergreen, glossy dark-green leaves, fragrant white summer flowers age to yellow. Height 3m (9ft) or more
Tetrapanax papyrifera 'Rex' (H3) (Chinese rice-paper plant) very large, deeply lobed mid-green leaves to 1m (3ft)  across. Height 5m (15ft)
Trachycarpus fortunei AGM (Chusan palm) (H5) evergreen palm with fan-shaped leaves. Height to 20m (60ft)
Trochodendron aralioides (H3) large evergreen shrub with tapered dark green leaves. Height 10m (30ft)
Yucca gloriosa AGM (H5) (Spanish dagger) stout evergreen shrub with terminal, stiffly-pointed blue-green leaves and pendent panicles of white flowers. Height to 2.5m (8ft)

Shrubs – tender and half hardy

Brugmansia arborea 'Knightii' (d) AGM (angel’s trumpets) (H1c) robust shrub with large trumpet-shaped scented white flowers to 30cm (1ft) from late spring. Height 2-4m (6½-12ft)
Brunfelsia pauciflora AGM (yesterday-today-and-tomorrow) (H1c) pansy-like flowers opening purple and aging to almost white. Height 1-3m (3-10ft)
Cycas revoluta AGM (H2) (Japanese sago palm) arching glossy dark-green leaflets. Height 1-2m (3-6½ft)
Dasylirion wheeleri AGM (H2) yucca-like evergreen with flexible, ribbed, slightly fleshy glaucous silver leaves. Height 3.5m (12ft) or more
Dicksonia antarctica AGM (H3) (Tasmanian tree fern) tree-like fibrous trunk and pale-green fronds. Height to 6m (20ft) in mild climates but usually much less
Musa basjoo (H2) (Japanese banana) arching bright-green leaf blades and summer flowers of pale-yellow followed by yellowish-green fruit. Height to 5m (15ft)
Schefflera taiwaniana AGM (H4) evergreen shrub with palmate leaves composed of grey-green leaflets. Height 2-4m (6½-12ft)
Tibuchina urvilleana AGM  (H2) (lasiandra) velvety-hairy mid-green leaves and satin-textured saucer-shaped purple flowers, summer to autumn. Height 2-3m (6½-9ft)

Bamboo and ornamental grasses

Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ (v) (H6) (Japanese rush) semi-evergreen, glossy yellow leaves striped yellowish-green. Height to 25cm (10ins)
Arundo donax (H4) (giant reed) clump-forming broadly linear mid-green leaves. Panicles of pale green spikelets in autumn to 60cm (2ft). Height 5m (15ft)
Cyperus papyrus AGM (H1c) (Egyptian paper rush) clumps of tall leafless stems with umbels of flower. Height 2m (6½ft)
Fargesia murielae AGM (H5) and cultivars (umbrella bamboo) clump-forming yellowish stems and bright green leaves. Height to 4m (12ft) and F. scabrida ‘Asian Wonder’ (H5) clump-forming bamboo with bright red stems, greenish in summer. Height 3.5m (10ft)
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ AGM (H7) bright yellow clumps of linear leaves striped green. Height 35cm (14ins)
Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’ (H4) clumps of mid-green leaves turn deep blood-red. Height 40cm (16ins)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Miscanthus sacchariflorus (Maxim.) Hack. (H5) (silver banner grass) robust clumps of stiff, flat, linear blue-green leaves. Large pyramidal flower panicles in late summer. Height to 2.2m (7ft)
Semiarundinaria fastuosa AGM (H6) (Narihira bamboo) vigorous dense clumps of upright canes are mid-green striped purple-brown. Height to 7m (21ft)

Bulbs

Allium christophii AGM (H5) (star of Persia) flower umbels 20cm (8ins) across of up to 50 star-shaped pinkish-purple flowers in early summer. Height 30-60cm (1-2ft)
× Amarine tubergenii Belladiva Series (H4) lily-like flowers in shades of pink, late summer. Height 50cm (20ins)
Amaryllis belladonna AGM (H4) (Belladonna lily) fragrant pink flowers open before the leaves in autumn. Height 60cm (2ft)
Crinum × powellii (H5) umbels of up to 10 fragrant pale to mid-pink flowers, late summer to autumn. Height 1.5m (5ft)
Eremurus robustus AGM (H6) pale pink flowers in racemes up to 1.2m (4ft) long early and midsummer. Height to 3m (10ft)
Fritillaria imperialis AGM (H7) (crown imperial) umbels of bell-shaped pendent orange, yellow or red flowers crowned by a cluster of leaf-like bracts, early summer. Height to 1.5m (5ft)
Lilium martagon (IX/d) AGM ((H6) (Turk's cap lily) vigorous clumps bearing racemes of up to 50 turkscap, pink to purplish-red flowers spotted black with red anthers. Height to 2m (6½ft) and L. pardilinum (IXc/d) AGM (leopard lily) dark-spotted orange-red flowers in summer. Height 1.5m (5ft) or more
Nerine bowdenii AGM (H5) open umbels of funnel-shaped pink flowers in autumn. Height 45cm (18ins)
Tulbaghia violacea AGM (H3) large terminal umbels of fragrant lilac flowers midsummer to early autumn. Height 45-60cm (18in-2ft)

Annuals

Amaranthus tricolor (H2) multi-coloured foliage to 20cm (8in) long in shades of brilliant crimson and maroon. Height 1.3m (4½ft)
Bidens aurea ‘Hannays Lemon Drop’ (H3) scalloped bright-green leaves and lemon-yellow daisy-like flowers, midsummer to autumn. Height 1m (3ft)
Cerinthe major ‘Purpurescens’ (H3) tubular deep-purple flowers and bracts, spring to summer. Height 60cm (2ft)
Helianthus annus ‘Claret’ AGM (H4) (sunflower) black-centred deep red-brown flowers 15cm across. Height to 1.5m (5ft)
Tropaeolum majus ‘Black Velvet’ (H3) (nasturtium) compact plant with deep red, almost black flowers over a long period in summer. Height 45cm (18ins)
Nicotiana sylvestris AGM (H2) fragrant, trumpet-shaped white flowers on tall stems. Height to 1.5m (5ft)
Tithonia rotundifolia (H2) vivid orange daisy-like flowers late summer to autumn. Height 2m (6½ft)
Verbascum bombyciferum (H6) velvety basal leaves and sulphur-yellow flowers in spikes during summer. Height to 2m (6½ft)
Verbena bonariensis (H4) rough branching stems carry lilac-purple flowers from midsummer to autumn. Height to 2m (6½ft)

Perennials

Alstroemeria psittacina (H4) deep-red and green flowers on mauve-spotted stems in summer. Height 1m (3ft)
Cautleya spicata ‘Robusta’ (H4) stiff spikes of yellow summer flowers with reddish green bracts. Height to 1m (3ft)
Darmera peltata AGM (H6) dark green leaves to 60cm (2ft) across and white to pink flowers on tall flower stems before the leaves. Height 1-1.5m (3-5ft)
Eryngium agavifolium (H4) greenish-white flowers with spiny bracts, late summer. Height 1.5m (5ft)
Eucomis comosa ‘Sparking Burgundy’ AGM (H5) purplish leaves and purple-budded flowers open creamy-white. Height 45cm (18ins)
Galtonia candicans AGM (H4) slender racemes of fragrant white flowers on leafless stems, late summer. Height to 1.5m (5ft)
Hedychium gardnerianum AGM (H2) (ginger) fragrant lemon-yellow flowers with red stamens in cylindrical racemes 25cm (10in) long in late summer. Height to 2.2m (7ft)
Hosta ‘Big Daddy’ AGM (H7) glaucous blue-grey leaves 28cm long. Height 60cm (2ft), H. ‘Empress Wu’ PBR (H7) thick corrugated blue-green leaves to 45cm (18in) long. Height to 1.2m (4ft) and H. ‘Sum and Substance’ AGM (H7) has yellow-green corrugated leaves to 50cm (20in) long. Height 75cm (30ins)
Ligularia ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ PBR AGM (H6) large, deep purple leaves, crimson beneath and orange-yellow daisy flowers late summer. Height to 1m (3ft)
Melianthus major AGM (H3) (honey bush) boldly toothed grey-green leaves  to 50cm (20in) long and brownish-crimson flowers late spring to midsummer. Height 2m (6½ft) or more
Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ AGM (H5) clumps of almost black strap-shaped leaves and purplish white flowers on short stems in sumer. Height 20cm (8ins)
Rodgersia podophylla (H6) palmate leaves to 40cm (16in) long and creamy-green flowers in panicles 30cm (1ft) long. Height 1.5m (5ft)
Sedum rupestre 'Angelina' (H7) mat-forming evergreen with grey-green leaves and yellow flowers in umbels during summer. Height 10cm (4ins)

Perennials - tender

Aeonium ‘Zwatkop’ AGM (H1c) upright succulent with spoon-shaped almost black leaves to 15cm (6in) long. Height to 1m (3ft) or more
Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’ (H1b) dark-purple almost black arrow-shaped leaves to 60cm (2ft) long. Height to 2m (6½ft)
Echium pininana AGM (H3) panicles to 1.5m (5ft) long, of funnel-shaped blue flowers with large bracts. Height to 4m (13ft)
Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii' AGM (H2) (Abyssinian banana) large, bright-olive tinged red paddle-shaped leaves to 6m (20ft) long with dark red leaf stalks, white flowers in arching bronze-red bracts in summer. Height 6m (20ft) or more
Eupatorium capillifolium AGM (H3) upright stems have bright-green feathery leaves. Height 1.5m (5ft) or more
Geranium maderense AGM (H3) evergreen with upright stems bearing large bright green leaves to 60cm (2ft) long, large pinkish-magenta flowers in imposing panicles. Height to 1.5m (5ft)
Impatiens niamniamensis ‘Congo Cockatoo’ (H1b) bright red and yellow flowers with a hooked spur are in small clusters through the year. Height 1m (3ft)
Lobelia tupa (H4) brick-red to orange-red flowers in racemes to 45cm long, summer to autumn. Height to 2m (6½ft)
Plectranthus argentatus AGM (H1c) evergreen with light grey-green hairy leaves with scalloped margins and  tubular pale blueish-white flowers in summer. Height 1m (3ft)
Salvia confertifolia (H2) woolly yellow-green aromatic leaves and from late summer orange-red flowers. Height to 1.2m (4ft)
Zantedeschia elliottiana AGM and hybrids (H1c) (golden arum) spear-shaped dark-green leaves speckled white, and yellow flowers in summer. Height 60cm (2ft) or more

Ground cover and ferns

Asplenium scolopendrium AGM (H6) (hart's tongue fern) evergreen shuttlecock-like crown of strap-shaped bright-green fronds' Height 45cm (18ins)
Bletchnum chilense AGM (H4) evergreen fern with lance-shaped dark-green fronds to 1m long. Height 1m (3ft) or more
Matteuccia struthiopteris (H5) (shuttlecock fern) broadly lance-shaped pale-green fronds. Height 1.5m (5ft)
Osmunda regalis AGM (H6) (royal fern) dense clumps of bright green fronds with brown or rust coloured sporangia. Height to 2m (6½ft)
Polystichum polyblepharum AGM (H7) (Japanese tassel fern) shuttlecocks of shiny dark-green fronds covered with golden hairs as they unfurl. Height 60cm (2ft) or more
Saxifraga 'Kinki Purple' (stolonifera) (5) (H4) rosettes of rounded hairy green leaves, purple beneath and white flowers held above the foliage in summer. Height 30cm (1ft) and S. 'Silver Velvet' (fortunei) (5/v) deep purple-brown leaves have silvery markings and red-purple underneath and pale pink-white flowers in autumn. Height 30cm (1ft)

Climbers and wall shrubs

Actinidia kolomikta AGM (H5) dark-green leaves become white and pink variegated in the top half in sunny conditions. Height 5m (15ft) or more
Ampelopsis brevipedunculata 'Elegans' (H6) dark green leaves heavily mottled with white and pink. Height 5m (15ft)
Aristolochia macrophylla (H6) (Dutchman's pipe) heart-shaped dark green leaves and summer flowers mottled reddish-brown. Height 8m (25ft) or more
Campsis radicans f. flava AGM (H4) (common trumpet creeper) vigorous, and in summer to autumn tubular trumpet-shaped yellow flowers. Height 10m (30ft)
Dregea sinensis (H3) heart-shaped mid-green leaves, grey-downy beneath and fragrant creamy-white flowers in flowerheads followed by slender seed pods. Height 3m (10ft)
× Fatshedera lizei AGM (H3) (tree-ivy) palmate leathery dark green leaves and umbel like panicles of greenish-white flowers in autumn. Height 3m (10ft)
Lonicera × tellmanniana AGM (H5) (Tellmann's honeysuckle) deep green leaves and tubular bright, copper-orange flowers 5cm long, late spring to midsummer. Height 5m (15ft)
Muehlenbeckia complexa (H3) slender wiry shoots and small dark green leaves, greenish-white summer flowers. Height 3m (10ft)
Passiflora caerulea AGM (H4) (blue passion flower) rich-green lobed leaves and summer to autumn distinctive white flowers with blue and white coronas. Orange-yellow fruit are edible but not palatable. Height 10m (30ft) or more
Tropaeolum tuberosum var. lineamaculatum 'Ken Aslet' AGM (H3) greyish-green lobed leaves and long-spurred, cup-shaped orange flowers, midsummer to autumn. Height to 4m (12ft)
Vitis coignetiae AGM ((H5) large, heart-shaped dark-green leaves, thickly brown-felted beneath, bright-red in autumn. Height 15m (49ft)

Climbers - tender

Bougainvillea × buttiana 'Mrs Butt' AGM (H2) large clusters of small white flowers surrounded by showy crimson-magenta bracts. Height to 6m (20ft)
Cobaea scandens AGM (H2) (cup and saucer plant) fragrant creamy-green flowers aging to purple. Height to 20m (60ft)
Gloriosa superba 'Rothschildeana' (H1c) (glory lily) glossy bright-green leaves and flowers with reflexed bright-scarlet tepals fading to ruby and yellow near the bases, summer to autumn. Height 2m (6½ft)
Hardenbergia violacea AGM (H3) (purple coral pea) leathery rich-green leaflets and purple to violet, sometimes white, pink or lilac flowers, in racemes late winter to early summer. Height 2m (6½ft)
Ipomaea lobata AGM (H1c) (Spanish flag) one-sided racemes to 30cm (1ft) long of tubular scarlet flowers maturing to orange and yellow then white from summer to autumn. Height to 5m (15ft)
Lablab purpureus (H1c) fragrant purple or white flowers in racemes to 40cm (16in) long during summer and autumn. Edible green pods contain beans. Height to 6m (20ft)
Lapageria rosea AGM (H3) (Chilean bellflower) bell-shaped fleshy, pink to red flowers borne in leaf axils, summer to late autumn. Height 5m (15ft)
Mandevilla laxa AGM (H2) (Chilean jasmine) racemes of strongly fragrant, tubular pure white or creamy flowers, summer to autumn. Height to 5m (15ft)
Rhodochiton atrosanguineus AGM (H2) heart-shaped, rich-green leaves and long flower stalks bear tubular black to reddish-purple flower from summer to autumn. Height to 3m (10ft)


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