Tropical Plants you can use to Create a UK Hardy Exotic Paradise

A Lush Tropical Garden for all Seasons

Do you dream of a lush tropical style garden with year round lush greenery but think it can't be done because you live in the UK?

Before you start searching for tropical garden plants for sale online there are a few things you need to know. If you want to achieve an exotic garden without wasting money on tropical plants that are just not going to look good or even survive in British climate, then read on.

Getting That Exotic Tropical Effect Garden

Plants from the tropics and those that grow in the jungle are not going to fare well in our cold damp climate. Tropicals tend to need constant warmth which is why houseplants tend to have tropical origins not outside garden plants.

You can however create an entirely convincing lush green paradise in your garden by choosing plants that have a tropical appearance.

Many of these cool climate plants come from New Zealand and Japan and do well in our similar climate.

How To Get That Tropical Jungle Appearance

The key to giving your garden the apparent jungle appearance is to diversify your planting and introduce featured plants. Use height by growing taller shrubs and trees and underplant to create a thick dense wall of greenery.

Taller plants can create shelter and shade enabling you to grow small shade tolerant varieties. You can create more space by removing the lower branches and foliage from the taller trees and shrubs.

Key Tropical Plants

To make sure that we have a garden that you can enjoy year round we are going to focus on UK hardy species that will survive most of what the British weather can throw at them.

Technically the plants we use to create the tropical effect are not true tropicals but give the desired effect and grow in our climate. True tropicals aren't suited to our climate.

UK Hardy Palm Trees

What exotic garden would be without the Trachycarpus palm tree with its large strappy palm leaves. Both Trachycarpus wagnerianus and Trachycarpus fortunei the Chasun or Windmill palm have a long proven track record in our climate and will breeze through any harsh conditions.

The large palmate leaves give an instant exotic appearance and you can imagine being by a tropical beach. The taller they get the more impact they will have.

Of the two most popular cultivars wagnerianus looks better as the leaf are stiffer and does not tend to suffer wind damage so you can show off the palm like foliage to its full effect.

trachcarpus wagnerianus frost
The stiffer palmate leaves of Trachcarpus wagnerianus don't mind the frost.

The Chasun palm is one of three that do well in Britain along with the dwarf fan palm and Needle palm. I've written specifically about the best palm trees to grow in the UK that tolerate the cold and damp.

Cordyline australis

Cordyline australis (Cabbage palm) and its cultivars are commonly seen especially in coastal regions in Britain especially in the south west around Cornwall and Devon. They are another archetypal tropical with a palm like trunk and long strappy leaves, sometimes multi stemmed.

cordyline australis sundance
Cordyline Sundance in frosty mid winter.

The strap like green leaves of 'Sundance' have a distinct red colour along the midrib. This Cordyline has a much richer red than the bronze red colouring of 'Torbay Red' whose entire leaf length is coloured. A more commonly available red version of australis is 'Red Star'.

cordyline australis charlie boy
'Charlie Boy' is probably the hardiest of the pink Cordyline australis.

Also of note is the creamy white and green leaved 'Torbay Dazzler'. There are also pink sports such as 'Pink Passion', 'Sunrise' and 'Charlie Boy' (the latter being the hardiest to -9°C) which have purple leaves with bright pink edges. The bright coloured varieties are useful for adding eye catching splashes of year round colour.

Musa basjoo Japanese Banana Plant

Nothing says tropical like a Banana plant, you can grow Bananas in the UK but they will not fruit but may produce flowers.

The hardiest is the Japanese Banana plant (Musa Basjoo) which has large green leaves and eventually forms clumps of pups that grow up from the base.

musa basjoo japanese banana
Musa basjoo, the hardiest proven banana plant for the UK.

In winter the leaves will die back and as long as it's not a very cold winter the stem may stay intact ensuring a taller plant next year.

Harsh winters may cut unprotected Bananas back to ground level but will grow back the following year.

Musa Basjoo is the only plant that I grow which is not frost hardy, all the other plants I grow remain green year round.

The banana is worth the effort though as it is truly impressive in the garden. These are best grown in a sheltered spot and protected from winds as much as possible as the large leaves are susceptible to wind damage.

Exotic Evergreens

You can give the appearance of year round greenery by growing evergreens and using tough evergreen plants to give a lush backdrop even in the middle of winter.

As well as creating a backbone and structure to your garden the year round foliage help shelter the more tender plants.

Garrya elliptica 'James Roof'

garrya elliptica james roof silk tassel
Garrya elliptica 'James Roof' is cheap to buy, fast growing and adds to your tropical canopy.

The Silk Tassel (Garrya elliptica 'James Roof') is not only hardy but can add an unusual and exotic look due to its tassels that hang down over winter and spring like catkins.

You can add to the dense jungle appearance but removing the lower branches and underplanting.

Ceanothus 'California Lilac'

You can use low cost evergreen staples to fill out your garden and establish a lush green backbone. The California Lilac (Ceanothus) can be grown up against a wall or fence without the need for support.

ceanothus california lilac
As california lilac covered in spring flowers is impressive.

The dense dark green foliage makes a great backdrop and an excellent low cost way to cover large vertical areas.

As a bonus it will flower spring to summer with a dense covering of lilac blue flowers. It adds structure and change with the flowering season.

There are many cultivars including the prostrate low growing ground cover Ceanothus griseus var. horizontalis 'Yankee Point' or the light green yellow and dark green splashed leaves of Ceanothus 'Pershore Zanzibar' to brighten up an area.

Ceanothus griseus var horizontalis yankee point
horizontalis 'yankee point' great for softening hard edges for that creeping foliage.
ceanothus zanzibar california lilac
zanzibar has bright green leaves, seen here with a covering of frost.

Long Leaved Eucalyptus

eucalyptus long narrow leaves
Eucalyptus is both exotic and tropical and can be pruned to maintain a bushy habit and reasonable size.

Although they can grow very tall they can be kept to a manageable size by pruning. Regular pruning also encourages them to become denser and more bushy making them more suited to a tropical garden.

There are dozens of cultivars, some hardy some less so. They come in a diverse range of leaf shapes but the long narrow leaved sports such as Eucalyptus parvula 'Kybean gum' or Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila 'Snow gum' are tropical in appearance and very hardy (H5 -15°C).

Long Strappy Leaves

Elongated leaves, fronds and leaflets that are long and narrow add to the tropical effect. They hang down or arch swagging in the slightest of breezes and offer a lush appearance.

long strappy leaves
Long strappy leaves intermingle to create a dense jungle effect.

A Bamboo Jungle

There are both large leaf and smaller leaved varieties, most people choose a clumping variety as bamboo tends to spread vigorously if not controlled.

They are evergreen and hardy in the UK. There is a great RHS page on bamboo plants where they list some popular and decorative choices.

fargesia nitida great wall
fargesia nitida 'great wall' provides dense greenery.

I grow Fargesia nitida 'Great Wall' as it forms tight clumps of dense foliage. As they grow in height the canes on the outside of the clump tend to arch out slightly swaying and rustling in the wind.

frost on bamboo
larger leaved bamboo adds some strappy informal character.

For larger leaved bamboos you can add a touch of the tropics with Indocalamus tessellatus the Large Leaf Bamboo. It grows to about a metre or two in height but has been known to reach up to three metres when mature.

Be aware however that it can spread to cover an 8 metre area of ground.

Phormium, Colourful and Exotic

A useful plant with strappy leaves is the non-trunk forming Phormium. There are two kinds, the really large ones (Phormium tenax) with long sword shaped, mostly upright leaves that can reach almost 4 metres in length. There there are the smaller varieties (P. cookianum) with shorter more arching leaves that tend to be available in a wider range of brighter colours.

The larger P. tenax are hardier than the smaller P. cookianum cultivars but all should survive all but the coldest of winters. I have yet to lose one although cold winters north of Yorkshire may be a challenge so keep them in a sheltered location if in doubt.

phormium banana
The darker coloured Phormiums add contrast.

You can find Phormiums (New Zealand flax) sporting colours such as green, red, pink, purple, cream and yellow. They are a great way to add colour to areas to provide off season brightness and splashes of colour in areas.

phormiums frosted foreground
The pinks and reds of some Phormiums add splashes of colour, there are lots to choose from and they're an undemanding plant.

They come in a range of delightfully enticing names that reflect their colourful nature such as Golden Ray, Jester, Platts Black, Rainbow Sunrise, Sundowner, Tricolor, Yellow Wave, Bronze Baby, Cream Delight, Duet, Flamingo, Black Velvet, Apricot Queen, Maori Sunrise, Maori Queen, Alison Blackman, Back in Black (very dark foliage), Black Adder, Black Rage, Co-ordination, Crimson Devil, Dark Delight, Evening Glow, Gold Ray, Gold Sword, Joker, Pink Panther, Pink Stripe, Rainbow Maiden, Rainbow Queen, Red Fingers (dwarf, smallest flax), Purpureum and, Variegatum.

pink phormium
Most Flax plants display several coloured stripes.
phormium north wall
Phormium can tolerate different locations, I have this one growing against a shady north wall.
grouped phormiums
Larger specimens can have a real dramatic visual impact.

Tropical Flowers

Whilst you can add colour using different plants there are no substitutes for tropical looking flowers.

Plants that are year round evergreens, have tropical foliage and produce exotic flowers can be a valuable asset to your jungle garden.

These plants can be trained against a wall or grown elsewhere, I've had good results letting them grow mixed in with all the other foliage to create a mixture of shapes and textures.

Clianthus puniceus 'Rosea' or 'Flamingo'

The Glory pea or Lobster claw Clianthus puniceus produces some spectacular flowers during spring and summer. Rosea produces reddish pink flowers where Alba produces white flowers.

clianthus puniceus rosea
Clianthus looks exotic with its claw shaped rose coloured flowers shown here flowering at the end of April.

This is edging on the tender side and RHS states it hardy to -5°C, the one I purchased the label stated -10°C. It sailed through winter 2016/2017 without a problem although slugs and snails are fond of the foliage.

Sophora microphylla Sun King 'Hilsop'

Hardier than Clianthus (RHS H4 -10°C rated) and producing yellow flowers in late winter to early spring Sophora is a great addition.

sophora microphylla sun king hilsop
sophora microphylla showing of its bell shaped bright yellow flowers at the end of March.

It has darker green foliage and can be trained against a wall or will support itself when planted elsewhere.

You can get some more ideas and more detail on the two plants just mentioned from this winter flowering plants article.

Large Leaf Tropical Plants

big jungle leaves
The large tropical like foliage of F. japonica.

Large leaved plants with massive big leaved foliage are ideal in creating the illusion of the tropics. We've already mentioned bananas but the other plant with big leaves is actually a tree Eriobotrya japonica.

Eriobotrya japonica

Loquat
A covering of frost on this large leaved loquat.

Commonly known as the Loquat it produces some sizeable leaf material and if shaded the leaves get larger.

Being a tree it's going to get big but can be trimmed to keep it a reasonable size.

Magnolia grandiflora 'Francois Treyve'

Another evergreen large glossy leaved tree is Magnolia grandiflora or the Bull Bay Tree. It is very hardy in the UK and will eventually produce large saucer shaped classic creamy white Magnolia flowers.

magnolia grandiflora francois treyve
Large glossy green leaves with a red brown underside.

The French sport 'Francois Treyve' is my favourite being hardy to below -20°C and with a more compact habit and quite rare in the UK.

magnolia grandiflora flower
This Evergreen magnolia is growing on a north facing wall and still produces large cream saucer shaped flowers in July.

It does like a sunny spot to produce more flowers, this cultivar tends to flower at a young age so is good to buy as a smaller specimen. I have mine growing on a north facing wall and seems to do fine there.

Fatsia japonica

You can't leave out the Japanese aralia when talking about big tropical foliage. This plant is indispensable and a relatively inexpensive way to add greenery to both shade and sunny positions.

fatsia japonica spiders web
Fatsia is a useful large leaved plant that tolerates shade well, this sport is 'spiders web'.

There are a range of cultivars from variegated, the marbled effect Spiders web, Annemie aka Annelise, Moseri and the related but beautiful Fatsia Polycarpa.

fatsia japonica large leaf
The leaves of Fatsia japonica can grow to huge sizes, much large than your hand.
new fatsia leaves
Some new Fatsia 'spiders web' leaves emerging in May, over the summer they will darken.

Exotic and Unusual Plants

Your typical garden centre will sell only the most popular common types of plants so you never get to see the unusual tropical plants.

There are thousands of garden plants grown in the UK plant nurseries and many that specialise in growing hardy exotics.

To give you some inspiration here are some tropical plants for the UK that are evergreen, exotic looking and more or less hardy.

photinia-x-fraseri red robin
The bright red new leaf growth add unusual vibrant colour around February to March time.

Photinia-x-fraseri is the well know red robin and probably overused in both gardens and amenity planting. It does however have quite an unusual look as new growth appears as bright red upright foliage and is followed by bracts of small white flowers.

photinia-x-fraseri pink marble
The unusual marbled leaves and red young foliage looks quite exotic pushing through the Erysimum.

Even more unusual looking is the sport 'Pink Marble' that has the same bright red new growth above variegated marbled leaves. I cut mine back very late in the year to encourage the new red growth that remains over the mild winters we have.

mixed foliage
Mixing leaf shapes, colours and sizes growth tightly together adds to that jungle look (and out competes the weeds).

Jungles are diverse so planting a diverse range of plants with contrasting shapes, colours and sizes adds to the effect of tropical plants growing densely together.

aucuba fatsia prunus euphorbia asplenium
Aucuba, Fatsia, Euphorbia and Asplenium grown together.

You can grow some of the more readily available evergreen garden plants amongst the more exotic looking ones. Even some of the more commonly available Aucuba and Prunus look good with the larger glossy foliage.

ivy Hedera colchica 'Sulphur Heart'
Hedera colchica 'Sulphur Heart' hanging down like a vine.

You can grow some of the more readily available evergreen garden plants amongst the more exotic looking ones. Even some of the more commonly available Aucuba and Prunus look good with the larger glossy foliage.

mahonia oiwakensis
The long pinnate leaves of mahonia oiwakensis make this the best Mahonia for the tropical effect.

Mahonia oiwakensisis is one of the larger Mahonias with leaves growing to one metre in length. In my and many other plant enthusiasts opinion is one of the most spectacular and exotic looking of the Mahonias.

mahonia eurybracteata soft caress tropical jungle
M. eurybracteata 'soft caress' has tropical foliage and no nasty spikes. Also the UK hardy narrow leaved Hebe 'Kirkii' in the back right of the picture. Hebe 'Spender's Seedling' is another good lance leaved alternative.

Mahonia eurybracteata 'Soft Caress' is a much smaller but completely spike free Mahonia with longer and thinner leaflets. It's certainly a great addition to any garden looking to create a jungle feel.

It is one of the newer Mahonia sports available in the UK and now much more widely available. I've found it to be at home in shadier and sunnier locations and tolerates both wet and dry ground. Position near the front of a border so it doesn't get to overwhelmed by other more prolific plants.

mahonia eurybracteata winter flowers
M. eurybracteata parent to 'soft caress' flowering in the December frosts

Also consider Mahonia eurybracteata which has barely there spines and slightly wider leaflets and parent to Soft Caress.

Nandina domestica 'Heavenly bamboo'

nandina domestica heavenly bamboo
nandina domestica is exotic looking in both colour and shape.

N. domestica certainly has an exotic appearance and is one of the more colourful evergreens that will add to a jungly garden. The standard Heavenly bamboo is a relatively good value shrub but there are more expensive newer sports such as 'Lemon Lime', Obsessed, 'Gulf Stream' and 'Plum Passion' to name a few. All with varying colours from limes to plum reds.

nandina domestica fire power
nandina domestica 'fire power'.

Another good value variant is 'Fire Power'. I mention this as it looks different with larger more rounded foliage and remains far shorter at about half a metre compared to around 2 metres for most Nandina domestica.

Creating Jungle like Undergrowth

tropical undergrowth
Fatsia, Aucuba and Vinca amongst other plants shaded by Loquat, Cistus and Ceanothus.

Ground cover adds an extra dimension and gives the impression of a denser thicker undergrowth adding to that tropical look and feel.

jungle ground cover
Low growing and scrambling evergreens that tolerate shade and dry are needed for the groundcover.

It can be tricky finding plants that will tolerate both shade and dry conditions. You have restricted light reaching the ground due to the evergreen canopy and less rain penetrating through the higher levels of foliage.

Prune Lower Branches

Removing the lower limbs and branches of larger plants and trees has two benefits.

removing lower branches
Lower braches removed from this Silk Tassel accentuates the canopy and allows more like and water to reach the ground.

Firstly anything above head height will appear to loom over you just like you'd experience in a tropical jungle. It will also allow stems and branches to hang down adding to the dense lush feel.

Secondly you are increasing the amount of light and moisture reaching further down making it easier for the ground floor greenery to survive especially in long dry periods.

jungle floor shade
Ferns and Euphorbia are great for shade grown under larger plants.

Although much of the first time impression for someone looking at a tropical themed garden is going to be the larger Bananas and Palms the detail is in the undergrowth and what grows at ground level.

tropical groundcover
A mixture of evergreen mixed foliage.

Euphorbia and ferns are good plants for shade, Euphorbia amygdaloides var. Robbiae is a good dry shade filler plant but will spread.

jungly undergrowth
Ferns and Hebe growing under Bamboo and Heavenly Bamboo.

Ferns do vary in size so you are probably going to want to look at some small ferns and you should consider some of our own unusual native british ferns which may surprise you by their exotic appearance.

Rubus tricolor 'Chinese Bramble'

rubus tricolor chinese bramble
rubus tricolor the chinese bramble makes great groundcover and produces edible fruits too.

A useful plant for groundcover and trailing through the undergrowth is the very hardy evergreen Chinese Bramble. I found that it tolerates shade and dry ground very well once established.

I've also grown another variant Rubus tricolor 'Betty Ashburner' where the foliage is more lobed or heart shaped rather than more oval and the leaves are smaller.

Bergenia Cordifolia

The large glassy leaves of Bergenia cordifolia are suited to a variety of conditions. I use these to grow below Trachycarpus palms and Cordyline as you can see from the pictures they tolerate this dry semi-shade position.

bergenia cordifolia
Bergenia cordifolia is a very large leaved hardy evergreen plant that looks great in low growing clumps surrounding trunked palms.

Bergenia are very hardy evergreen low growing plants that produce large rounded leaves giving the illusion of much warmer climes.

Pachysandra terminalis 'Japanese Spurge Green Carpet'

A useful ground covering drought and shade tolerant plant is the Japanese Spurge. It will add green lushness in those dry shady spots under larger plants where most other things struggle to get established.

pachysandra terminalis japanese spurge green carpet
A good dry shade plant is pachysandra terminalis, grow at the base of larger tropicals.

It's a great partner for larger tropicals but can spread like Euphorbia amygdaloides. For the best effect to make it look more like the tropics you should make sure you have a diverse range of plants in any one area.

Sarcococca wallichii

S. wallichii is one of the larger Christmas Box and is a useful addition to the tropical garden as a dry shade plant and keep it out of the midday sun. Great for a north facing wall or as part of your understory although this particular cultivar can grow to 2 metres in the UK so you may want to choose one of the smaller varieties.

Sarcococca wallichii
Sarcococca wallichii does well in shade so good for growing under larger plants when small or next shady north walls.

Sarcococca is noted for its fragrant winter or early spring flowers and wallichii for its larger 13cm long leaves. It has proven itself to be hardy elsewhere although I have only had mine a single winter but survived a few cold frosts.