Garden Books

Gardener’s Guide to Tropical Plants

Spring and summer gardens are filled with color in North Carolina. Spring’s white dogwood, pink and scarlet redbuds, and multiple shades from azaleas and iris burst out against the trees’ emerging green leaves.

Unlike these hardy spring plants, many summer hues are supplied by annuals, including lantanas, impatiens, coleus, and begonias. Although these popular plants are readily available at local nurseries, they are actually natives of tropical climate zones.

This year would you like to go beyond these usual annuals for a greater variety of blooms and textures? If you are thinking, “yes,” read the Gardener’s Guide to Tropical Plants (Cool Springs Press, 2012).  This book will introduce you to 130-plus tropical plants of all shapes, shades, and sizes, and explain how to effectively grow them in our climate.

The author, Nellie Neal, anticipated being a garden writer even while in college, where she majored in English and horticulture. Whether informing a reader about pest control or the limitations of a specific plant, her clear explanations and witty insights reflect her knowledge and writing experience.

In the book’s first seven chapters, Neal supplies the readers with all the general information they need about caring for tropical plants. She first discusses the three types of tropical climates—deserts, savannahs, and rainforests. To best duplicate these natural habitats, she advises putting various plants in containers.

Neal introduces how to design and use certain types of plants to improve interior and exterior gardens’ appearance. Tips on winter protection, a necessity in our temperate climate, are also presented.

The suggested vegetation is presented in three sections—herbaceous, woody and vining plants. The author chose these plants for their “ease of growth and wide availability.” Each plant has a photograph of the foliage or the blossom for which it is best known. Because tropical plants often require more than the usual soil, sun and rain of the northern hemisphere, the information on each plant is quite detailed. Complete instructions on where, when and how to plant is accompanied by growing tips, possible pests, and companion planting and design.

If you are ready to try more tropical plants this year, get your large and small containers shiny clean and prepare your outside plant beds. Next, search your favorite nursery for plants with the “hot color, bold foliage and striking texture” featured in this book. Then you can relax this summer among your bright new plants and enjoy an imaginary vacation in the tropics.

Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants. She is a volunteer at the Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.

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