Garden Books

Tropicalismo!: Spice Up Your Garden with Cannas, Bananas, and 93 Other Eye-Catching Tropical Plants by Timber Press


When the poet, T.S Eliot, wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” he was certainly correct for antsy North Carolina gardeners.   Plant catalogs are stacked high and seed packets are arranged on cluttered tables.  Small green leaves have formed on seedlings stored in the sunniest locations. Looking out windows at the waning azalea blossoms, reminds all that April 15, the usual last of local Jack Frost, is a few days away.  Despite longer, warmer days after this time an impatient wait until May is required to safely move tropical plants outside.

Fortunately, a local writer, Pam Baggett, has produced a reader’s antidote to this anxious wait.  !Tropicalismo!: Spice Up Your Garden with Cannas, Bananas, and 93 Other Eye-Catching Tropical Plants by Timber Press is a volume filled with instructions, photographs, and plant combinations for the glorious blossoms and  decorative leaves  that she features.  The paperback is small, but well written with concise plant descriptions and planting information.  The introduction informs the reader that the night temperatures must be fifty degrees prior to planting her tropical wonders out of doors.  Also, the hardiness zones, often warmer than the Triangle’s 7B, indicate where the plant will survive over winter.   Roughly, only one-fourth of the plants described in this book are perennials in the Triangle; here most are exquisite annuals to be enjoyed from late spring to fall’s first hard frost.

Offering no index or table of contents, the plants are arranged alphabetically by the Latin plant name from Abutilon to Xanthosoma. These difficult words are followed by pronunciation guides and by the plant’s common names.   To aid those searching for specifically colored plants to embellish their garden, each plant’s dominant hue is indicated by the tinted rectangle on the left side of the page.  The white remainder of the page describes with humor and vividness the plant’s size, fragrance, needs and variations.  Suggested vegetation to complement the plant’s location concludes the page.

In addition to the lively descriptions, an equally enticing part of the book is Baggett’s excellent photography.  Each plant is featured with a color picture on the page opposite her writing.  Foliage and flowers glow for the reader, offering an accurate and a beautiful visualization of what the plant would add to a garden.

Baggett’s knowledge of plants and writing is based on education and experience.  She majored in Horticulture at North Carolina State University and studied bio-intensive horticulture at University of California’s Farm and Garden Program at Santa Cruz.  For nine years she owned a nursery in Orange County where she specialized in many of the plants recommended in her book.  Her freelance articles and photographs have appeared in such magazines as Horticulture, and Fine Gardening.  At Duke University Lifelong Learning Program and at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, her writing skills have enabled her to offer garden composition classes.

Despite the winter fragility of the suggested vegetation, Baggett explains why they should be more prevalent in gardens as “tropical plants couldn’t be easier to grow, and average to rich soil and a moderate amount of water produce spectacular results….energize your garden with the glittering hues and over-the-top texture …”

In addition to the cannas and bananas she lauds in the book’s title, she introduces varied types of coleus, elephant ears, and lantanas as well as vines, ground covers, and plants with blossom and leaves of every color from black to golden.

Using these plants, a gardener could easily take the author’s advice to “create a paradise where you live.”

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.