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10 plants for a subtropical summer

Phil Dudman

Phil Dudman

February 3, 2012

Summer is in full swing with all its rain and humidity, and I’ve been thinking about the wonderful plants that thrive in this muggy weather, not just the flowers and colourful foliage, but some of the edibles too… and I thought I’d share some of my top picks with you.

1. Heliconias

Outrageously colourful Heliconia

No other plants say tropical like heliconias with their oversized paddle shaped leaves and outrageously colourful flowers. They grow in semi shade to full sun and thrive in a rich soil, so add plenty of compost when you plant. Heliconia rostrata is a top variety to get you started… but don’t stop there, because there are so many beauties to discover.

2. Ornamental gingers

Waxy cones of ornamental beehive ginger

Just as flamboyant and just as important in the tropical style garden are the ornamental gingers. Beehive gingers never cease to amaze me with their clusters of colourful waxy cones that pop out of the base of the plants like mushrooms. Then there are the many torch gingers; with big bold flowers that sit high on long elegant stems, they make excellent cut flowers too.

3. Costus

Just one of many colourful Costus varieties

These are closely related and look similar to gingers, growing as a clump of leafy, succulent stems that rise from an underground rhizome. Each leafy stem produces a colourful flower. They make wonderful fillers, and there’s about 100 or more varieties available so you never get bored collecting them. Keep them on the dry side in winter, but feed and water them regularly in the warm months for fabulous results.

4. Bromeliads

Bromeliads show-stopping colour in dry shade

Bromeliads come in lots of shapes and sizes; many with show stopping flowers and most with colourful textural foliage. They are epiphytes, so need very little watering and attention, just top up the water in the cups at the base of their leaves from time to time. Some love the sun, but most are good for dotting around in dry shady areas where nothing else grows or tying into trees to add interest at eye level. They’re great for pots too, just like growing succulents.

5. Pandanus



Also known as screw pine, the pandanus is a real signature of coastal gardens where they look so much at home, and they can cope with just about anything thrown at them, even cyclones! More and more people are appreciating their unique shape and form in city landscapes too, so think about finding a spot out in the front garden where you can show it off.

6. Poinciana

Poinciana – vibrant flowers & a great climb

An oldie but a goodie, this tree must be amongst the world’s best, not only for it’s magnificent red blooms, but also for the valuable shade it casts. What child doesn’t like climbing a Poinciana? Sure, they’re a big tree when they grow up, but if you have the space, make sure you plant one… for the grandkids.

7. Mango

Phil Dudman mango fruit

Mango fruit

While we’re on great tropical trees, don’t forget the mango, but do forget the old fashioned stringy varieties that grew into giant backyard monsters! These days, you can purchase the very best eating varieties grafted onto dwarf rootstock, so the trees remain more compact. Don’t be shy about pruning them either. They’re tough old things, so give them a good chop once in a while, at the end of summer to keep them in check.

8. Citrus


You can grow juicy limes in the backyard

Every Aussie backyard deserves a selection of citrus, and most varieties thrive in the heat… especially limes, which are expensive in the shops, so plant one, along with a lemon, mandarin, orange and grapefruit. How about a hedge of citrus along the driveway? They make great screens, and can be pruned and shaped to fit any space. Give them plenty of sun and make sure the drainage is good.

9. Edible ginger

Ginger flowers

Ginger flowers

This must be the easiest of edible plants to grow. Just buy a plump piece of ginger from your grocer in spring and bang it in the ground or a pot. Come back at the end of summer and it’s tripled in size. We should all be eating more ginger, because it has such incredible health benefits, so get into it!

10. Kang Kong (Asian water spinach)

This one’s a bit obscure, but it’s an absolute beauty and so easy to grow. It’s the perfect spinach substitute in the summer garden when it’s too hot to grow other leafy greens – I love it in stir-fries. Grab a bunch from your Asian grocer and pop a few stems in water to encourage them to form roots. Don’t plant it in the garden – it can be invasive. I grow mine in a large pot to confine it, with a big saucer at the bottom to collect and store water runoff – as the name suggests, it loves lots of water. And here’s my video that shows you how to grow it!