We all want to create our little corner of paradise in our gardens and it’s fair enough that Kiwis look to the tropics for inspiration, after all, most of us have had a memorable South Pacific or north Queensland holiday.
The bad news is that we live in the sub-tropics which means we can’t have a true “tropical” garden as it’s not only about temperatures and rainfall but the almost unvarying levels of daylight through the year.
The good news is we can achieve “tropical-look” plantings if we do our homework and are clever about plant choice.
Palms are the backbone of any tropical garden and while we can’t grow the coconut palms so typical of an island paradise, we do have access to a range of trees to suit our climate.
Creating layers of planting – canopy, sub-canopy, under-storey and groundcover – creates depth and gives the impression a garden is bigger than it actually is.
Large trees and plants include Parajubaea cocoides (Quito mountain coconut palm) that can handle strong winds and hard frosts; Chatham Islands nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida); Atherton palm (Laccospadix australasica) from Lord Howe Island (not below minus 2 degrees C); the fish-tail palms Caryota ochlandra and Caryota obtusa; the smaller Dipsis boroni (hardy sugar cane palm); Strelitzia nicolai (giant bird of paradise, looks like a banana palm); banana palms; and Meryta sinclairii (puka) which although frost tender, can be grown in shade.
In the display garden at Palmco in Kerikeri they have created a coconut palm effect by planting bangalow palms on an angle – as the trees straighten up and grow towards the light, a bend develops in the trunk.
Other plants to help the island paradise feel include hibiscus, bromeliads, taro, gardenias, hostas, pineapple lilies (eucomis), canna lilies, vireya rhododendrons, ligularias, star jasmine, orange jessamine (Murraya paniculata), cymbidium orchids, hoya and clivia. Smaller hardy orchids, such as Australian Dendrobiums or Zygopetalums, can be grown on trees or in ponga posts.
Native plants that add a touch of the tropics include rengarenga lilies (Arthropoduim cirratum), Chatham Island forget-me-nots (Myosotidium hortensia), ferns and tree ferns.
If you don’t have room for a pond, water lilies can be grown in a half-barrel or a large, glazed pot.
And don’t omit bamboo from your line-up just because of its weedy reputation. Choose carefully and it will add a grace to your garden that few other plants can achieve.
Robin Booth of Wharepuke garden in Kerikeri finds that once an area is planted, plants create their own micro-climate and “support one another”.
He imported Cordyline fruticosa ‘Fiji’ in to New Zealand “many years ago” and says the small tree with its brightly coloured leaves will do well in a cooler climate. New Zealand grass trees (Dracophyllum) are another shrub-size alternative.
For more information and to buy plants, try these specialist New Zealand websites:
Bamboo (see also Landsendt)
Ferns: Millhenge Ferns at Oropi specialises in native ferns, including tree ferns (Cyathea and Dicksonia). Phone 07 543 2149, or email.
Landsendt (Auckland) is a highly regarded and well-established tropical-look garden that has a nursery
Palms – Coast Palms and Cycads or Palmco
Russell Fransham (Northland) specialises in subtropical plants
Sub-tropical cordylines (article)