What Is Tropical Landscaping?

Large leafed tropical plants by a water feature

roj / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Tropical landscapes are lush, colorful, exotic and pulsing with life. There aren't many places in the United States where tropical climate conditions are common: mainly these consist of island territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, and the islands that make up the state of Hawaii. But in the summer months, some of our states can have conditions that feel tropical due to extreme heat and humidity: particularly the Southeastern states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Tropical landscaping, therefore, can be attainable even if you don't live in an island paradise.

History of Tropical Landscaping

There has long been a fascination with the aesthetic of a tropical garden in Europe. Partly this is due to a romanticizing of the concept of Eden, and other idyllic locations from literature such as Shangri-la or the Avalon of King Arthur. But it's also a result of centuries of exploration tied to European colonialism, and there's a long tradition of portraying Europeans in tropical locations in novels and films, such as Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Interest in tropical plants led to efforts by collectors and travelers to bring specimens back to Europe for study, and this eventually encouraged the creation of horticultural collections in museums and botanical gardens where such plants can be enjoyed by visitors.

The island territories of the United States are often seen as havens of leisure and beauty. But in truth they are widely different from one another in terms of demographic communities, infrastructure and function. The landscaping styles and plants native to these regions are often part of a unique or even delicate ecosystem (such as that found in the Florida Everglades, or the Gullah Sea Islands). As they become desirable places to live or conduct business, these small land masses may undergo major changes affecting the flora and fauna that live there. For example, Guam has a large military base. The U.S.Virgin Islands are home to many part-time winter residents. Puerto Rico, for all its beauty and culture, has suffered badly from severe weather disasters in recent years and a lack of funds to assist residents to rebuild.

Tropical Paving Styles

Since tropical gardens tend to be located in areas with large amounts of rainfall, and since they need a lot of water, paving styles are chosen to withstand weather and moisture. Using gravel around pavers allows for quick drainage, and mulch retains moisture to keep gardens well-hydrated. Since weeds can quickly get out of control, a wider walkway is a good idea, as is a heavy application of mulch that is refreshed periodically as needed. Cedar mulch can help cut down on insects as well, without resorting to chemicals.

Tropical plants flanking a path of pavers and gravel inside a fenced garden.
This tropical garden in southern California has an attractive walkway made solely of concrete pavers and gravel, featuring a real simplicity of design and ease of maintenance.  Robert Sarkisian / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Palm trees and tropical plants with bench and pavers
Simple paving stones and a heavy layer of mulch define the paths in this tropical garden space gypsy woman1 /Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Bench on stone patio with tropical plants on walls
This small tropical garden area at Kew Gardens in London shows how a simple tightly fitted stone walkway and bench provide a stunning setting for an small oasis of lush vines and shrubs. standhisround / Flickr / CC BY 2.0​

Plants to Include

Generally speaking, if you live in a hardiness zone of 8 through 10, you can grow tropical plants. This can include the areas already mentioned as well as southern California. Desert areas like Nevada or New Mexico may be the right temperature, but the dry air can make it more challenging to keep humidity-loving plants healthy and thriving. There are many types of plants suitable for creating a tropical landscaping design, whether in beds or in containers. Bromeliads, orchids, palm trees (Arecaceae), and hibiscus are just a few ideas to start with. Sometimes including very large-leafed plants (like Colocasia, also known as Elephant Ear) creates an optical scale that feels tropical. Also you can create the illusion of tropical planting with brightly-hued annual flowers like portulacas, dahlias, snapdragons, impatiens and petunias, all of which are easy to care for, widely available and suitable for container planting.

Multi-colored cannas in front of a green landscape
With their large petals and bright colors, cannas bring a tropical feel to any landscape. Cannas can be grown from bulbs as an annual; you can dig them up to store for the winter and replant in late spring. Elena Chausova / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Pink and yellow flowers on lantana
Lantana is native to South and Central America, but is frequently planted as an annual throughout the US for its colorful flowers and appeal to pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds.  Sam / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Bright red and yellow hibiscus flower in front of palm trees
The stunning color of this bright hibiscus flower lends happy tropical energy to any landscape.  Stephenie DeKoaudio / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Rocks

Because tropical gardens are usually abundant with plants, using rocks as a design element can add some interesting texture and drama. Rocks also hold onto heat, an important factor for regulating temperature for plants used to a hot climate.

Garden Decor

Tropical gardens are usually very colorful and lush to begin with, but using pieces of sculpture can help enhance their special iconography. Hawaiian landscaping style is getting a bit of a boost in recent years with "tiki" culture catching on among people in their 40s and 50s. There are even festivals devoted to this lifestyle that include Hawaiian style music, cocktail parties and wearing of tropical print shirts and dresses. As such, you can now find a fair amount of garden decor dedicated to this trend. Tiki is the name of a god in Maori mythology but there are mythologies in Polynesia and Hawaii that have similar figures. These carved statues are often seen in Hawaiian bars and can be found in many sizes and materials such as ceramic candle holders, plastic drink holders, and sculptures made of wood, resin or stone.

Other suitable objects for decorating a tropical garden include any representations of tropical birds such as flamingoes, pelicans, or egrets. Furniture could include hanging chairs or hammocks, and comfy chairs made with teak, rattan or bamboo with colorful cushions that complement the landscape's bright colors.

Wooden tiki statue standing amongst palm trees in a garden
This carved Hawaiian tiki statue adds an instant tropical flair to any garden space, especially if set among tropical plants.  Jerry S / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Tropical plants in garden bed with birdbath
The birdbath is a perfect decorative and practical accent to this garden bed full of tropical plants. pawightm (Patricia) / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Red flamingo sculpture amid tropical garden
This bright flamingo sculpture in a Pinellas, Florida garden is a colorful and eye-catching bit of fun. Jim Wisinski / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Water Features

Including a water feature in a tropical garden design gives it authenticity. It can also be a good way to keep moisture in the air for thirsty tropical plants, and provide a water source for thirsty pollinators or wildlife who stop by.

small waterfall over round rocks and tropical plants
This small waterfall over a bed of tumbled stones is part of a beautifully realized small tropical garden design complete with small tiki torch. Tim Wise / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Fencing

Since tropical plants tend to grow and fill in quickly, fencing can be a concern. Tight fencing materials such as chainlink may make it difficult to access tropical plants that grow too large for a space. Having fencing structures that are easy to open or move temporarily for plant maintenance might be a good idea. Aesthetically, choose fences that don't hide or distract from your lush tropical garden's beauty. Simple rustic wood is a good choice, or powder-coated metal. Plastic fencing may not be strong enough for fast-growing tropical plants.

Large leafed plants along path with simple wooden fencing in tropical wooded setting
This simple rustic fence is a perfect accent near these large-leafed gunnera plants, a tropical plant that likes shade.  maineexile / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Other Elements to Include

Other features you may want to include to make your garden feel more tropical are tiki torches, a small fire dish, colorful accent furniture, patio umbrellas, an arbor with flowering vines, outdoor lighting to accent dramatic shadows cast by large leafed plants, and colorful planters to accent the colors of the flowers and foliage of your tropical plants.