For a tropical look in an area that doesn't receive tropical sun, plants with large, glossy leaves can fill the bill. Many prefer the kind of moist, shady site they would find on the floor of a rainforest or jungle, so choosing hardy plants with the same kind of look works well to achieve a tropical effect. Contrast them with fine-leaved, airy shrubs to evoke an exotic, lush ambience.
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Fatsia japonica looks like it belongs outside a Balinese villa. With palmate leaves 16 inches across and sprays of tiny, white blooms, it grows 10 feet tall. Place it in a sheltered spot and it is hardy to -12.2 degrees Celsius. Choisya "Sundance," a yellow-leaved variety of Mexican orange, prefers shade and produces orange-scented blooms in May. Other choices include Nandina, called heavenly bamboo, which sports red or burgundy new growth; hardy gardenias, which produce fragrant, exotic-looking white blooms; and large-leaved rhododendrons, such as Rhododendron sinogrande, which grows slowly to 30 feet and has 2-foot-long leaves, the largest of any rhododendron.
Hydrangeas yield big blooms suitable for a tropical-looking paradise in the shade. Oakleaf hydrangeas have large leaves that lend a shady spot a jungly air. Hydrangea aspera "Villosa," a large, rounded shrub with velvety, dark green to purple leaves, deep rose-pink flower buds and purple lacecap blooms, is a good choice. Magnolia macrophylla, bigleaf magnolia, is a U.S. native tree or shrub with leaves that can reach 30 inches long.
Gunnera manicata, also known as dinosaur food or giant rhubarb, has stiff, thorny leaves and stems. The leaves reach 12 feet long and the conical flowers grow 3 feet tall. Gunnera prefers boggy conditions in shade. Darmera peltata, or umbrella plant, grows 4 feet tall with big, round leaves and is hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone 5. Acanthus mollis, called Greek pattern plant or bear's breech, has elegant, architectural leaves and produces a tall column of white and purple blooms.
Originating as a shade-loving understory plant, clumping bamboos can give a temperate spot a tropical look with airy foliage and colourful canes. They grow more slowly than running bamboos, reaching a height of about 10 to 15 feet, and are evergreen in mild climates. Thamnocalamus crassinodus has blue culms (above-ground stems) when young and reaches 18 feet while Fargesia jiuzhaigou has red culms and grows to 12 feet. A new release, Fargesia dracocephala "White Dragon," reaches 8 feet, with green-and-white variegated leaves and culms. It is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zones 6 through 9.
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