It's downright steamy outside. Mother Nature has replaced the cool breezes and dewy mornings of early summer with blazing sun and a persistent humidity that seems to leave everyone with a slippery film on their skin.
Plants no longer stand at attention. Instead, their heads droop as if they're trying to get that unrelenting glare out of their eyes. A friend recently compared the hot, moist days of summer to living inside Mother Nature's mouth. Yuck! But it's a decidedly accurate description.
But enough groaning; there's a positive side to all this heat and humidity. If it feels like the tropics outside - albeit without the luxury of an ocean breeze - then it can look like the tropics, too. Why not bring in some tropical flora that will perk up the garden and thrive in these dog days?
Most of my favorite plants are tropical. I adore creating floral arrangements with a few simple prehistoric-looking leaves from a monstera plant or elephant ear bulb. The flare of a giant canna bloom with its mammoth maroon leaves or the pop of the chartreuse-colored leaves of a sweet potato vine add interest and a splash of the unusual to any Kansas garden.
Donna Gardner, greenhouse manager at Sunrise Garden Center, 15th and New York streets, has kept a tropical garden, which frames her home in Baldwin, for many years.
"Every year I have something different," she says. "I had a banana plant last year, and that did very well. One year I had a bird of paradise, which was the focal point, and that was fantastic, too. Actually, I have never had any tropical not thrive in this space."
Gardner's tropical bed is even situated on the north side of her house, but the locale doesn't seem to deter a prolific batch of gorgeous showstoppers each year. Gardner uses fertilizer sticks to keep her plants lush and says the only pest that seem to bother them is the occasional grasshopper.
Elephant ears and caladiums are favorite choices of Ann Peuser, owner of Clinton Parkway Nursery and Garden Store, 4900 Clinton Parkway. Peuser encourages her patrons to try a new annual every year.
"Try it and if it works, super, and if it doesn't than try again next year in another location," she says. "Do not give up easily on experimenting with new plants because you might miss a boat that you wish you were on."
Many tropicals have seeped into Kansas landscaping vernacular as if they were as common as, say, geraniums.
"Oftentimes people will see a plant at a nursery or a friend's house and it will just begin to take off in popularity like the sweet potato vine has done," Peuser says. "Tropical plants are a growing interest. Before, people thought they could only keep them as a house plant, but now they are experimenting. With the advent of container gardening, folks are really beginning to branch out with more tropical choices."
Gardner's favorite tropical plant is the Silver Dollar fern, which has black stems and is related to the Maiden Hair fern. The only drawback to her favorite choice is that it's fairly high-maintenance. Even in the winter they need to be watered almost daily.
Luckily, most tropical bulbs require much less maintenance. Her advice for over-wintering them is to dig them up, cut off the foliage, wash the bulb and set it out to dry.
"I use hamster bedding in a paper bag with some holes for ventilation to surround the bulb, then place the bag in a cool, dry place," she says.
Here's a look at some tropical plants you could try in your garden. Unless otherwise noted, they should be over-wintered indoors.
¢ Aloe: A succulent that is 95 percent water and, therefore, needs very little watering. It relieves pain caused by burns and insect stings. Likes direct sunlight and ranges from 6 inches to 18 feet with more than 300 species.
¢ Anthurium: With its waxy heart-shaped flowers and stiff spadix, or "tail," the anthurium is one of the more unusual looking plants. Its blooms are generally red, pink, green, lilac or white. It enjoys full sun and needs a good amount of humidity. Makes a fantastic cut flower.
¢ Bamboo: Bamboo will spread, so it's best to keep it contained when you plant it in the ground. A great perennial that will hold interest all year with its unique texture and sound effects. Bamboo makes a wonderful privacy screen and grows quite quickly. Ranges from 12 inches to 75 feet tall. An assortment of varieties come in green, black and yellow canes.
¢ Banana plant: A banana plant may grow up to 25 feet tall. After the plant flowers and fruits, the top portion dies and another plant sprouts from the same root. At that point, you can pack the plant's root ball in shredded newspaper wrapped in a plastic bag and store it in the garage or basement. Next year, plant it in a sunny spot and watch it grow.
¢ Bird of paradise: A member of the banana family, the bird of paradise loves the sun. The flowers are commonly orange with red and purple, however some plants sport white and purple blooms. It responds well to pruning with wonderful, large, waxy leaves on long stalks.
¢ Bougainvillea: An evergreen vine, this plant is happy spreading up, down or horizontally. It's thorny, likes full sun, should be watered lightly and comes in a rainbow of colors. Makes an excellent bonsai specimen.
¢ Bromeliads: In the wild, these plants often can be seen growing off of rocks and tree trunks. They like lots of light and a well-ventilated place. They have leathery, thick leaves which produce a bloom in the center that can last for months.
¢ Caladiums: The hotter the temperature, the faster the caladium will grow. They are bulbs that should be dug up and stored in peat moss in a closet before the first frost hits. The caladium's beauty is in its variegated leaves that are shades of white, pink, red and green.
¢ Canna: This is a tender perennial with architectural foliage and large flowers in a dizzying array of colors. The canna adds great shape and color to any garden and is a copious drinker in the summer. Store the bulbs in soilless compost in a paper bag for the winter, re-plant and enjoy for many years.
¢ Coleus: An annual plant with fantastic, colorful foliage. Snip off the shoots as the plant grows to ensure a bushier look.
¢ Crocosmia: A plant that boasts golden orange and brilliant red tube-shaped flowers that branch out in freesia-like flower spikes. The crocosmia is an excellent flower to use in arrangements, and its sword-shaped leaves are as interesting as the blooms. Plant the seeds in a pot and be patient: They generally take two seasons to bloom.
¢ Croton: This plant prefers bright light to maintain its fiery leaf colors. The tough, leaves are orange, red, yellow and maroon.
¢ Elephant ear: A tuberous bulb the size of a softball, elephant ears grow to be 3 to 5 feet tall with leaves about 1 1â2 feet wide. A showy plant that's easy to grow, they look wonderful in flower arrangements. Simply dig up the bulb, cut off the foliage, let the bulb dry and store for the winter in a dry place. Then re-plant next season.
¢ Hibiscus: This tropical comes in a rainbow of colors, and its saucer-sized blooms will produce prolifically all summer long. Bush and tree varieties are hardy perennials that will over-winter in the ground.
¢ Monstera: A marvelous split-leafed philodendron with large, glossy leaves that have oblong holes. The Monstera likes filtered sun and to be kept dust free.
¢ Palm: The palm comes in many varieties and is one of the simplest houseplants to grow. It prefers filtered water to tap water.
¢ Protea: This is a large ornamental shrub that touts hard, leathery leaves with giant fuzzy-skinned flowers that are shaped like a football. It likes full sun and good air movement and is, surprisingly, fairly frost-tolerant.
¢ Red ginger: This plant grows quite slowly and produces no blooms for the first three years but then quickly takes off to grow 6 to 7 feet high with football-sized blooms that range from light pinks to deep reds. Red ginger must be kept warm, shaded and sheltered when outside.
¢ Sandersonia: A unique plant with lantern-shaped flowers in orange and yellow that hang from wiry stems. The sandersonia is a tuber plant that should be stored at around 63 degrees in a dry place over winter. It needs to be staked as it grows.
¢ Sweet potato vine: This plant comes in deep purple and chartreuse. It's an annual that likes full sun and performs well in baskets, pots and as ground cover.
¢ Ti plant: Red, pink and green leaves are what make the ti plant so spectacular. It requires minimal water, and a leaf can be snipped off and placed into soil to create a new plant. In Hawaii, the ti plant is considered lucky.
¢ Wax begonia: They prefer partial shade and come in white, pink, red and bi-colors. The wax begonia is a reliable bloomer with non-stop flowering. The bronze-leafed variety tolerates the heat and sun best.