Here in the sunny south, palm trees are not the only plants that can add a tropical look to your landscape. Cannas, lilies-of-the Nile, cast-iron plants and elephant ears can all provide an exotic aspect to the garden.
These popular plants have an extended flowering period, are low-maintenance, and easy to grow. There are many cultivars available in a wide choice of colors including cream, yellow, orange, pink, red, and spotted and striped bicolors. Depending on the variety, foliage color varies from green to maroon, bronze, and variegated types. Although most cannas grow from four to six feet tall or more, dwarf cultivars may reach only two feet. Cannas bloom from early summer until frost if you remove old blossoms regularly to prevent the plant from setting seed. Placing them in group plantings, such as around a lamppost, will offer the most dramatic effect.
Cannas love hot summer sun but need rich soil and a good moisture supply, even bog-like conditions. They are reliably hardy and can be left in the ground throughout the year in South Carolina. Plant the rhizomes three or four inches deep and 12 to 24 inches apart. Cannas benefit from feedings of 10-10-10 fertilizer every four to six weeks throughout the growing season, but doing so is not absolutely mandatory. Apply a layer of mulch to help retain moisture. You can divide the rhizomes in the spring if you want to increase the number of plants.
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Lily-of-the Nile (Agapanthus)
These beautiful, easy-care plants are good for decorating the borders along a driveway, next to a fence, or around a leggy tree or shrub, such as a crape myrtle. Varieties range from 15 inches to 5 feet in height with a spread of 1 to 3 feet. These low-maintenance plants have tall, slender stems, lush foliage and colorful globes of trumpet-shaped flowers in blue, purple, white or pink. Agapanthus flowers make an eye-catching addition to any cut flower arrangement. The seed heads can be dried and used as decorative accents year round.
As the plants mature, they crowd against each other underground, and this overcrowding limits their flowering. Divide and transplant evergreen agapanthus varieties every three to four years and deciduous varieties every five to seven years. Complete this task either in early spring or after the plants have finished flowering, in early fall. Before you start transplanting the clumps, prune back the foliage by about two thirds and clip back any dead roots. Replant them in a sunny, well-drained location and irrigate them thoroughly.
Cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior)
The cast-iron plant is very hardy and often planted in our region. Newer varieties have cream stripes or dots on the standard dark green leaves. Growing cast-iron plants is especially favored by those who don’t have a lot of time for plant care, as this species can survive conditions where other plants would shrivel and die, especially deep shade. Aspidistra thrives in very hot summers and isn’t easily damaged by cold winters. Insects seem to leave it alone, and it is rarely bothered by disease of any kind. Although tolerant of tough conditions, this plant benefits from regular watering, especially during very dry periods. Consider using organic soil and giving an annual dose of all-purpose fertilizer. Propagate cast-iron plants by division.
Elephant ear (Colocasia)
The elephant ear plant provides a bold tropical effect in nearly any landscape setting. The plants come in a wide variety of colors and sizes, and many are well-adapted to growing in containers. Their most common use, however, is as an accent or focal point. Elephant ear plants can also be used as background plants or edging, especially around ponds, porches and patio enclosures.
Growing elephant ears is easy. Most of them prefer rich, moist soil and can be grown in full sun, but they generally prefer partial shade. Plant the tubers about two to three inches deep, blunt end down. Once established, elephant ears require little attention. Water plants often, especially those growing in containers. Although not absolutely necessary, you may also want to apply a slow-release fertilizer to the soil periodically. Freezing temperatures will damage the foliage, but the roots will usually over-winter.
Frank Edgerton is a Hilton Head Island resident, garden consultant and plantsman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.