The 20 best hardy exotic plants for a tropical look in your garden

hardy exotic plants
The ‘tropical’ garden I created in London

When I first started gardening, I wasn’t very interested in the annuals, perennials and grasses that interest me now. Instead, It was the hardy exotic plants I looked to. I was inspired to start gardening by the idea that I could grow bananas, bamboo, palms and tree ferns and create an exotic-looking garden in the small space behind my house in London.

My guide for this venture was the fantastic book Architectural Plants by Christine Shaw, and the source of many of the plants was the magnificent Architectural Plants Nursery in West Sussex.

This was nearly 25 years ago when London winters were colder than they are now, and tropical-look planting was less common in the UK than it is today.

But even so, depending on where you live, creating a tropical paradise in cooler climates can still seem like an impossible horticultural challenge.

hardy exotic plants
Some of the exotics were protected, but this London garden could survive cold winters

However, selecting the right hardy exotic plants can make your tropical garden dream come true. Here is a list of twenty hardy exotic plants that will survive and thrive in less-than-tropical conditions, bringing that sought-after tropical flair to your outdoor space.

I have grown nearly all of these plants in the UK, and whilst some need a bit of protection, it is well worth pushing the boundaries of what is possible if this is the kind of look you are seeking.

1. Trachycarpus fortunei (Chinese Windmill Palm)

Trachycarpus fortuneii
Snow on Trachycarpus fortunei by Peter Clarke is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

This robust palm introduces an unmistakable tropical vibe with its fan-shaped, segmented leaves. Hardy and slow-growing, the Chinese Windmill Palm withstands temperatures well below freezing, making it ideal for creating a tropical look in cooler climates.

Height/Width: Up to 20-40 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Broad, fan-shaped green leaves. Rarely flowers in cooler climates.

Growing Conditions: Prefers full sun to partial shade with well-draining soil.

2. Musa basjoo (Japanese Banana)

Hardy exotic plants - Musa basjoo
Musa Basjoo

Renowned for its rapid growth and large, lush leaves, the Japanese Banana is the quintessential tropical plant. Despite its delicate appearance, it’s surprisingly hardy. The roots will survive frosts with appropriate mulching, but you will need to protect the trunk over winter if you want that to come through unscathed.

Height/Width: Up to 12-18 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Large, broad leaves. May produce cream to yellow flowers followed by non-edible bananas in summer if the previous winter was mild.

Growing Conditions: Prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soil.

3. Fatsia japonica (Japanese Aralia)

Fatsia japonica brings drama to any garden with its large, glossy leaves that can lend a lush, tropical touch. It’s exceptionally hardy and likes shade, so can fill those difficult spots.

The leaves will wilt a little when hit by frost. But I have always found that they bounce back. There is always a fresh flush of leaves in spring in any case.

Height/Width: Up to 6-10 feet tall and wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Glossy, deep green, palmate leaves; white flowers in late autumn followed by black berries.

Growing Conditions: Thrives in partial to full shade and moist, well-drained soil.

Cultivars: ‘Spider’s Web’ features speckled white variegation, ‘Variegata’ has leaves edged with cream, and ‘Annelise’ is notable for its yellow and green mottled leaves.

4. Cordyline australis (Cabbage Tree)

cordyline australis - hardy exotic
Cordyline australis by briweldon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Towering and dramatic, Cordyline australis adds height and texture with its sword-shaped leaves and woody trunk. This plant is resilient against wind and can tolerate some degree of frost.

Height/Width: Up to 10-20 feet tall and 5-8 feet wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Long, narrow leaves that can be green, red, or purple; fragrant white flowers in summer.

Growing Conditions: Prefers full sun or partial shade and well-drained soil.

Cultivars: ‘Torbay Dazzler’ sports green and cream striped leaves, ‘Red Star’ flaunts deep red foliage, and ‘Sundance’ is celebrated for its bright yellow leaves.

5. Dicksonia antarctica (Tasmanian Tree Fern)

The Tasmanian (or Woolly) Tree Fern provides an exotic focal point with its sprawling fronds and thick, fibrous trunk. It’s remarkably frost-resistant once established, although it is best to protect the central growing point with some straw in winter.

This prehistoric wonder embodies the essence of exotic planting and became incredibly popular with the Victorian British horticulturalists. So you will often see magnificent large specimens like these in the gardens of aristocratic estates.

Height/Width: Up to 10-15 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Long, arching green fronds; does not flower.

Growing Conditions: Best in partial shade with consistently moist, fertile soil.

6. Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ (Red Abyssinian Banana)

Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii'
“Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii'” by wallygrom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

For a dramatic splash of colour, the Red Abyssinian Banana’s striking red-tinged leaves are unbeatable.

This plant doesn’t really belong on this list because it won’t tolerate frost. But it can be grown as a fast-growing annual in cooler zones or overwintered indoors.

Height/Width: Up to 8-10 feet tall and wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Broad leaves with a deep red underside and stalk; rarely flowers.

Growing Conditions: Prefers full sun, ample water, and rich, well-drained soil.

7. Phyllostachys nigra (Black Bamboo)

hardy exotic plants phyllostachys nigra
Phyllostachys nigra by Dinesh Valke is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Black Bamboo adds elegance and mystery to any garden, with its sleek black culms and lush green leaves. Like most Phyllostachys, this is a fast-growing bamboo and can form a dense screen. But it should be contained by some kind of root barrier to prevent it from becoming invasive, especially in warm climates and when grown in full sun.

Height/Width: Up to 15-25 feet tall and spreading.

Foliage/Flowers: Dark green leaves; rarely flowers.

Growing Conditions: Thrives in full sun to partial shade, prefers moist, well-drained soil. Needs containment.

8. Hedychium gardnerianum (Kahili Ginger)

Hedychium gardnerianum
Hedychium gardnerianum”by papilioshih is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kahili Ginger is cherished for its fragrant, bright yellow flowers that appear in late summer. This ginger is surprisingly hardy and can thrive in cooler climates with some winter protection. Note, the flowing stem dies off once it has flowered, but the underground rhizomes will produce more flowering shoots.

Height/Width: Up to 6 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Large green leaves; striking yellow flowers with red stamens.

Growing Conditions: Prefers partial shade and rich, moist, well-drained soil.

9. Canna x generalis (Canna Lily)

Cannas

Cannas bring a burst of colour and genuine ‘tropicality’, with their bold foliage and vibrant blooms. Hardy in zones 7 and up, the rhizomes can be lifted in fall and stored over winter in colder areas.

Height/Width: Up to 3-6 feet tall and 1-2 feet wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Broad leaves in green or bronze; flowers in shades of red, orange, or yellow in summer.

Growing Conditions: Full sun, rich, moist, well-drained soil.

Cultivars: ‘Tropicanna’ boasts multi-coloured foliage and orange flowers, ‘Black Knight’ has deep burgundy leaves and red flowers, and ‘Pretoria’ offers striped green and gold leaves with orange blooms.

Flowering Canna and red-leaved Canna variety

10. Yucca filamentosa (Adam’s Needle)

Yucca filamentosa
Yucca filamentosa by F. D. Richards is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Yucca filamentosa is striking with its rosettes of spiky, architectural leaves. This resilient yucca tolerates dry, poor soils and also cold temperatures, making it a versatile choice for a tropical-style garden.

The Yucca’s architectural leaves alone are enough to justify the plant’s place in your garden. But the huge spikes of multiple white flowers really give the plant its ‘wow’ factor.

Height/Width: Up to 4-6 feet tall and wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Stiff, sword-like leaves; tall spikes of creamy white flowers in summer.

Growing Conditions: Full sun, well-drained soil, drought-tolerant once established.

11. Colocasia esculenta (Elephant Ear)

colocasia esculenta illustris
Colocasia esculenta illustris by MeganEHansen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Colocasia, known for its giant, heart-shaped leaves, brings a dramatic tropical effect to any garden. It thrives in damp conditions, making it perfect near ponds or in wet garden spots. Also known as Taro, the plant’s roots are grown for food, although they need thorough cooking as they are otherwise poisonous.

Height/Width: Up to 6 feet tall and wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Large, lush green leaves; infrequent spike of yellowish-white flowers.

Growing Conditions: Prefers partial shade and loves wet, rich soil.

Cultivars: ‘Black Magic’ displays stunning dark purple-black leaves, while ‘Hawaiian Punch’ offers glossy green foliage with red stems.

12. Eucalyptus gunnii (Cider Gum)

Eucalyptus gunnii
Eucalyptus gunnii Silver Drop 0zz by Photo by David J. Stang is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

With its evergreen silvery-blue leaves and peeling bark, Cider Gum is an excellent choice for adding a touch of the exotic. It’s remarkably hardy and grows quickly, providing fast coverage.

Eucalyptus gunnii is often grown as a small shrub. The stems are cut back hard each year in Spring to encourage the new growth of the lovely blue, rounded, juvenile leaf forms visible in the picture above.

Height/Width: Up to 30-40 feet tall, can be kept smaller by pruning.

Foliage/Flowers: Small, aromatic, rounded leaves; rarely flowers in cooler climates.

Growing Conditions: Prefers full sun and well-drained soil, tolerates drought once established.

13. Agave americana (Century Plant)

Agave americana
Century Plant (Agave americana). by Colourful Flowers is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Century Plant is celebrated for its sculptural form and large, spiky leaves. This desert plant is surprisingly hardy in temperate climates if protected from winter wet.

An incredible feature of the Agave americana is its flower spike. As you can see from the image below, it produces a huge tree-like structure, which has multiple branches carrying many individual flowers. The plant pays a heavy price for all the energy it puts into producing flowers, as it dies immediately after the flowers have been pollinated. New plants usually grow in its place as a result of the multiple seeds that the plant produces.

Agave americana
“Agave americana Jp02” by Thirteen-fri is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Height/Width: Up to 6 feet tall and wide (not including flower spike).

Foliage/Flowers: Thick, fleshy leaves with sharp tips; tall flower spike after many years, usually prior to the plant’s death.

Growing Conditions: Full sun, well-drained soil, drought-tolerant.

14.Chamaerops humilis (European Fan Palm)

Chamaerops humilis
Chamaerops humilis by tgrauros is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This compact palm is ideal for smaller gardens or containers, offering a hardy nature and slow growth. Its fan-shaped leaves bring a delicate, fine-textured look.

Height/Width: Up to 8-15 feet tall and wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Silvery-green to blue-green fan-shaped leaves; yellow flowers.

Growing Conditions: Full sun to partial shade, well-drained soil, drought-tolerant once established.

15. Passiflora caerulea (Blue Passion Flower)

Passiflora caerulea
Passiflora caerulea by sophiea is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Blue Passion Flower is famous for its intricate, exotic flowers and rapid climbing ability. It’s hardy and can cover fences or trellises quickly. It has beautiful lobed foliage and stunning blooms.

This is one of my very favourite plants. It was the inspiration for the garden pictured at the top of the page and one of the reasons I started gardening in the first place.

Height/Width: Up to 20 feet long.

Foliage/Flowers: Deep green leaves; striking blue and white flowers followed by orange fruits.

Growing Conditions: Full sun to partial shade, moist, well-drained soil.

16. Paulownia tomentosa (Foxglove Tree)

Paulownia tomentosa

In its typical form, Paulownia tomentosa, is a nice medium-sized tree, with pinky-purple flowers that look like those of the Foxglove. So much, so ordinary.

However, if you want to make a bold statement in your garden, cut the plant back hard each autumn or spring, When you do this, the new growth produces the huge green leaves you can see in the picture above. This is why it qualifies for a place in this list

Height/Width: Up to 8 to 12 feet tall and 3 feet wide when cut back. Will grow to 12m (40 feet) if left to mature.

Foliage/Flowers: Massive, heart-shaped leaves; no flowers when cut back regulalrly.

Growing Conditions: Prefers full sun and moist, humus-rich soil.

17. Tetrapanax papyrifer (Rice-paper Plant)

The Rice-paper Plant offers large, lobed leaves that create a dense, tropical look. It is robust and can grow back even after freezing temperatures if the roots are protected.

Height/Width: Up to 8-12 feet tall and wide.

Foliage/Flowers: White felted leaves; small white flowers in clusters.

Growing Conditions: Full sun to partial shade, prefers well-drained, fertile soil.

18. Bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’)

Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’
Phyllostachys Aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis by Rob Young is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This striking bamboo features yellow canes with a green groove, providing year-round interest and a tropical feel. It is a pretty vigorous grower and can spread itself around, especially in warmer climates. But it is a beautiful bamboo and can be contained with proper root barriers.

Height/Width: Up to 20-25 feet tall and spreading.

Foliage/Flowers: Evergreen, lance-shaped leaves; infrequently flowers.

Growing Conditions: Full sun to partial shade, moist but well-drained soil, needs containment to prevent spreading.

19. Aloiampelos (Aloe) Striatula

Aloe striatula
Aloe striatula by Stan Shebs is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

A sprawling evergreen succulent perennial, when mature Aloe striatula, can form an expansive cluster of rosettes with spiky silver and grey pointed leaves. During the summer, it produces beautiful clusters of yellow poker-like flowers that are particularly attractive to bees.

It thrives in coarse, well-drained soil and, when the drainage is sharp, it can survive harsh winters. It is root hardy, so if top growth is hit hard by frost, it will usually sprout new growth by late spring. Aloe striatula adds a sculptural element to gardens with its spiky, fleshy leaves. It’s very drought-tolerant and perfect for sunny, dry spots.

Height/Width: Up to 1-2 feet tall and wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Thick, green to grey-green leaves; spikes of yellow tubular flowers.

Growing Conditions: Full sun, well-drained soil, excellent for xeriscaping.

20. Brahea armata (Mexican Blue Palm)

Known as the Mexican Blue Palm, this species is prized for its striking blue-green leaves and robust nature. It’s an excellent palm for creating a focal point in the garden.

Brahea armata is slow growing and resilient to cold, thriving at temperatures as low as -9 degrees C. It adapts well to extreme temperatures and dry conditions. -Plant in well-drained soil and water sparingly.

Height/Width: Up to 15-20 feet tall and 12 feet wide.

Foliage/Flowers: Stiff, blue-green fronds; cream to white flowers on tall stalks.

Growing Conditions: Full sun, well-drained soil, tolerates drought and frost.

Conclusion

Each of these plants can contribute uniquely to a garden’s tropical theme while offering resilience and adaptability to less-than-ideal climate conditions.

The secret to keeping these plants alive is to ensure you give them the sun, soil and watering conditions they need. This means you’ll need to group plants with similar needs together, and adapt your soil and other growing conditions where possible.

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