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A Taste Of The Tropics

By Anne Halpin

It’s time to savor the warm weather and glorious sunsets of summertime on the East End. After the seemingly endless bitter cold and snow we endured here this past winter, it’s time to unleash our inner beach bum. One way to make the most of summer this year, even when you’re not at the beach, is to create your own little tropical paradise at home. It’s easy to use tropical plants to turn your deck or patio into the perfect setting for a summer party, or just a quiet island of color and greenery where you can kick back with a book, take in the sunset or gaze at the stars.

Many plants that come from tropical climes put on a brilliant show in our Long Island summers, and local nurseries stock them. Here are some ideas for bringing a touch of the tropics to your summer landscape.

To get a tropical feeling, look for plants with flowers in bright, hot colors and great big, luxuriant leaves, and plant them in lush abandon. Tropicalismo is not about austerity or control. Forget clipped rose bushes and clipped hedges. Never mind pastel colors. Instead, for one glorious summer you can mix tropical trees and shrubs with plants you may already know as houseplants and summer annuals, all in big pots and tubs and planters, or even in a garden bed. Group several together for a gardenlike effect. Remember, the key is mix lots of flowers and foliage.

Here’s how to do it. In the center of your pot or garden, place a tall plant, perhaps a hibiscus with large flowers of red, orange, peach, pink, yellow or white, or a brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet, which bears big, dangling trumpet flowers of pale apricot or soft yellow. Another option is a colorful vine trained on a tripod or trellis, perhaps mandevilla with its big pink trumpet flowers, or allamanda, with yellow ones, or an exotic passionflower. In a smaller tub or barrel, scale down: a canna with its big leaves and brilliant red or orange flowers could serve as the central focus there. In a shady spot use a palm or a philodendron vine trained on a moss-covered frame or upright slab of bark as the centerpiece.

Around the tall central plant place voluminous mid-height plants, such as elephant’s ear (colocasia), split leaf philodendron, and houseplants like dieffenbachia or spathiphyllum (aka Chinese evergreen, seen on many an office desk). Dahlias will bloom all summer and well into fall, in a host of hot, bright reds, oranges, yellows and pinks; cactus dahlias, which have pointed petals, work especially well. In a shady spot, feature the colorful foliage of coleus or caladium.

Finish the planting with a lush edging of spilling, trailing plants such as lantana, calibrachoa (million bells) or sweet potato vine with chartreuse or deep purple-black leaves. These plants are widely available locally when the weather turns warm.

Don’t rush the season, though. Tropical plants can’t take cold weather, so don’t plant them outdoors until nighttime temperatures stay above 50 degrees. It is not unheard of to have a frost here late into May, but knowledgeable local nursery staff can give you advice.

When your containers are planted, complete the scene with comfy lounge chairs and maybe a hammock, some tiki torches or lanterns, a fire pit or chiminea, and a cool tropical drink. Then sit back and enjoy the warm summer evenings in your private getaway.