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Did You Say Tropical? Anything-But-Timid Tropical Plants for the North State Garden

“So it might be about testosterone,” Chris Hunter says to me – only half-laughing – about his affection for tropical plants. “Tropical plants just get so huge with even one year of growth – they’re amazing! And those leaves…” he finishes, as if to imply that the leaves on tropical plants are beyond articulation. After all, when you read the word “tropical,” what came to your mind? Maybe clean, white sand and the wide, blue sea, maybe a piña colada with pineapple slices and a colorful little umbrella, but if you are a plant person you probably thought of BIG green leaves. Lots of them. Planted together in dense, self-humidifying, dappley-lit configurations a light warm breeze through which results in a mesmerizing shifting shadow play when top-lit by hot sun. Ahhh, that’s tropical. Photo: Banana palm leaves.

Chris Hunter is a fairly young nurseryman but a long-time fan of tropical plants. He and his fiancée, Courtney Paulson, are co-owners of Magnolia Gift & Garden in Chico and co-gardeners of a home garden that has trialed many tropical plants: some with a sad outcome, others – the ones discussed shortly – with a very happy outcome. “We have used our garden as a botanical science lab and most of the plants we sell we have grown,” Chris assures me. Chris has worked at nurseries in the Bay area as well as here in the North State. More than six years ago now he began working at what was then Zamora’s and which subsequently became Chico Creek Gardens, owned by well-known local plantsman Mike Thiede. Courtney began working at Zamora’s more than eight years ago and early this year, Chris and Courtney bought the nursery and renamed it Magnolia Gift & Garden. Photo: Courtney and Chris near one of the tropical beds at Magnolia Gift & Garden.

After working just a short time in the nursery industry, Chris was hooked on plants generally and on tropical plants in particular. “When I first got the (plant) bug, I became a serious plant nerd for a few years there. My first love was tropical plants: Brugmansia ( Angel’s Trumpet), Amorphophallus, cane-type Begonias, Palms, Alocasias and Colocasias (Elephant Ears), so these are my specialties. I have gone on to be intrigued by South African plants, especially Aloes, and now Australian plants, especially Grevilleas. I like the pushing-the-envelope quality of growing them successfully and the rareness of them.” Photo: Elephant ears below and Cordyline above.

Technically of course, the “tropics” refers to that broad band of the earth running horizontally around the center of the planet – south of the Tropic of Cancer and north of the Tropic of Capricorn. More simply put, it is the portion of the earth that lies closer to the Equator than to either of the Poles. While the word tropical generally conjures visions of the moist, warm climates of the Hawaiian Islands and the rain forests of South East Asia and Central and South America, much of the tropics is actually hot, dry desert as well. While topical might call to mind big, bold, juicy leaves and colorful flowers – like those found on bird-of-paradise, banana palms, Plumeria and elephant ears, all of which like regular moisture – “tropical plants” also include many tough-as-nails drought tolerant plants. Photo: Silvery Astelia leaves – see below for plant description.

For plants that hail from moist conditions, the issue is regular rather than a lot of water, Chris tells me. It can also be humidity, which is why Chris prefers to grow his tropical plants densely packed together. A permanent planting of tropicals underneath a light shade cloth at Magnolia Gift & Garden includes a large centrally placed Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia ‘Charles Grimaldi’), a spiky burgundy Cordyline, and a very large elephant ears (Alocasia macrorrhiza) which provide denser shade for the Ligularia gigantea and smaller elephant ears, cane-type palm leaf Begonia (Begonia luxurians) and toad lilies (Tricyrtis formosana) among others beneath. Planted tightly together they protect one another from some of their biggest fears: wind damage, direct afternoon sun damage and drying out. One of Chris’ pet peeves is to see a good tropical that looks badly in our winter months. “Four month is too long for a plant to look ugly in your garden,” he states, and many of his favorites have made the list because when well-placed they will look pretty good all year without extensive maintenance. Chris waters his moisture-loving tropicals once a day in only the hottest heat, and otherwise as needed. He top dresses his tropical plants’ beds with a fir mulch at least once a year. Photo: Elephant ears, red banana above and Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’ – see below for plant description.

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Chris’ Top Ten Tropical Plants for the North State Garden: (Photo: Windmill palm in sunlight)

1. Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’ – (Sunset zone 1-9, 14 -17) Very hardy and evergreen to 20 degrees in Chris’ expereince. Moisture-loving perennials from Asia, these are mostly grown for their large glossy rounded leaves, but they do have a daisy-like yellow flower late in season.

2. Cordyline australis – (Sunset zone 5, 8-11) great spiky plant, hardy and drought tolerant, can grow quite large and is a dramatic contrast placed with larger leaved tropicals.

3. Ornamental banana – particularly Musa ensete glaucum, which is known as the Snow Banana and has glaucus white leaves, or M. ensete ‘Maurelli’, which is a stouter plant and has reddish-burgundy leaves and red stems. While the Sunset Western Garden Book lists these as zone 13, and 15-24, Chris and Courtney have been growing theirs for years in Chico, and David and Cathy Walther of Spring Fever Nursery at 2300 feet in Yankee Hill have also been growing theirs for years. “It dies back and looks like an old stump in winter, and then reliably sends up new leaves each spring,” David Walther said of his.

4. Lobster-Claw plant or hardy Heliconia schiedeana. This is also known as false Bird-of Paradise and gives that great long leaf look. The flowers feature red to orange bracts and yellow blossoms. Again, not listed as cold-hardy in the Sunset Western Garden Book, Chris and Courtney have grown these in an eastern position with some protection from wind and the heaviest of frosts for some time.

5. Dianella tasmanica – a drought tolerant evergreen and clumping grass-like Australian plant, Dianella has great structural strappy leaves year-round, but its uncommonly lovely delicate blue flower spikes followed by remarkable purple-blue berries provide two to three months of interest beginning in spring. Inconsequential cream flowers in spring are followed, on mature female plants, by nice orange berries.

6. Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) – Chris recommends this and the Pindo palm below for their good looks in winter. The windmill palm (Sunset zone 4 – 24) is also quite hardy and of medium size at maturity.

7. Pindo palm (Butia Capita) Also fairly hardy (Sunset zone 8, 9 12 -24), this palm has great long arching fronds as well as good winter looks.

8. Devil’s tongue or snake palm (Amorphophallus konjac) This plant is without doubt all about testosterone (not that estrogen-fed gardeners don’t like glory, too) and the “oooh-come-see-what-bloomed-now appeal of it. The striking umbrella of foliage that you see most of the year is interesting and attractive, but the long spike of a bloom whose scent is reminiscent of dirty athletic socks or a small child farting in the back seat of a warm car is the bizarre crowd pleaser. Chris has grown his and potted up its many babies for several years now.

9. Astelia chathamica – A hardy Sunset zone 6 -9 native of New Zealand, Chris loves this for its silvery, arching and keeled leaves, which form nice big clumps. Likes regular water until established.

10. Flowering maple Abutilon, is Courtney’s pick for the tropical garden. She attributes her love of them to John Whittlesey of Canyon Creek Nursery in Oroville and started her collection from his offerings at the Chico Saturday Farmer’s market. She loves the pendant blooms, the structural seed heads and the delicate foliage. She grows hers in a protected site along the front side of their house and finds them to be fairly drought tolerant – she waters them at most every other day in the hottest part of summer, far less other times of year – and she also finds that regular cutting back will produce stronger bushier growth. “Otherwise they tend to get leggy.” Many nice varieties are available, some with multicolored flowers and some with great variegated foliage.

“Magnolia Gift & Garden is still a young business, we want to stay idealistic as long as we can and with this in mind everything we source is intended to be unique. We want to be creative ourselves and encourage and pass that on to the customer,” Chris and Courtney tell me and their tropical selections certainly speak to this hope. So do their friendly staff, including Melynn, Abby, Jim Belles, Jim Landry and Juan Gomez. Magnolia Gift & Garden is located at 1367 East Avenue across from Safeway in Chico. The phone number is 530-894-5410 and summer hours are Mon-Sat. 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and
Sunday 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.  Photo left: Pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa ‘Oakhurst’); Photo right: Gunnera manicata.

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In a North State Garden is a radio- and web-based outreach program of the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State, based in Chico, CA. In a North State Garden celebrates the art, craft and science of home gardening in California’s North State region, and is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio KCHO/KFPR radio, Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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