Introduction to The British Gardener's website

Thinking outside of the zone - Part Three

Part Three - Into the Jungles of Northern Virginia

Thumb through any good books about tropical landscapes and it soon becomes apparent that a plant's foliage is the key element of design.  Flowers tend to be an afterthought, playing second fiddle to the over exaggerated rich tapestry of foliage that is greatly utilized.  Large, bold and often architectural leaf forms are the hallmark of any tropical design.

In this final installment, we'll take a look at some plants long considered to be too tropical to over winter in a cooler environment.  If you've managed to stumble onto this post and are wondering what the heck is going on, here's a quick recap. The last three posts have been based around a remarkable garden that I visited in Northern Virginia, created by self-confessed  'Zone Pusher' called Panama John.  I was invited to explore this Tropical Eden by another zone denial victim, Boca Joe, who with Panama John demonstrated that the wealth of plants we could grow in zone 7 was far greater than believed.

The bold foliage of Tetrapanax

When beginning to explore Tropicalesque gardening, one plant that immediately grabs your attention is the bold Rice Paper Plant, Tetrapanax papyrifer.  Until this visit I had only read about it, but here Johns garden it took center stage right by the front door.  Its extremely large, dissected foliage created a bold statement, providing an exciting contrast with its surrounding neighbors. It reminded me greatly of another bold, otherworldly plant that I wish we could grow here, the Giant Rhubarb, Gunnera maculata.  Both plants have a 'Alice in Wonderland' appeal that provide well for their use in gardens as show stoppers.

Fatsia japonica
Standing guard by the back yard gate like a bouncer at a night club, was an impressive specimen of Japanese aralia, or Fatsia japonica. This evergreen shrub is a close cousin to the already mentioned Rice Paper Plant and has been touted for years as a zone 8 plant.  Again, the presences of such a large and obviously old specimen dispelled the myth.  John did tell me that during the winter the foliage has a habit of drooping, much like rhododendrons, possibly to reduce the amount of desiccation from cold winter winds.  Another of this areas zone pushers refers to this as 'Fatsia flop', stating that the foliage takes on a 'boiled spinach appearance in winter but miraculously recovers come spring'.

John had no shortage of Hardy Japanese Banana, Musa Basjoo, on hand giving that tropical punch to the garden.  Few people even realize that this banana is actually rated for zone 6a gardens, dying back anywhere from a trunk (pseudostem), all the way down to its underground rhizome.  A thick layer of mulch will protect the underground rhizome that will quickly re-sprout in spring, or if the winter has been mild, will push new grow from the pseudostem.  If you're lucky to get it to flower the golden creamy flowers will give way to somewhat seedy fruit.

Amorphophallus Konjac Foliage
One plant that I was completely blown away to see growing happily outside was one that goes by a range of common names like Devil Tongue, Voodoo Lily or Snake Palm, Amorphophallus Konjac.  Not for the faint of heart, this aroids big brother is none other than the Corpse flower, Amorphophallus Titanum, named for smelling like rotten flesh. This is a flower a man can brag about around the water cooler and had the office jocks lining up to witness.  During nonflowering years, the solitary leaf stork takes on a trunk like structure while displaying a attractive crown of radiating leaflets.  Once the bulb has reached flowering size, a bloom emerges resembling a decomposing meaty vase with boney structure sticking out of the center of it.  The fragrance matches this gruesome sight as it attracts carrion flies looking to feed on rotten flesh, to pollinate it.  Maybe the next time I have a customer looking for a flower that doesn't attract bees I should recommend this guy.  After experiencing this flowering event you'd welcome bees back into the garden again.

Reflecting back over these last few posts,  I can honestly say its been a long time since I found myself this excited over a garden.  What the likes of Panama John and Boca Joe are doing is nothing short of remarkable.  By never accepting conventional wisdom, John has pushed the envelope and produced an amazing tropical oasis in the heart of North Virginia.  I'm thankful to both of them for opening my eyes to this this new world of possibilities. Never again will I look at another so called 'tender' plant and not want to try my luck.

 'If you are not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener' - J.C. Raulston

Follow this link to read Part One - Tree Treasures of Emerald and Silver or Part Two - Palm Trees without the Ocean Breeze

What to read more about Zone Pushing, here's Panama John's and Boca Joe's publication through the Virginia Extension Service