Tropical Plantings for the Greensboro, NC Area- A Case Study

Another fun project for winter- designing a tropical landscape design for a customer!  I have many customers here in NC Triad area that request an exotic or tropical look for their homes. While it is somewhat of a tall order here in zones 7-8, it is possible. There are many hardy plants that can withstand our North Carolina winters while still providing the lush look and tropical feel that you are looking for. Let's see an example in the case study below:

'Tropical' Case Study in Greensboro, NC: This homeowner wanted to have an Italianate and exotic look to their landscape for their Italian styled home. They wanted to use palm trees, in particular; that can withstand our winters.  The formal style of the home required me to create a more formal style of design for the landscape. 

I chose a variety of plant material for this project. The tropicals were used as focal points or accents, and the other plant material was to accentuate or complement those focal points. The remaining plant material was also to add evergreen, leaf, flower and another color to the design. Layering of plants was used to define the spaces and add interest. The planting beds in this design are vast, due to the massiveness of the house (9,000 s.f.!) If smaller beds were used, they would be dwarfed by the size of the home.

The plant materials I chose for this project were:

  • Dwarf Chusan Palm
  • Italian Cypress
  • Crape Myrtle
  • Pee Gee Hydrangea (paniculata)
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Otto Luyken Laurel
  • Blue Rug Juniper
  • Knock Out Rose
  • Flower Carpet Rose
  • Indian Hawthorne
  • Loropetalum 'Daruma'
  • Spirea 'Little Princess
  • Miscanthus
  • Dwarf Burning Bush
  • Hydrangea Microphylla
  • Dwarf Daylilies

(NOTE: This home is currently under construction so I will post finished pictures once it is complete.)  See below for some additional information on tropical look plant materials, including the ones above. There are many more than what was used on this project, please see the information below:

More plants to get the tropical look for Zones 7-8:

Tropical Look Trees: Palmettos, Chusan Palm, Pindo Palm, Hardy Banana all do well here in a sheltered location. They also are a great addition to large containers for an instant tropical look. Also try 'Rose of Sharon, from the Hibiscus family. This shrub can be trained to a tree form and comes in a variety of colorful and unusual flower colors. Some are even striped! Very prolific grower and can tend to colonize, so use it sparingly.  I also have used a Dwarf Citrus plant called Poncirus trifoliata, or 'Flying Dragon.' This unusual cultivar is from the trifoliate orange family. This plant exhibits contorted, heavily thorned, branches and bitter fruit. I am told that although the fruit is too bitter to eat outright; it can be made into jellies where additional sugar is added. Some staples of the southern garden that support a tropical look are Crape Myrtles, Wax Myrtle, and Camellias (they also can be pruned to a tree form.)

Tropical Look Shrubs:  Use Kaleidoscope Abelia, Confetti Abelia or Dwarf Loropetalum for a colorful leaf display. Other shrubs to consider in this genre are Gardenia, Pee Gee Hydrangea (paniculata) or Camellia. For shady gardens, try Aucuba or Hydrangea macrophylla for interesting leaf and blooms. Some vines to consider are Passion Vine, Confederate Jasmine or Climbing Hydrangea.

Tropical Look Perennials: There are many perennials we can use here to achieve this look. Try using the following: Canna, Pineapple Lily (comes in both red and green leaf- looks like a real pineapple!), ice plant, colorful Sedum Groundcovers, Elephant Ear, Ajuga, Dwarf or full size Daylilies and Cast Iron Plant.

Tropical Look Annuals: These plant materials can be used in the summer season only and must be replanted each year. Plant your containers full of these after the last frost for a great tropical display all summer!  Try Crotons, Purple Heart, Begonias, Shrimp Plant.