Tropical paradise

We all want to create our little corner of paradise in our gardens and it’s fair enough that Kiwis look to the tropics for inspiration, after all, most of us have had a memorable South Pacific or north Queensland holiday.

The bad news is that we live in the sub-tropics which means we can’t have a true “tropical” garden as it’s not only about temperatures and rainfall but the almost unvarying levels of daylight through the year nearer the Equator.

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The white-flowered variety of Justicia carnea, the Brazilian plume flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Palms are the backbone of any tropical garden and while we can’t grow the coconut palms so typical of an island paradise, we do have access to a range of trees to suit our climate.The good news is we can achieve “tropical-look” gardens if we do our homework and are clever about plant choice.

Layers of planting – canopy, sub-canopy, under-storey and groundcover – creates depth and gives the impression that a garden is bigger than it actually is.

Large trees and plants include Parajubaea cocoides (Quito mountain coconut palm) that can handle strong winds and hard frosts; Chatham Islands nikau, Rhopalostylis sapida; Atherton palm (Laccospadix australasica) from Lord Howe Island (not below minus 2C); the fish-tail palms Caryota ochlandra and C.obtusa; the smaller Dipsis boroni (hardy sugar cane palm); Strelitzia nicolai (giant bird of paradise, looks like a banana palm); banana palms; and Meryta sinclairii (puka) which although frost tender, can be grown in shade.

In the display garden at Palmco in Kerikeri they have created a coconut palm effect by planting bangalow palms on an angle – as the trees straighten up and grow towards the light a bend develops in the trunk.


Bendy bangalow palms in the Palmco garden, Kerikeri. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Other plants to help the island paradise feel include hibiscus, bromeliads, taro, gardenias, day-lilies, rengarenga lilies, Chatham Island forget-me-nots, hostas, pineapple lilies (eucomis), canna lilies, vireya rhododendrons, star jasmine, orange jessamine (Murraya paniculata), cymbidium orchids, hoya and clivia.Smaller hardy orchids, such as Australian Dendrobiums or Zygopetalums, can be grown on trees or in ponga posts.

Ferns and tree ferns also add to the tropical look and are relatively easy to source.


Vireya Tropic Glow. Photo: Sandra Simpson

If you don’t have room for a pond, water lilies can be grown in a half-barrel or a large, glazed pot.

And don’t omit bamboo from your line-up just because of its weedy reputation. Choose carefully and it will add a grace to your garden that few other plants can achieve.

Robin Booth of Wharepuke garden in Kerikeri finds that once an area is planted, plants create their own micro-climate and “support one another”.


Cordyline fruticosa Fiji in Wharepuke garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He imported Cordyline fruticosa Fiji in to New Zealand “many years ago” and says the small tree with its brightly coloured leaves will do well in a cooler climate. New Zealand grass trees (Dracophyllum) are another shrub-size alternative.

For more information and to buy plants, try these specialist New Zealand websites:

Don’t forget to check the listings on the Group page – members of specialist groups are always happy to help.