Gardens to Visit - Abbotsbury - Five ways to make your garden look tropical

5 ways to make your garden look tropical Abbotsbury Green Fingered Blog
If you long to create a tropical paradise in your garden then Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset has lots of examples of what to plant and how.

There are plenty of plants that look exotic but that are hardy enough to be grown in most places in the UK, so whether you're in urban Birmingham, suburban Surrey or rural North Yorkshire, read on to find out how you can turn your garden into a jungle - or a post-apocalyptic vision!

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset benefits from a mild sheltered location on the English South coast, where the gulf stream feeds warmer air from across the Atlantic and makes the winters milder than they would otherwise be.

This makes it possible to grow some exotic plants that wouldn't ordinarily survive in the British Isles. There are fine examples here of plants from Australia, Africa, and Asia, but many of them have hardier equivalents or dopplegangers that can be grown in harsher conditions in the UK, to create a very similar effect.

Rope Bridge at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset
Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens - The Rope Bridge
There are limitations - your specimens might not grow as big as those living in the privileged environment of Abbotsbury, and given that they might be secretly dreaming of a hotter and sunnier garden hundreds of miles further South, they might take longer to get themselves established.

You might need to protect some from the worst winter cold or wet, by improving the drainage or wrapping them in fleece during really cold spells.

Some might need a sheltered spot to reduce the effect of those colder winds we tend to get. But there are many plants that can lend your garden an exotic atmosphere that are hardy enough not to shrivel and die at the first sign of a bit of frost.  
So what can you plant in your garden that will give you at least a slice of life in the tropics? Here are a few ideas that suggested themselves to me as I explored Abbotsbury:
1. Palms.
You enter Abbotsbury through an avenue of towering palms which are planted either side of a raised wooden walkway, and immediately create an exotic impression. The effect is created again just after entering the main garden, this time at a lower level with dense planting of palms on either side of the path.

Trachycarpus tropical planting at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens
Trachycarpus are hardy but exotic looking
Any palm will engender thoughts of far away places since they are absolutely the antithesis of an English country garden. To bring this effect home with you, plant Trachycarpus fortunei in the sunniest part of your garden. It's hardy enough for most British gardens but looks as tropical as any other palm.
2. Large Leaves

Many of the plants that contributed to the tropical style at Abbotsbury had a couple of things in common. The first was that many had very large leaves. Whether it was the Rhododendron falconeri originating from the Himalayas or the Musa (banana) from Africa, the sheer scale of the foliage creates a kind of jungle effect from sheer lushness and fullness of planting.  

Rhododendron falconeri with large leaves
Rhododendron falconeri - monster leaves

However, Rhododendrons need acidic soil, and most will get very big eventually so are not suitable for many gardens.

Bananas are not hardy and need a lot of preparation work to get them through a British winter. Instead, to get the large leaf effect you can plant Gunnera (see section 5) or Fatsia Japonica (see section 3), which likes a shady and sheltered position but has large leaves like giant hands and looks as if it has been transplanted from a thick woodland in Japan.

Gunnera - large leaves already!
3. Glossy leaves
Another property that helps these plants look exotic is glossy leaves. In a hot climate, they help retain moisture and reflect heat, and while they may not need to do this as much in your garden, the visual association is easily made, and sleek glossy leaves give the impression of a plant that is at home somewhere tropical.

Fatsia japonica helps create a jungle effect
Fatsia japonica - helps make your own jungle!
The aforementioned Fatsia is a good example. So are cannas, which need to be protected like bananas, but being smaller can be grown in pots or lifted in autumn, and brought indoors for winter.
4. Supersize plants

Some plants look exotic simply because they seem bigger and more impressive than others you might grow. 

There are plenty of familiar plants that produce tall flower spikes in summer, such as foxgloves, lupins or delphiniums, but they seem relaxed, loose and restrained and therefore at home in a cottage style garden.

In comparison, Echium, Eremurus (Foxtail Lily) and Eucomis (Pineapple Flower) all seem to grow straighter and taller, and acquire a bolder and quirkier appearance.

Echium, tall and exotic at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens
Echium - tall and exotic
These Echiums at Abbotsbury are taller than me, and their hairy foliage (another moisture retentive adaptation) also indicates they are at home in warmer parts. Note that there are both hardy and not so hardy varieties of Echium, Eucomis and Eremurus, so make sure you choose a hardy one, but they will all lend your garden a tropical air.  

5. Something unusual
Sometimes what you are seeking is indefinable but you know it when you see it.

Wandering through the gardens at Abbotsbury I was looking for ways to take the exotic look away with me, identifying what features struck me as embodying the tropical style.

It's not always possible to quite put your finger on it. Pseudopanax ferox (toothed lancewood) looks exactly as it's common name suggests, with long spiky spears of leaves. Not to my taste but would make an impression for sure.

However, when I came across this grove of Gunnera manicata, I was taken aback.

Gunnera, at Abbotsbury Subtropical gardens
Gunnera emerging, looking quite bizarre!
Gunnera, in a boggy, sheltered site will grow leaves up to two metres across, looking like a giant rhubarb. If you have enough space for one, nothing will create a jungle more effectively.

But at this time of year those leaves are only just opening, so what confronted me was not a lush, green, tropical jungle of massive arching stems supporting leaves you could make a hammock from, but a post apocalyptic image of emerging stems.

They appeared as if they had been destroyed some time previously, and were now starting to climb, zombie like, back out from the ground into a sparse Jurassic landscape. I spotted a chaffinch but would not have been too surprised at that instant to have seen a voloceraptor. 

Whether you pack them in densely to form a mini jungle or plant them more formally in a colonial style, there are plenty of plants that will help you turn your garden into something more exotic.

If you have ideas for other plants that will do this, please share them using the comments box below. And I'm sure there are more gardens to visit with great examples of tropical and exotic plantings. Please let me know if you've been to one, it would be great to hear about them. 




  1. I think the Himilayan honeysuckle, Leycesteria Formosa, wouldn't look out of place in an exotic garden.

  2. Hi Iain, that's a great suggestion. It definitely has an exotic look with the colourful bracts hanging down, and it's fully hardy too!

  3. I have many friends who keep palms in their garden, and they seem to hold up quite well. Even after the unusual amount of snow we had recently, they're still going strong.

    I'm also a fan of banana trees, but I'm not brave enough to try and keep one. Maybe one day, but it would be indoors I think.

    Thanks for sharing the photos from your trip, they're lovely!

    1. Hi Emma, thanks for visiting. There are many palms that are not frost hardy, but quite a few that are, and they can cope with the cold and also with plenty of weight of snow on them - they are quite robust, sturdy plants! Bananas look great but are almost all tender, and need a lot of looking after. They need to be cut back, wrapped up, stuffed with straw and covered in fleece or bubble wrap to have much chance of getting through winter, certainly in my part of the world. I've seen a few around though in private gardens as well as places like the the National Botanic Garden of Wales, so it can definitely be done if you're prepared to make the effort.

  4. Went to Abbotsbury for the first time last year and found it really inspiring.

  5. Hello Paul,
    I wrote a recent post about tropical plants. They are not my favourite I admit as I’m a plant and leave kind of Gardener and definately prefer the cottage garden look but I do admire tropical plants mainly for their huge leaves. My uncle has a banana plant which is doing remarkably well in his south facing garden but I’m niw he has been worrying about it over the last few weeks in all this snow! I have been to the swannery at Abbotsbury when my children are small but missed this garden. It looks beautiful.
    Thanks so much for linking to #MyGloriousGardens this month. What a month for strangely changing weather! Hope to see you next month. Look out for my round up post later on this month.

    1. Hi Sophie, great to link up again this month after the winter break. My garden also has a more cottagey look than tropical, but it is a fascinating genre of garden and some amazing plants. Abbotsbury is well worth visiting as it is fabulous. I'm planning on visiting plenty of other gardens so will be posting and linking up again soon.

  6. I have 2 banana plants (Musa Basjoo) in my garden that have been there for 4 years and were really big last summer. Some leaves were over five feet long. This year I was really busy and only had time to protect one of them before the Beast from the East struck so I was fairly pessimistic about the chances of the unprotected one. As expected all of the trunks completely rotted away. I was close to digging it up when I noticed some new shoots coming through. So even after a "once in a decade" harsh winter (-10C), in the middle of England, the good old Musa Basjoo has survived.

    1. Thats quite a relief I'm sure! It is horrible to lose such fabulous specimens, so I hope it makes a full recovery

  7. Thanks for interesting article. Planning a trip to Abbotsbury soon. Have also taken inspiration from the wonderful national trust garden Overbecks in Salcombe Devon which has 3000 palms! Hope to start planting my exotic border this week. I’m looking for a tree that might work in the border and give height at the back. I have a tree fern and thinking of some bamboo. Any suggestions?

    1. Thanks for commenting. I'll try and check out Overbecks next time I'm in the area, sounds great. For an exotic style tree how about a Trachycarpus fortunei - a very hardy palm that will get quite large in time. I have it in my garden, it lends a nice Mediterranean air. An olive does also -they are hardier than you'd think once they're established. As for bamboo, the most important thing I think is to choose a clump forming variety rather than a runner that will spread all over. I have Fargesia mureliae and Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo), and both have been problem free. Good luck with the project!

  8. If you have the space or could root (rhizome) prune, any of the Phyllostachys vivax species look great, tropical, have large leaves for a phyllostachys, and are reliable for producing a nice grove. If you don't have the space, a clumping bamboo like Fargesia robusta, is tough and reliable and will produce a glut of culms pretty fast, to about 10/12ft. A clumper will still spread, incrementally, not leap.

  9. Great suggestions, thanks for commenting.