Other pages discuss bamboos, palms, plants which look as if they belong in a desert and plants with exotic flowers. This page concentrates on plants whose foliage appears to belong in a tropical jungle, yet are sufficiently hardy to withstand a British winter outdoors.
Exotic looking foliage plants, in my opinion, must have large leaves, preferably but not necessarily glossy. Plants which have large leaves in nearly all cases grow naturally in a woodland environment where they are sheltered from strong winds which would damage the foliage. Many of them are consequently able to withstand a certain amount of shade, but there are exceptions. Some which tolerate shade in their natural environment need full sun in temperate latitudes to compensate for lower overall light levels and lower temperatures. There are a few which can withstand strong winds, fortunately, and can be used to protect the others.
The separate page on my tiniest garden just discusses what I have actually tried and am considering doing. Here I discuss more generally the concepts involved. I will, as far as I can, also discuss some plants that I have tried, heard of or seen, and which seem possibly suitable for the purpose.
Some people reading this page seem (from messages sent to me) to be under the impression that I am growing all these plants. That is not the case. I am actually growing at present only a very small selection, just those described on the page entitled my tiniest garden.
There is a bewildering variety of hosta species and hybrids available in many different colours and sizes, but I think this one (and its variety "Elegans") is the only widely available one that really deserves a place in the exotic garden. Its leaves are the biggest of any, and their glaucous colour (more pronounced in "Elegans") makes a nice contrast with most of the other plants discussed. The size of the leaves is very dependent on growing conditions. Hostas reputedly need very damp soil, but are in fact surprisingly drought tolerant. However, for the largest leaves it must have ample supplies of both food and water, and a mature plant can then sometimes produce leaves as much as two feet long. With poor conditions they may be well under half that.
Many of the plants discussed here are prone to slug damage, but hostas are well known to be a slug's idea of heaven, so protective measures are essential.
This is a new American variety which I have not yet seen. It is said to have leaves at least as large as those of the above.
Hosta "Sum and Substance"
This horribly named variety is another I have not seen. It has similar sized leaves to the others mentioned, in this case yellowish green.
The mahonias are all evergreen shrubs, the better ones for our purpose all having long pinnate leaves with spiny edged glossy leaflets like large, flattened holly leaves. They also all have yellow flowers, the better one's again having in common that the flowers appear in long racemes in late autumn and winter. This species has leaves up to 18 inches long and 10 inch long fragrant flower racemes. It will grow up to 6 feet tall and 10 feet across.
Mahonia x lindsayae
This species has leaves up to two feet long, with some of the broad leaflets turning red in winter. The lemon yellow flower racemes can be a foot in length. It grows to eight feet high and across. It is a little less hardy than M. japonica.
A more upright shrub than the others, growing to 10 feet high and six across, this is reckoned by many to be the most elegant mahonia. It also has two foot leaves, but the fragrant flower racemes are smaller at eight inches long. It is said to be a little tender, but I have as yet had no problems, leaving it unprotected through several winters. I find its main flowering period is in December, just about sometimes extending to early January. The one problem I have found, which probably applies to all mahonias, is that when weeding nearby the fallen leaves remind me they have extremely sharp spines!
Mahonia x media
This cross between M. japonica and M. lomarifolia has leaves to 18 inches long and flower racemes of 10-14 inches. It will grow 15 feet high and 12 across. There are many varieties of this species. "Lionel Fortescue" is notable for having 16 inch upright racemes of flowers.
In contrast to the others mentioned, this is a dwarf suckering shrub only 18 inches high and three feet across. Nevertheless it still has two foot long leaves, sometimes turning red-purple in winter. It does not flower until late spring, when the racemes are eight inches long.
I have now grown the plant for several years, and do not follow this advice precisely. The first problem is that a chimney pot can cost as much as the plant (more than twice as much for a really decorative one). The second problem is that a standard British chimney pot has an internal diameter of 9 inches, but my plant has become a clump several feet across, excluding the leaves. That isn't a very good fit!. Advice from the nursery is to use pieces of flue liner instead, stacked on top of each other, but that is still much too narrow. I have the good fortune to have a son-in-law who made me a wooden box, 20 inches square and four feet high, which I used instead for the 1998-99 winter (the plant's first), but it was too small in all directions for a second time.
What I have done most years instead, and recommend as a suitable method, is to wrap two-foot wide bubble wrap around the clump, then stuff it tightly with straw, ensuring that there is plenty of straw between the outermost stems and the bubble wrap. Then put another lot of bubble wrap vertically above the first, and again stuff it with straw. This was repeated for a third level, giving a tower just over five feet tall (allowing for some overlap, essential for wind and rain-proofing). Finally I put two pieces of bubble wrap at right angles to each other over the top and down the sides to make a rain-proof lid, and sealed all the edges with sticky tape to keep it in place. The only problem with this, apart from the time it takes to put in place, is that the sticky tape doesn't last the winter, especially in wet weather, so some netting tied over the top is a very useful addition.
Another approach taken by a Norfolk grower is to put four wooden pallets on edge around the clump, stuff with straw, then another set of four on top, etc., to whatever height is necessary to cover the stem, then use a piece of roofing felt as a lid. He finds this very effective, but it takes up more space than my bubble wrap method (which I don't have available), and I suspect it also looks worse, but it would be easier to put together, and pallets held together with string are more wind-resistant than my bubble wrap and sticky tape setup.
Some years recently, having difficulty getting at the ever-increasing clump to wrap it, I have merely wrapped the lower part of the stems, leaving the top open, or even left the whole thing unprotected. In 2005, using this method (just straw at the bottom), I found two stems with almost fully developed flower buds survived undamaged and consequently flowered non-stop from early June until frost in November.
A second point which has emerged from experience is what to do about the offsets. I didn't expect to get any until the main stem had died, either from frost, or less likely following flowering, but only four months after planting it already had four, one of which was then almost as big as the original was when I planted it (about two feet high). The nursery advised me that if the offsets are left on (also protected if possible) this will produce a clump of plants with a greater density of foliage but smaller leaves; two advantages to this are that the stems will tend to protect each other from wind, and the smaller leaves will be less prone to wind damage. If the offsets are removed they can be used for propagation, and the single stem remaining will grow taller and produce larger leaves. Since my plant does suffer significant wind damage, I protected the offsets while leaving them on, but may one day try to propagate one of them, keeping it indoors over winter, at some stage.
There is a number of varieties with different red, pink or purple coloured and variegated leaves. They are all somewhat smaller and less hardy than the type.
Occurring in a number of varieties, this is a smaller, more brightly coloured phormium with drooping leaves. It is less hardy than Phormium tenax, but will still survive outdoors in most parts of Britain with some protection. While it does not have the major impact of its larger relative, it is still a very attractive plant with a different part to play in the overall scheme. Hybrids between the two species are available, intermediate in both size and hardiness.
Rodgersia pinnata superba
This is quite similar to R. aesculifolia, but the leaves are very bronze when young. The flowers are bright pink.
Again having bronze young leaves, in this case they are star shaped and up to two feet across. If grown in full sun the leaves turn purplish in summer. The flowers are creamy coloured, but are less readily produced than in the other species.
The pale green circular leaves of this plant are a great contrast to the other rodgersias. They normally grow two feet across, but can be as much as three. The ivory coloured flower spikes go up to five feet.
This is very similar to V. nigrum, perhaps not quite so tall, but the flowers are white outside and green inside.
This is as tall as V. nigrum but only half as wide. Its flowers are yellow-green. The leaves are hairy when young and grow to about a foot long (longer than the other two species).
Lysichiton (2 species and a hybrid)
Eucomis (several species)
Kniphofia caulescens (some description on the page about my own garden)
Sarracenia flava "Maxima"
Hedera colchica and varieties "Dentata", "Dentata Variegata", "Sulphur Heart"
Ferns (Dicksonia antarctica, Osmunda regalis, Asplenium)
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