Gardening: Tropical houseplants are hot today

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News
A mix of coleus, sweet potato vine, oxalis, sedum, polka dot plant, asparagus fern and creeping Jenny make a stunning container display.

Big porch pots are all the rage these days, but if you’re looking for colorful flowers and lack a lot of sunlight your choice of flowering plants is limited. However, there’s a whole raft of interesting tropical plants available at garden centers and nurseries that, when combined, make stunning sophisticated displays. These are best known as houseplants, however in summer, if kept watered, they thrive outdoors. And, for those who like to be “on trend,” they are considered hot, hot, hot.  

 In the June issue of Southern Gardening magazine, their “container of the month,” which includes an elephant’s ear, a Rex begonia, arrow head plant (nephtytis) and a crispy wave fern, knocked my socks off. Check it out on newsstands. 

All of these plants are in shades of green from light to dark and with the exception of the Rex begonia, whose blooms are small and inconsequential, they do not produce flowers.  

But there’s a lot to be said for foliage plants. Not only do they produce drama when used in combination, generally, they’re low maintenance – no pinching, pruning or dead heading. Just keep them watered so the soil stays moist and they are good to go. When planting, use a slow release fertilizer such as Osmocote to keep them looking perky.

The secret to success when designing an all-green color scheme with pizzazz is to vary the size and texture of the leaves. Variation of leaf coloration from splashes and splotches to sparks of other colors, usually pink, red, or burgundy add excitement.

Height and growth habit are also considerations. Elephant’s ears produce large leaves on tall straight stems and provide good height.  Then a ruffle around the base of the plant with a mix of smaller plantings adds excitement.  

There are lots of plants to choose from, including hostas, caladiums and a variety of ferns.   Almost any plant can be grown in a container if given the right conditions, so be sure to check the plant tags and choose those that indicate shade to partial shade. 

If color is your thing, coleus can’t be beat. The heuchera collections at garden centers this year offer a stunning awry of colors. The ‘All Gold’ Japanese forest grass is a perfect “spiller” that adds real sparkle in the shade. 

When choosing containers, bigger is always better and for all-green plant designs, white really makes them pop. 

To look for inspiration, Pinterest has dozens of great designs, including window boxes, which are easy to adapt to pots.   

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. Email her at by clicking on Ask Nancy.  You can also read her previous columns at