Tropically speaking



Sometimes I carelessly throw around the word tropical where it doesn’t apply—referring to plants that merely require warmer temps than I’ve got. But when you’re as far south in the Caribbean as Barbados, you can use the word tropical with a fair amount of confidence.


I saw plants here that I would only see this close to the equator, but I also saw plenty of familiar plants—in unfamiliar contexts. Poinsettias look pretty good growing as tall woody shrubs outside small Bajan homes, along with hedges of croton, and—everywhere—red cordyline, which I use as a container accent every summer, but which here is growing 9-feet and higher.


Then there are plants familiar only as exotic choices at the florists or as tropical houseplants: heliconia (a native), anthurium, and orchids. Finally, there are the truly exotic plants (to northern eyes): plumeria, ixora, and all the different palms and tropical fruit trees like calabash and mammea.


This was not really a garden sight-seeing trip, but I did see Welchman’s Gulch (on the way to the caves) and the Andromeda Gardens, which were left to the Barbados trust by British horticulturalist Iris Bannochie.  Most of the plants were familiar or labeled, except this shrub/small tree. It looks like a double white poinsettia. Sort of. The petals look like bracts, in any case.

Was I envious? Did I wish I could live among these orange and red plants and take advantage of the cheap rum? Not really. A croton hedge might be cool, but I would definitely lose my love for colocasia/alocasia if I had to see it as often as it appears here.

UPDATE: Anne asked that I share more sensory experiences from Barbados. Here you go, Anne: the whistling frog (Eleutherodactylus johnstonei—present everywhere by the thousands) and the sound it makes:


Download sound.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. George ID’d the Mussaenda also known as Handkerchief Tree before I could. I went looking for the species and couldn’t find it.

    Heliconia like bamboo are clumpers or spreaders. The one you pictured is a spreader. The individual stems of all heliconia die back to the rhizome when they finish blooming. It spreads crazy and once you have a large patch it is always filled with ratty looking half dead stems. You can remove them one by one or cut the whole bed of them to the ground and start fresh.

    Banyan/Ficus trees were outlawed in S. Florida because they were destroying the sewer systems and any other underground utilities. They can lift foundations and destroy concrete surfaces and wreck walls. In Maui they were a constant source of neighborhood tension because of “The View”.

    Gardening in the tropics is not for the meek.

    There. Now I feel so much better about being in Siberia where the snow won’t melt and spring seems like a long distant hallucination.

  2. I’m sure it was cool to see all those plants in such a different setting and growing to such heights. We have some of those here in Central Texas, but they don’t get that big!

  3. Elizabeth, what about the other sensory sides of the tropical experience? I imagine the smells, humidity, warmth and wildlife sounds all add to the experience. Not to mention the bugs?

  4. I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing alocasias and colocasias.
    I love the tropics and can’t wait for the day when I live there.
    Give me a warm ocean breeze over a winter blizzard any day.

  5. Last summer I decided to jet off to the tropics to visit an old friend from college. I got off the plane in shorts and a t-shirt in Medellin, Colombia and spent a week shivering in the cold and damp. I don’t think it ever got above 70 at his house up in the hills above the city. The view, the food, the lack of bugs, the tropical plants were all wonderful enough to make me plan a return visit as soon as possible – but I did learn that in some places the tropics aren’t necessarily hot and steamy.

  6. There are some (me included) who think that the perfect climate is tropical with some altitude, like the colonial hill stations of the past.

  7. Thanks for the recording, Elizabeth. It sounds peaceful. Hard for me to imagine no bugs in a place like that though! It sounds pretty nice.

  8. Mussaendas are summer/fall blooming in South Florida. They are dormant and leafless in winter, so are not popular with those who want their gardens to look “tropical” all year long.

  9. Elizabeth,
    I have a Mussaenda philippica bush here in Tarpon Springs Florida.
    I also saw them in Panama where they seem to thrive with very little care.

    The one in your pic is a white one, which I think is nice, but the truly striking one is pink which I have. I live in zone 9, so I took lots of care protecting my Mussaenda from freezes for around 4 years with freeze cloths and lights. I was rewarded with blooms that lasted for months in the dog days of summer. My husband was especially fond of this specimen which we could see from our bedroom window. He called it the pink flower tree.

    Last winter we had 5 hard freezes and my Mussaenda appeared to have succumbed to the cold. I cut it down almost to the ground, after I failed to be able to dig it up. Surprisingly, it sprung to life in the last spring. Well, sprung is relative. Compared to the nine foot tree it grew into laden with blooms, it now was two feet with three leaves. I think I will get me a new one!

  10. Awesome info here!
    In my area we had plenty of freezes this year again, two years in a row. Thankfully it didn’t snow here like it did last year…
    Tropical climates are the best!

    I can’t think of anything better then gardening in free time. I look forward to coming back and learning more. Thanks again and thanks to the comments on this page.

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