When I was growing up in the tropics all I wanted was a traditional English garden. My grandmother in Wales would mail me VHS tapes of Gardeners’ World from when I was about six years old, along with packets of seeds for things like snapdragons and hollyhocks. Despite initial excitement as they sprung up in half the time it said on the packet, I would cry as they soon flopped over in the steamy rainforest temperatures. Fast forward 30 years, and living in London I now desperately long to recreate a piece of primeval, moss-covered jungle in my own tiny patch. Ridiculous, really.
Yet despite having a fascination with trying to recreate the look and feel of distant rainforests, I am very rarely inspired by “exotic” or “tropical” gardens in the UK. For in British gardening these words are essentially a cast iron guarantee of big blocks of primary coloured bedding crammed together with the same three big-leaved plants (Dicksonia, Trachycarpus and Phoenix), perhaps with a faux tribal hut or concrete Buddha in the corner.
If this is the style that you love, that’s great. But I can’t help feel that as a source of gardening inspiration, the tropics has a lot more to offer than the horticultural equivalent of Hawaiian shirts, cocktail umbrellas and uncomfortable colonial nostalgia. There really is so much we are missing out on. With that in mind, here is a selection of common, affordable UK garden plants that in my opinion do a far better job of capturing the look and feel of the deep, lush greenery of real tropical rainforest. Each of them mimics, almost identically, the exotic plants that are staples of planting in actual tropical gardens, yet are totally hardy and perennial so they’ll come back year after year.
Grow your own tropical jungle
Deeply arched, hand-shaped architectural foliage, with the annual bonus of delicate flowers floating above the leaves like a cloud of butterflies. Looks virtually indistinguishable to many of the ground-cover orchids used in the tropics but is bone-hardy.
Native ferns Having just spent a week hiking in Singaporean rainforest I can say that even as a botanist I’d be hard-pressed to tell a lot of the ferns apart from some British native species, at least at a glance. Asplenium scolopendrium, Blechnum spicant and A trichomanes are as tough as they are exotic-looking.
Saxifraga stolonifera A popular houseplant that is also hardy outdoors. Plant this in walls, moss-covered slopes and in rockeries through a layer of mind-your-own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii) for a dopplegänger for some of the wonderful wild begonias that dot the rainforest floor. Or even better, an actual hardy begonia like B grandis evansiana or B sinensis.
Ivy Sidestep the variegated, traditional garden forms and seek out a plain green, unusual form such as Hedera ‘Ann Ala’ or ‘Tomboy’ and it could easily pass for the climbing figs that scramble up trees and buildings in the tropics.