Tropical paradise


Tropical paradise

words by
kristee semmler // the barossa nursery

I used to hate Crotons. Crotons are a tropical plant with spectacular, bright colourful leaves in shades of red, yellow, orange, purple and green. My dislike for them stemmed from having to try and keep them alive in our old, unheated Nursery building over the winter months. No matter what I did or how much care I gave them, they always dropped their leaves because of the cold and looked terrible over winter. 

Fast forward a few years, I moved to Cairns and managed a garden centre up there for around 5 years. Tropical plants are a whole other ball game and I had to learn them fast – thankfully my background in plants helped make it easier. When I moved there, I still held my dislike of crotons and refused to put them in our tropical garden at first. 

Quite quickly, I came to realise Crotons in Cairns are one of the hardiest plants you could get. They thrived in any soil, in full sun, with little to no maintenance and their colourful leaves are just amazing, they scream tropical! It wasn’t long before a couple made it into our home garden and I changed my opinion on them. I started to actually really love them. It really is a case of the right plant in the right environment, or climate in this case. 

Back in the Barossa I wouldn’t dare put them out in the garden. They would die over winter and get sunburnt in our summer (they need humidity). They truly are an indoor plant only here. We may not be able to plant the very tropical looking Croton in our gardens, or many other highly tropical plants for that matter, however, if you are in love with all things tropical, with careful plant selection you can create your own tropical paradise right here in the Barossa, cold winters and all!


To start it’s all about setting up the right layout and structure. Many tropical looking plants that can survive our climate here need protection. This may be in the form of a big tree to protect leaves from burning from our harsh summer sun, or a fence or wall to help protect from cold winds and frosts. Getting the right set up in terms of protection is vital.

Next is plant selection and this is crucial. As I mentioned above, many highly tropical plants just won’t survive our outdoor climate here. In fact many of the indoor plants we sell at Barossa Nursery are outdoor plants in the tropics! For example Calatheas, Aglaonemas, Peace Lily’s and Devils Ivy all thrive outside in the tropics. However, if you put these ‘indoor’ plants out in the garden here in the Barossa, they are almost certain to die. 

As I said, plant selection is crucial. As we all know, our summers are hot and dry and our winters are freezing cold, so any plant for a tropical looking garden here needs to be able to survive both and I’m going to look at some of the best.

>> Bird of Paradise (Strelezia Reginae)

Bird of Paradise (Strelezia)

There are a number of varieties of Bird of Paradise available, the two most popular being ‘reginae’ and ‘nicoli’. The foliage on a Bird of Paradise is distinctly tropical with their large banana type leaf. Their dramatic flowers are reminiscent of a bird, hence their name. 

They are actually really hardy and grow really well here, especially the ‘reginae’ variety. Strelezia reginae grows to around 1.5 metres high and 1metre wide. They make a great statement piece in the garden. 

They will tolerate our full sun, but give them a bit of shade on hot summer afternoons and they will just thrive. Strelezia nicolai is very tropical looking and grows much taller than its ‘reginae’ cousin (up to 10 metres, although probably won’t reach that height here). 

They look so lush with their huge leaves, although this is one that may need a bit of extra protection to thrive as mentioned above – under a large tree where it still gets plenty of light or near a protected fence or wall. Alternatively they will thrive under a bright patio in a large pot and make your space look super lush.


What’s a tropical garden without a hibiscus?! Hibiscus flowers always make me think of a tropical island paradise. Some of the varieties we sell have flowers the size of dinner plates! Their flowers are available in almost any colour of the rainbow. 

Hibiscus love the sun, however, unless you choose one of the deciduous varieties, hibiscus will need a bit of protection in winter from frosts. I’ve seen them growing in gardens here, in the protected corner of two fences or against a north facing wall.


Frangipanis are another flower that bring to mind tropical beaches and an island paradise. Their flowers are very fragrant and come in a variety of colours. Frangipanis are almost succulent like in nature with liquid filled stems. It is essential they have protection from frosts, otherwise when their stems freeze in winter frosts and then defrost it bursts all the cells inside the stem and causes the stem to go squishy and rot. 

You may be wondering at this stage if they are suitable for here, the answer is yes! I regularly walk past a couple houses in Tanunda that have large frangipanis growing in their garden on a north facing wall and they are thriving! 

If planting them next to a north facing wall isn’t an option, you can always plant them in a nice feature pot and put them anywhere in the garden and just move them under your patio or pergola over the winter months. As they are succulent like in nature, they don’t need heaps of water and prefer to be kept on the dry side over winter.


These guys have some of the brightest flowers around! They come in both dwarf forms and climbing forms and love a hot sunny position in the garden. The hotter and sunnier it is the better they will do. 

They look great covering a fence and once established require very little maintenance.


We may not be able to grow the coveted and very tropical ‘Lipstick palm’ or some of the tropical ‘fan palms’ here, but palms give an instant tropical look to a garden. If you have space, Cocos palms do really well here outside and can help create a protective canopy for smaller plants below and add to the layering effect of a tropical garden. 

For a smaller growing palm, you can’t go past dwarf date palms for hardiness. The Sago palm or cycad is another great feature plant that is very on trend in gardens at the moment. They prefer a morning sun/afternoon shade position or part shade if possible and do well both in the garden or in a large feature pot.

Canna lily

A great plant for full sun to part shade positions. They have large tropical looking leaves (either green or bronze varieties) and bright flowers which make this a real winner in tropical gardens.

Easy to grow and they grow really well here.

Mock Orange (Murraya paniculata)

This is probably one of the most popular tropical ‘hedge’ type plants. The fragrance of their flowers is just beautiful. They can be a bit frost tender, especially when young, however once established make a beautiful garden plant. 

They tolerate full sun but will also enjoy part shade and do well under filtered light canopies.

Nandinas (sacred bamboo)

With their lush Ferny foliage they are well suited to tropical looking gardens. They are super hardy and grow really well here in the Barossa. 

They tolerate sun or shade, come in tall or dwarf varieties and once established are next to no maintenance. An easy tropical looking plant.

Shade plants

If you are lucky enough to have a large tree shading your yard or a shade house, or even a well placed patio or pergola, there are so many lush looking plants that will grow and give a very tropical feel. Shade Plants such as;

Ferns – (eg tree ferns, sword ferns, maiden hair ferns) – They have lush evergreen foliage and are great fillers

Elephant Ears (Alocasia) – with their huge leaves are very tropical looking (need a shaded position, protected from frost)

Cliveas – dark green strappy foliage makes a hardy filler and has a gorgeous flower too!

Hydrangeas – their large leaves and large flower heads lend themselves well to a tropical garden look

Staghorns and Elkhorns – look great hung on a wall or up a tree – again can help give that tropical layering effect.

Cast iron plant (Aspidistra) – as its name suggests it’s very hardy. With large dark green leaves it’s a real winner in pots or shaded gardens.

Bromeliads – they grow everywhere in the tropics. Here they just need a well drained soil in a bright shade position. Their flowers and foliage are very tropical in appearance. Pots and gardens.

Gardenias – when I lived and worked in Cairns, gardenias were (and still are) a very popular garden plant. Their flowers have the most magnificent fragrance, I can never walk past one in flower without smelling it! They do like a rich acidic soil, so be sure to do your ground work before planting for best success.

Mondo grass – I love the look of mondo grass between pavers. It also is a great way to fill ground area as it clumps out and spreads.

Monstera also known as ‘fruit salad plant’. This is a good one for layering as they can grow fairly large and consequently provide some protection to smaller plants around them. Characterised by its large leaves with natural holes it is a must for a tropical look. They make a hardy shade plant and even have edible fruit!

Plus many many more (I could go on and on!)

The key with tropical gardens here is layering. A big tree to help provide shade and protection and plenty of plants of varying heights underneath to help create a ‘jungle’ look. 

Plant selection is essential, choose plants that can tolerate our extremes, and provide the right environment and protection for them. Remember to stay away from Crotons outside in the garden here in the Barossa – indoors only!! 

Don’t forget that soil preparation is essential. Most tropical plants will enjoy a nice rich, well drained soil with plenty of compost forked through. The healthier your soil the healthier and more lush your tropical garden will look. 

A good irrigation system with good watering habits over summer will also help keep plants looking great. A final touch of adding in a water feature, water bowl or a well placed Balinese statue with your tropical garden can help make your garden feel like a tropical paradise. 

All you need now is the Pina coladas!

Happy Gardening!

Kristee Semmler


If you have any good gardening old wive’s tales, feel free to share them by leaving a comment online on the Barossa Mag’s website.

I do love hearing a good tale! 

In the meantime, happy gardening!

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