The Self-Taught Gardener: Tropical effects

A tropical Thai garden that can survive in Madison, Wisconsin? It is colorful, and otherworldly (at least for us northerners).

I rarely confess to this but I am a lazy gardener, especially in the heat of summer. I want plants that perform well with minimal effort, and I somehow think I am not alone. For this reason, I have never seen the appeal of gardens filled with tropical plants that need to be planted and dug out each season, or even worse, repurchased every season. I am even somewhat disdainful of annuals — plants that have to be thrown away after a season. I like things that last.

The view from the bridge uses a bromeliad, artfully placed into a bamboo container, to begin the tropical illusion of the Thai garden, at the Olbrich.

As a result, gardens filled with bromeliads and bananas, taro and agaves, have always seemed like too much effort and expense for me. But a recent visit to the Thai garden at the Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wisconsin, in USDA Zone 5, may be a game changer for me. This garden, replete with a gold-leafed sala or Thai pavilion (which, because it suffers when touched by human hands, may be even more delicate than most of the plants I refuse to bring in and out each season), is everything others love about tropical gardens. It is colorful, and otherworldly (at least for us northerners) and, with large leaved plants that call to mind warmer climes, has a sense of the exotic. Yet, to my surprise and delight, I discovered that this illusion of the tropics is actually created using hardier plants smartly planted.

The spidery flowers of calycanthus share their heady fragrance and bold color to add to the impact of this garden.


Pipe vines (Aristolochia), with their large heart-shaped leaves, scramble up trees and provide a tropical effect.

Yes, non-hardy bromeliads are used there (artfully planted in bamboo containers on a bridge), but much of what has been used does not need to be dug out and stored for the winter (or replaced in the spring). Pipe vines (Aristolochia), with their large heart-shaped leaves, scramble up trees and provide a tropical effect. Sumacs and pollarded Princess trees (Paulownia) are used to create foliage that sways in what feel like tropical breezes and are simply cut back to create fresh foliage each year. Pollarding these trees increases both the size of their leaves and their impact in the garden. Hardy bamboo and grasses add to this effect. Japanese forest grass sways in the warm, or not so warm, breezes that pass through the garden. Shrubs play a role too, with clipped junipers pruned in Thai fashion to look artful and exotic. And some hardy shrubs like calycanthus provide their fragrant blooms – this species is known as strawberry shrub due to the sweet strawberry-banana scent of its flowers. Gardeners of the Victorian era and many botanical gardens around the country today, coveting their tropical counterparts, worked and work hard installing tropical plantings every year. This garden at the Olbrich is the lazy (or smart) gardener’s way to achieve the same effect.

Ceramics and stone carvings add to the artful illusion of the implied location of this non-tropical tropical garden.
The flowers of this hardy Paulownia tree call to mind more exotic climes.

To be fair, the Olbrich has added a few non-hardy species, such as a philodendron, into the woods to add to this exotic effect, but the minimal level at which this is done is testimony to the incredible plantsmanship and artistry of the staff of this garden. I am endlessly impressed by the range and creative use of plants here. This team also uses garden ornaments like stone elephants to add to impact. (Hopefully they survive the Madison winters better than their breathing counterparts would.) This garden was created in collaboration with the Thai alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (the school has more Thai matriculants than any other American University). In fact, this visit made me feel that I had just had my first trip to Thailand, and the fact that I could skip customs and simply cross a bridge sure did make the traveling a lot easier. It even inspired me to think of creating my own tropical outpost in zone 5, one that could have the kind of work plan that could meet my needs as a lazy gardener.

While I may not be ready to create a gold-leaf temple, plantings that call to mind other locales but can survive where I live are definitely not off of the table


A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.