Many tropical-looking plants will thrive outdoors, even in the UK’s toughest climates. While some succulents can tolerate British winters, there are larger and more dramatic options if you want to give your garden an exotic look.
Despite appearances, most of the plants listed below are hardy, so they won’t need protecting or moving indoors over winter.
Discover 10 hardy exotics to try, below.
This palm has huge, fan-like leaves. It’s hardier than traditional trachycarpus and can cope with wind, and temperatures as low as -15ºC. Tall and thin, it reaches heights of up to 5m but the trunk won’t thicken like those of trees do.
Height x spread: 5m x 2m.
Extremely hardy, Polystichum setiferum is an easy-to-grow and beautiful fern that can survive temperatures as low as -20ºC. It will thrive in a moist but free-draining, shady position. The soft fronds give a Jurassic flavour to tropical schemes.
H x S: 1.5m x 1m.
Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’
This fatsia is a fantastic evergreen with large, variegated leaves – perfect for brightening a shady spot. It reaches a height of 2.5m and is hardy to -15ºC, so is suitable for growing in most UK gardens.
H x S: 2.5m x 2.5m.
Phyllostachys vivax f. aureocaulis
Like the best bamboos, golden bamboo has gorgeous canes and gentle, rustling foliage. It’s perfect as a screen, hedge or standalone shrub and can withstand cold winters between -10ºC to -15ºC. Give it a moist but free-draining spot, sheltered from the worst winds. Use a soil barrier to prevent it spreading too much.
H x S: 12m x 4m.
Hardy to -15ºC, this is a lovely, spiky plant that forms a beautiful ball of either blue or green leaves, depending on the variety. It originates from Mexico and can form multiple trunks in the right conditions, reaching up to 2m. Give it a sunny spot, with free-draining soil.
H x S: 2m x 90cm.
Kalopanax septemlobus f. maximowiczii
In the same family as fatsia, this prickly castor oil tree is hardy to -20ºC and can reach heights of up to 10m. It’s great for large spaces, where it will make dramatic impact. It has generous leaves and panicles of small white flowers. Shelter from strong winds.
H x S: 10m x 10m.
Depending on how you train it, this can be a multi-stemmed shrub or single-trunked tree, and will reach heights of between 2m and 4m, with a spread of up to 2.5m. It has finger-like leaflets, thrives in a sunny, free-draining position and can handle an average UK winter down to -5ºC and -10ºC.
H x S: 4m x 2.5m.
Phormium tenax ‘Joker’
This New Zealand flax is hardy to -10ºC and makes a dependable addition to a tropical garden, offering a flash of coral against contrasting leafy greens. Grows to 1m if given a sunny, free-draining position.
H x S: 1m x 1.2m.
Macleaya x kewensis
Spires of tiny pink or cream flowers top the towering, chunky stems and large scalloped leaves of this plume poppy. Cut down to the ground in autumn and in spring it will shoot up to 2.5m tall. Hardy to -20ºC and, if sheltered from strong winds, it won’t need staking.
H x S: 2.5m x 1.5m.
This aloe has a gorgeous sphere of spiky leaves growing in a spiral, which will get no bigger than 50cm in diameter. Treat as a houseplant over winter, but it should grow well outside most of the year somewhere warm and free-draining.
H x S: 50cm x 1m.
Adding other colours
Planting several exotic-looking plants together will create the ideal green backdrop for colourful, flowering plants. Consider plants like tithonia, eucomis, hedychiums, cannas, agapanthus and jasmine to complement the exotic look.
Creating an exotic look in the UK
Identify microclimates. In sunny, dry areas use succulents. In shady, damp areas use jungle planting.
Make a hardy evergreen backbone. It will give winter interest and protection for more frost-tender plants
Look for hardy perennials with large leaves – they won’t need as much care as true exotics
Grow the more tender species in pots. Hide the pot in the planting and move to frost-free shelter for winter
Use colourful accessories and rattan garden furniture to add to the exotic feel
In very cold areas try bringing succulents and smaller exotics in pots indoors, where they will make stylish houseplants