Abundant exotics transform area landscapes

April 8, 2004
Victoria County
Master Gardener

Photo by Henry Hartman/Creative Images

Of the numerous varieties of palm trees in the Hewitt gardens on the Annual Garden Tour, this beautiful Canary Island palm species, center, can reach 30 to 50 feet in height.

Those of us living in the Golden Crescent area are blessed with a climate conducive to growing lush tropical flora, frequently referred to as "exotics."

Definitions of "exotic" vary from "foreign" to "fascinating" to "fantastic." No question about it - exotic foliage is all of the above!

Exotic plant-filled gardens transport us to an abundant tropical paradise, an escape to a verdant, luxurious dreamland. While we are prone to complain about our steamy atmosphere, we can thank those conditions which allow any of us to create a wonderful milieu for gorgeous thriving tropical plants.

The exotics described in this article are living proof of what we can do in our landscapes locally.

An opportunity awaits us on May 1 and 2 to view exotics in full flourish at the Annual Garden Tour co-sponsored by Trinity Episcopal School and the Victoria County Master Gardener Association. Five private gardens and Victoria Educational Gardens will be featured on this year's tour.

Advance sale tickets are $15 and may be purchased at Earthworks Nursery; The Foliage Shoppe; Four Seasons Garden Center; Lodestone Financial Services; Northside Ranch, Pet and Garden Center; Renken's Nursery; Victoria Convention & Visitors' Bureau; Trinity Episcopal School; and Victoria County Extension Office. Tickets bought on tour days are $18 or $5 per garden. Cost of the moonlight Hewitt garden tour is $5.

Most of the sites provide a look at a variety of "tropicals." One tour location in Old Victoria, Terry Hewitt's gardens, offers an unbelievable panorama of exotic plants, ranging from an array of palms, giant bamboo, ferns, philodendrons, agapanthus, bougainvillea and assorted additional specimens. Pathways through the jungle-like setting lead tour spectators to beautiful statuary nestled in the greenery or displayed in quarried stone alcoves.

Fantastic fan palms (like Mexican blue) and others (like queen, jelly, Canary Island date and Pygmy date palms) are some of the well-established palms in this garden. Although quite a few are cold hardy, palm trees are the epitome of the tropical look; the majority thrive in tropical climates. The trees create imagery of the warm, exotic Amazon, where over 900 palm species are located.

Since most palms grow slowly, they are relatively expensive to purchase. With proper care and patience, gardeners can cultivate palms from seed. The Mexican blue palm, Brahea armata, located in the Hewitt environment, is one of the slow growers. Somewhat cold hardy, it possesses unique silver blue, stiff fronds and may reach a height of 40 feet.

Native to the Baja peninsula of Mexico, it is a highly desired palm for discriminating landscapers and also performs well in a container.

Native to South America, the queen, Syagrus romanzoffiana, withstands a wide range of climates and will grow to about 50 feet outside. Planted in the Hewitt gardens, it is used extensively in Southern California landscaping. Graceful, long, feathery fronds are accented in the summer by gorgeous drooping flowers, while the winter brings copious amounts of bright orange fruit.

Desiring enriched sandy soils and full sun (although partially shade tolerant), queen palm is easy to grow, inexpensive and a beautiful specimen. Summer watering and fertilization of this beauty is recommended.

Jelly palm, Butia capitata, is a small version palm with bluish gray leaves and a sturdy, short trunk. Native to South America, the jelly palm is the hardiest feather-leafed palm, capable of enduring low temperatures after it is well established. Although they do best in sunny locations, the jelly can survive in partial shade. The name is derived because it is frequently used to make tasty jelly from its yellow to orange-colored fruit.

Another cold tolerant species, the Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis, can be raised from seeds if given enough heat. With a spiky appearance, the palm grows well outdoors to heights of 30 to 50 feet plus, although it is quite popular as a houseplant with its range regulated by the container's size. Highly tolerant of heat and dry conditions, the Canary's canopy creates a large area of shade. Bearing 2-inch-long fruit, this palm is much loved as an ornamental.

A different decorative specimen, growing among the Hewitt palms, is the pygmy date palm, Phoenix roebelenii, one of the most widely used date palms in the U.S. Growing slowly to 10 feet in landscapes and smaller in containers, it possesses soft feathery green leaves. This lovely miniature palm is quite desirable as it requires little maintenance. As the pygmy thrives in sunny or shady areas, it makes an excellent houseplant.

Additional palms which are not described above adorn the Hewitt landscape along with an exceptional variety of foliage; column space will allow only a few of the others to be mentioned. A tour of the landscape is a must for any plant lover, especially those with a passion for the tropical look.

Bougainvillea, Bougainvillea glabra, very popular in the Golden Crescent area, is found in beautiful profusion here. Both Barbara Karst and Juanita Hatten varieties exhibit vibrant colored bracts. A spiny tropical vine, bougainvillea also makes an excellent container plant. Living in warm South Texas, residents may choose to incorporate bougainvillea in their landscape and/or enjoy the shrub in containers. A sun-lover, bougainvillea has low water requirements and is valued for its xeriscape attributes. In the Hewitt tropical environment, bougainvillea adds a brilliant flash of color.

Large, coarse fronds of the macho fern, Nephrolepis bisserrata, adorn the landscape. Although originally grown in Texas (as the name implies), this sturdy fern can be imagined on jungle floors. It grows well outside in filtered to full sun, but will burn if the leaves get too hot. Temperatures below freezing are hazardous for macho fern. The appearance is much like a Boston fern, Nephrolepis exaltata - perhaps a granddaddy of the Boston variety. Machos do well in garden soil and in large baskets.

Tour-goers also will love the super-sized philodendrons growing in this Old Victoria garden. While there are many species of philodendrons, one of the most popular is split-leaf philodendron, Philodendron selloum, a half hardy subtropical plant that prospers in our area's climate.

Grown outside in shady spots, this native of tropical jungles thrives in rich, moist soil. Philodendrons also are among the most admired and durable of houseplants, tolerating the home's reduced light. Noted for its ornamental foliage, the split leaf philodendron grows to a maturity of 10 feet by 15 feet. Under good conditions, philodendrons bear large exotic flowers resembling calla lilies.

While the enticing Hewitt gardens may be viewed during the regular two-day tour hours of 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on May 1 and 2, the special Saturday evening moonlight tour promises to be a splendid spectacle. Tickets for the night tour are $5. From 7:30 to 9 p.m., viewers may experience a tropical setting ambiance with exceptional plants and garden areas spotlighted by evening lights. City Electric, responsible for the majority of the illumination, is the generous sponsor of both the Hewitt day and night tours, a "must-see" for lovers of exotic flowers and foliage.