Michael Spencer's Make It Green: Five plants to broaden your gardening horizons

Hawaiian sunset vine will grow in shade and flowers best in sun. 
  
 Stictocardia beraviensis | Hawaiian Sunset Vine

Photo by Michael Spencer

Hawaiian sunset vine will grow in shade and flowers best in sun. Stictocardia beraviensis | Hawaiian Sunset Vine

Epidendrum x obrienianum | Butterfly Orchid

Photo by Michael Spencer

Epidendrum x obrienianum | Butterfly Orchid

Tillandsia usneoides |  Spanish Moss

Photo by Michael Spencer

Tillandsia usneoides | Spanish Moss

Petrea volubilis | Purple Wreath

Photo by Michael Spencer

Petrea volubilis | Purple Wreath

Mussaenda spp. | Mussaenda

Photo by Michael Spencer

Mussaenda spp. | Mussaenda

Going out on a limb

There are thousands of readily available, widely used tropical plants. Why are the same hundred or so plants used over and over and over?

Partly because reliable and easily accessible information for a designer is hard to find. And there's the fact that many specifiers simply have a narrow horizon. But you come here looking for a broader perspective, so let's look at some plants that are extra, extra snappy, shall we?

n What about purple wreath? Think of this vine as a tropical wisteria, a vigorous, woody vine with breathtaking purple flowers. The leaves are very rough but the flowers quite soft. Be prepared to maintain this critter as it grows quickly, allowing you to shape the vine as you wish. Have a look at the Norris Community Center at Cambier Park, where you will find a superb specimen flowering all year, peaking in early summer.

n The Hawaiian sunset vine has recently found a home in my test gardens. And why not? It's a luscious, pink-magenta, trumpet-shaped flower on a vine that does well in sun as well as in light shade. Add a wonderful perfume to a plant that flowers sporadically throughout the year, and you have a terrific new vine.

n Spanish moss? Why not? Using ordinary materials in new ways is exciting — and making a sublime hanging basket is a simple project that the beginner, or perhaps the kids, will pull together in an afternoon using a common plant that is easily gathered.

Spanish moss is an epiphyte, meaning that the basket you are creating is not full of soil. The plant simply needs a place to grab; just about any kind of orchid mix or lava rocks will work. Start with a handful of the plant in the center, allowing it to drape the side over the next few months. Medium or broken shade is best, with neglectful care.nTerrestrial orchids are often over looked and are easy to grow. There are countless varieties suitable as landscape plants. The butterfly orchid is one, showing off brilliant orange flowers. Unlike many orchids, this one requires full sun and does not like to dry out much; that being said, it's hard to kill. And there are many others, including other epidendrums as well as the Philippine ground orchid.n Finally, musseanda looks a bit like bougainvillea, with many varieties and colors. Be aware that this plant is temperature sensitive, although it has been planted in the medians on Vanderbilt Beach Drive with little negative effect. And, it will require water during the dry months. On the other hand, the flowers are glorious and range from white to orange to purple all year around.

The project from …

As my readers know, I am deep into the production of a new reference book on tropical plant material.

When we started this project, both Al O'Donnell (my partner) and I saw a long, uphill battle. This would be an example of understatement.

The book is divided into three sections. The initial, editorial essays on design, glossaries, bibliographies and the like are nearly complete. Plant descriptions are the bulk of the book, of course, and are perhaps 70 percent complete. At the same time we are tackling the photographs, aiming for four photos of each plant, showing the plant in an exciting and demonstrative design. This portion is about half complete.

Will it be worth the effort? I just don't know. I can say that this is the project of a lifetime, though, so in that sense yes, it's worthwhile.

And there's another thing: working with all of these plants and photos yields so much material for this column and for my website, which is finally gaining some ground after my reboot a few months ago.

Readers: See Michael's website for cost-effective consulting arrangements. And don't forget Michael's monthly/quarterly Landscape Assessment Service for HOAs and homeowners. Email Michael with your questions (ms@msadesign.com).

Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture since 1979 and is president of MSA Design Inc. Learn more at www.msadesign.com or contact Michael by email: ms@msadesign.com. His website is www.msadesign.com. And watch for his forthcoming book on tropical plants.

© 2012 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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