Tropicalian Garden Design

The word ‘tropicalian’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition (1989), as ‘Belonging to the marine region called Tropicalia, comprising the seas between the isocrymes of 68º F. [= meteorological lines of similar mean daily maximum of 20º C. during the coldest months] on each side of the equator.’
It seems quite reasonable to appropriate the word to apply to the garden character typical of a similar climatic region on land!

What is a tropicalian garden? It’s a garden that ‘looks tropical’! And it could be located in Hawaii, Brisbane, London or New York!  Hawaiian landscape architect Richard C. Tongg explained in 1960, ‘developing gardens on the theme of “tropicalia”, [means] making gardens in the tropics look the part, instead of being pale copies of other styles.’

Loraine E. Kuck and Richard C. Tongg in The Tropical Garden (1939, 2 and 5), explained the three essential characteristics of Tropicalian Garden Design:
(1) a lush jungle-like density of planting (“massed, crowded effects”)
(2) “the selection of large-leaved plants” (macrophyll-type leaves typical in rainforests) and
(3) “the enveloping growth of great-leaved creepers” scrambling up tree trunks.

Jean Sim added a few more essential characteristics that contribute to the much desired ‘exotic aspect’ as a result of her research of Queensland garden history towards a PhD, namely:
A. using certain iconic tropical species such as palms, bamboo, (tropical) fig trees, epiphytes (staghorn ferns, orchids, bird’s nest ferns, etc.), and rainforest vines (lianes);
B. combining traditionally ecologically disparate species (e.g. pines and palms, succulents and aroids);
C. using plant types that provide masses of colourful flowers and/or foliage (poinciana, poinsettia, acalypha);
D. combining bold/contrasting colours (e.g. purple and oranges of Strelitzia); and,
E. including typical tropical shade gardening practices such as verandah, bush-house and fernery gardening…


Here’s a brief sample of historic writing about TROPICAL GARDENS:

Garden Writers: Macmillan
H.F Macmillan was Curator of the Peredinya Botanic Gardens, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This was the standard reference for Tropical Gardening/Plants for most of the 20th Century.


Garden Writers: Kuck and Tongg (1930s)
Loraine Kuck was a garden historian and writer while Richard Tongg was a landscape architect, writer and publisher, both from Hawaii.


Garden Writers: Kuck and Tongg (1960s-1970s)
Kuck and Tongg provided long needed advice about Garden DESIGN, beyond the typical plant/horticultural descriptions.


Garden Writer: Graf
Alfred Graf based in New Jersey USA produced thick reference books filled with photographs to help gardeners with indoor plants (which are largely tropical plants we grow outside!). Obsessive plant collectors beware: you will want all of the contents!


Garden Writer: Herbert
D.A. Herbert was a botanist (Professor at the University of Queensland) and wrote this Brisbane publication with an eye on helping gardeners from similar climates around the world. Very little real design advice.


Garden Writer: Oakman
Brisbane based Landscape architect Harry Oakman also picked up on the need for more guide books on gardening in the warm climates. Strangely, not enough on design again!



Sources (with links to QUT’s ePrints online collection):

Sim, Jean C. R. (1999) Designed Landscapes in Queensland, 1859-1939: experimentation – adaptation – innovation. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.

Sim, Jean C. (2003) Tropicalia : gardens with tropical attitude. In Cooke, Glenn R. (Ed.) Queensland Review : Special Issue, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, Queensland, pp. 1-24.


Tropicalia Talk File Title page
Title page to Tropicalia Talk