How often have you visited a beautiful subtropical garden, only to return home with odd plants you've bought on impulse, then suddenly thought, "Oh dear, now how am I going to take care of that in my garden?" Well, good news: there's no real reason for thinking that way: heavily alien-looking garden treats, from aeoniums to daturas, can all flourish in most parts of Britain with a bit of extra care.
You need to pick wisely initially, of course. Possessors of soggy soil should look out for Lobelia tupa, a novelty you may find at specialist plant fairs. It has three-foot fountains of dark-red flowers, and grows beautifully in rather wetter conditions: I saw it this week flourishing by the Cherwell in Oxford Botanic Garden (www.botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk), which has gone to town on its exotic borders this year.
Often called "Devil's Tobacco", Lobelia tupa does have a gorgeously wicked air about it. Hailing from Chile, it should be well-equipped to survive an English winter. Mine certainly pulled through the snow this January without too much fuss, though I did put a bit of bubble wrap over the crown (where the leaves emerge) to stop it getting too frozen. This is a good technique for any plant that gives you worry, from dormant dahlias to snoozing cannas, and should see them through to flower again in 2010. (The greener version of the technique would be to cover plants in bracken fronds but, to be honest, there aren't that many spare fronds knocking about in my bit of west London come November.)
On the other hand, even those who have just a tiny, warm balcony will have fun with aeoniums. This is what my grandma grows to remind her of happy holidays in the Scilly Isles, in the dark chocolatey-coloured form known as "Schwarzkopf". The tight black rosette of leaves will get most people asking for its name, and when I see them, I can't help thinking of Stormin' Norman, the US commander in the first Gulf War; these upright, energetic plants do impose on the consciousness.
This is a plant which can stand a certain amount of neglect in summer, and should really be allowed to dry out properly between waterings (not difficult with my neglectful regime). To get your holiday purchase through winter, though, it is probably best off on a nice windowsill indoors. Those whose plants are doing well may want to try doing cuttings next spring, a nerve-racking process that involves cutting off the whole top rosette and then waiting for new branches to sprout. But then you'll never need to go on holiday to get new plants again.
Get the exotic look: Easy-to-grow thrillers
No more satisfying plant to fuss over. Huge leaves will grow as much as you feed and water them, bursting into trumpets of fragrant flowers once the plant reaches 4ft. Needs to winter indoors, as it is tender.
Begonias get a bad press due to the bog-standard pub blooms. But many have extraordinarily fine foliage, with ivy-shaped leaves threaded with pinky-red veins. Begonia grandis is a great example.
The "Angel's Fishing Rod" will dangle its tiny pink flowers over any garden with transforming elegance. Full sun only, but they'll survive the winter once established.
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