Tropical Gardening in Thailand
…..published 11 April 2019
This post will be helpful for those of you looking to establish some sort of a garden here in Thailand. I will take you through our garden and tell you what plants have worked for us and show you how we have used them to create a tropical oasis.
I am a keen gardener in that I enjoy walking through gardens preferably with a glass of chilled wine in one hand and maybe a camera in the other! Not totally true but in this post I ditch the glass of wine and pick up the camera to share my enthusiasm for the range of plants available to me in this tropical climate that were totally absent from my previous life in Australia.
Below you will find a list of all the plants I (actually a iPad app called PictureThis) have identified in our garden that work for us and so the names may or may not be correct. In a Thai context plant names are of little use. In a western garden centre ask to see a mother-in-law’s tongue (called that because the leaves are sharp or the tip is anyway) and you will be taken to the appropriate plant. Here if you asked the same thing you’d be walked over and introduced to the mother-in-law herself 🙂
That’s where this blog post comes into its own because you can either wander garden places looking for a match to what I show you below or just take your phone or iPad along with photos extracted from this post to show the staff.
I will most likely add to and revise aspects of this post over time so that it improves with age in the same way I have 🙂
Click on the photos directly below for a larger image. A few glimpses of the garden we have created:
There are two videos below that walk you through both parts of our garden. They are worth watching to give context to the plant identification that folows:
A huge online resource for plant information.
For online plant identification there’s an app called PlantSnap HERE, which you can download for your mobile devices. In theory there’s a free version but it’s so cluttered with ads that for me it drove me crazy (which is the idea I guess to drive you to the paid version) and I deleted it. PictureThis HERE is another possibility with a free and paid version. I have been using the trial version and have found it pretty accurate.
Another non-app site, which has a ton of information, unfortunately based around a very basic and clumsy website, is this one HERE If you have the scientic name of a plant it works better. Great information if you can find it.
Chlorophytum comosum, often called spider plant but also known as airplane plant, St. Bernard’s lily, spider ivy, ribbon plant, and hen and chickens is a species of perennial flowering plant. It is native to tropical and southern Africa, but has become naturalized in other parts of the world, including western Australia. Chlorophytum comosum is easy to grow as a houseplant; variegated forms are the most popular. Wikipedia HERE
Tony: I love these plants and have used them extensive thoughout the garden for splashes of colour. They will grown in shade or sun and make a great pot plant that can be moved when required. Mature ones 100 -250 baht each.
Hawaiian Ti plant:
Cordyline fruticosa is an evergreen flowering plant in the family Asparagaceae. The plant is of great cultural importance to the traditional animistic religions of Austronesian and Papuan peoples of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Island Southeast Asia, and Papua New Guinea. It is also cultivated for food, traditional medicine, and as an ornamental for its variously coloured leaves. It is identified by a wide variety of common names, including ti plant, palm lily, cabbage palm, and good luck plant. Wikipedia HERE
Tony: I also enjoy these beautifully coloured plants. Pots or in the soil they grow equally well. They will take some sun but better in a mre shady spot.
Boat lily or oyster plant:
Boat lily is also known as Moses-in-a-Boat, both names derived from the plant’s flowers that appear to be sitting in a small boat created by the long, sword shaped leaves. Another nickname for this lily, oyster plant, was given by natives living in the regions of the tropical Americas where the plant originates, who cooked the roots and said they taste like oysters. All cultivars of boat lily have the thick sword-shaped leaves bound together tightly on short stems. The most common cultivars have green on the tops of leaves and purple on the bottom, although other cultivars have color patterns of white, yellow, pink, red or all green. The spiderwort-like flowers are small and non-showy, but will bloom all year. More information HERE
Tony: The use of these plants has been essential in developing the garden. They are super easy to grow, they grow in sun and shade and you can break stems off them and replant (it’s where most of ours came from). We’ve used them to edge paths and hide the concrete underneath as well as in massed planting to stop weeds, which they do 100%. This example is of cuttings Gaun planted two days ago.
Hance’s (hansei) Syzygium:
I can’t find much on these plants as identified by the software. There are a huge range of plants under the Syzygium label but not much on this plant. Anyway, they are in most garden centres, they have red tips for new growth and if trimmed make a compact small shrub or can be used in massed plantings like we have. A closer look below.
An easy-to-grow tropical shrub that often features brilliantly and dramatically variegated foliage. It’s evergreen in frost-free climates, where it’s commonly used in landscapes. Copperleaf makes a bold hedge, excellent addition a shrub border, or adds delightful color to mixed borders.
Tony: A quick growing plant that can be used individually or in bulk like it has here. It will grow in part shade, where is remains more a green colour, or in the full sun as in the photo below, where it turns that copper colour. It grown over two metres if untrimmed or can be cut to size.
Cuban Gold Duranta:
A well-branched and low-growing heat-loving tropical plant is useful as edging or for containers. It holds its dazzling golden-chartreuse color even in the toughest of summer heat and humidity. Occasional sprays of blue flowers are followed by attractive clusters of golden non-edible berries. Very versatile plant that brightens up any landscape.
Tony: In the video I identify this as a Golder Dewdrop, which it sort of is but the variety is the one above. Gaun has again used these in massed plantings both for effect and to keep the weeds down. Cuban Gold is quick growing and the new growth shows as this vivid yellow with the green underneath. Pretty stunning. A close-up below.
Aucuba japonica, commonly called spotted laurel, Japanese laurel, Japanese aucuba or gold dust plant, is a shrub native to rich forest soils of moist valleys, thickets, by streams and near shaded moist rocks in China, Korea, and Japan. This is the species of Aucuba commonly seen in gardens – often in variegated form. Wikipedia HERE
Tony: Another great plant to use to break-up the tropical green. It really stands out.
Do you like a bit of choice? That’s lucky, because there are some 70 different species of mother-in-law’s tongue (sanseveria). They’re characterised by the grey-green colour with stripes, spots and yellow edges. The leaves are firm spikes that appear to stick straight up out of the soil. These sizeable spikes usually don’t grow higher than 1 m. But they do grow very vigourously. Good information HERE
Tony: Although you can pot these plants Gaun has used them as borders to some of the paths and they work really well – see photo below. I guess that in a ‘normal’ western situation the cost of buying enough of them to make a mass planting would be expensive. Here we got ours for almost nothing as a villager was digging them up to burn.
Dragon Blood Tree:
Tony: If you search online for this one use the botanical name of Dracaena cochinchinensis because Dragon Blood brought up images that weren’t of this tree.
Whatever it is called don’t think that this plant remains as a ground-hugging specimen. It has already started to grow the trunk and is coming out of the ground. It will end up a spiky sort of tree four or five metres tall. See the photo below for what you will end up with.
Formal description: Dragon Blood Tree is an evergreen tree-like shrub that averages 12 to 15 feet in height with a spread of 6 to 8 feet. It is upright in growth habit with an irregular crown. It has a slow growth rate.
Leaves are evergreen, lanceolate, narrow, spiral rosette in arrangement, simple with entire margins and a pointed tip, stalkless, crowded near the tip of the branches, leathery, and green in color with slight reddish bases. It has parallel veins.
The creamy/white flowers are borne in a terminal inflorescence. It blooms in the summer, but the blooms are not often seen.
Fruit are round orange berries about 1/3 of an inch in diameter containing 1 to 3 seeds.
More information HERE
Lobster Claw One:
People, including me, get this one mixed up with Birds of Paradise, which have the same looking broad leaf but are smaller and the flowers are different. We have them too. This one is formally called a Heliconia bihai and it’s taken me ages to sort that name out.
They are grown from a bulb and with us reached 3 metres plus in about 12 months. The stunning red flowers started late last year and only now are dying as we head into the wet season.
The adult leaves also start to die off this time of year (April/May) and are replaced with lots of new shoots, which are growing underneath. They form an impressive screen as you can see in the photo below.
Bird of Paradise:
It is a low-maintenance plant that is easy to grow in the garden; it is fairly tolerant of soil conditions and needs little water once established. If cared for well, they will flower several times in a year. They will thrive in rich loamy soil, especially when they get plenty of water throughout the year. They do well in full sun to semi-shade and respond well to regular feeding with a controlled release fertiliser and compost
More information HERE
Tony: Slightly smaller than the tall growing Lobster Claw, but they still form a lovely screen if planted together or make a colourful single display as you can see from the photo below. Broad leaves and the flowers are long lasting.
In southern China, one of the most common native species is Ixora chinensis.Identified by its almost stalkless leaves and red flowers, it is widespread in Southeast Asian gardens and used to treat various ailments like rheumatism and wounds. Ixora coccinea, a dense shrub with scarlet flowers, is native to India where it is widely use in traditional medicine as well. The leaves possess antiseptic properties and the roots can be used to treat diarrhea and fever. More Information HERE
Tony: These make for a great hedge with lots of colour in season. They are slower growing than the Fukien Tea Tree hedge we also have extensively in the original garden but are more attractive once established.
Box Hedging (Buxus sempervirens) Description. Buxus sempervirens (Box hedging, also known as ‘Boxwood’) is a native, shade tolerant plant that is suitable for most soil types and sites other than wet or windy sites. It is a versatile, classic hedge favoured by many people for its dense and verdant appearance.
Tony: In the video Ithe software identified this hedge as a Fukien Tea Tree, but with further research that seem only to refer to a bonsai type of plant, which this obviously isn’t. I have therefore reverted back to what we’d call this in Australia. Close enough.
You will find these in most garden centres and the small pots will sell 10 for 30 baht.
We used a hedge to surround our land rather than build a wall, which I couldn’t afford at the time anyway (or now). It was reasonably cheap to do as the small plants are 10 for 30 baht, and we used several thousand doubled up on the fenceline, so maybe it ended up costing 10,000 baht.
The price is the plus but there are plenty of cons too, which I hadn’t realised at the beginning but will share with you now so you can make an informed decision.
1. The hedge is quick growing but if you want to create a really thick one you need to cut it enthusiastically to keep it low until you get the thickness you want and then let it grow to the next level, achieve the thickness desired and so on. We went with getting the height we wanted quickly, which it will do, but have ended up with a thin hedge, which doesn’t really do the job as a privacy barrier. To do it right is a far longer process.
2. These hedges will lose leaves if they are not well watered late year up to the wet season starting May/June. So our privacy hedge has become even more see-through, which was never the intention. The hedges we have inside, which are watered and were trimmed originally to make them thick, do lose leaves too but retain their thickness – see photo 1 above. This year I will install a watering system for the hedge and hopefully that will help maintain the leaves.
3. Whatever the thickness these hedges are in an almost constant growth spurt after the cool season. If you are using them as a replacement for a wall you will have a LOT of trimming to do. Gaun almost has to start again as soon as she finished one round of trimming. We have 120 metres of hedge around the outside and plenty more inside. A tall hedge also provides challenges to trim the top as you can appreciate from photo 2. If you don’t like standing on the top of a two metre ladder then you might need to rethink the hedge option.
3. Do buy a cordless hedge-trimmer. You will thank me for that recommendation. They aren’t cheap but you will be using it constantly. A corded one will only be a frustration for an extensive hedging system.
4. The plant I talk about below would make a better hedge but it is far more expensive.
In summary I can’t 100% recommend a hedge as your privacy solution. Obviously they aren’t as secure either if you are looking for a barrier to potential intruders. You will still need to instal a fence with chicken wire if you want to keep chickens and dogs out. The hedge itself won’t do that until it is fully established and that could take several years. If money is tight then it might be the only alternative but be prepared for a lifetime of trimming and watering.
The thick hedge you see on the right of this photo is a different plant to the box hedge I spoke about above. Unfortunately I don’t know its name, but when sold they all look the same so no problem. You will find that every garden centre stocks them. They are usually more developed and may be up to a meter in height and are usually in a pyramid shape, a bit like a postcard Christmas tree.
These actually grow into a tree if you leave them alone with a root system that eventually grown out of the branches and drop to the ground – photo below.
However, if you keep them trimmed they will end up as a tall and thick hedge as you see here. They too will lose leaves during the year and become thinner, but still provide good covereage. You will pay 150 – 300 baht for these depending on size.
Golden Shower Tree:
This is native to India, commonly known as Amaltaas, is one of the most beautiful of all tropical trees when it sheds its leaves and bursts into a mass of long, grape-bunches like yellow gold flowers. A tropical ornamental tree with a trunk consisting of hard reddish wood, growing up to 40 feet tall. The wood is hard and heavy; it is used for cabinet, inlay work, etc. It has showy racemes, up to 2″ long, with bright, yellow, fragrant flowers. These flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. The fruits are dark-brown cylindrical pods, also 2′ long, which also hold the flattish, brown seeds (up to 100 in one pod). These seeds are in cells, each containing a single seed. Medicinal applications: the sweet blackish pulp of the seedpod is used as a mild laxative.
Tony: Locals call these trees Dok Khun. This is a fast growing shade tree with lovely yellow flowers leading up to Songkran (April). It is deciduous and will lose most of its leaves in the cool season Dec-Feb. Easy to grow from seed or super cheap to buy. We planted very small seedlings bought for 50 baht 12 months ago and they are 4 – 5 metres tall today.
You can see how beautiful they are when in flower by the photo underneath.
Madagascar Almond Tree:
This is another software ID, and the photos look similar but it may be another tree entirely.
Tony: This is another fast growing shade tree with a beautiful shape formed by layered branches. It is deciduous and will lose most of its leaves in the cool season Dec-Feb. The one in the photo we bought for 700 baht as a more mature tree but it then sat doing nothing for two years before taking off. We bought others as small plants and they have grown into 5 metre trees in three years. They have yet to layer in depth having added height rather than spread. Cut the tops out if you want more activity lower down. These trees are very actractive to borers and are constantly attacked. You will have a whole developed branch suddenly fall off and see that it has been eaten – see photos below.
Nothing fancy but massed planting of lemongrass gives a tropical grass sort of appearance, which works in a garden setting. Lemongrass is quick growing and helps keeps weeds down. They will die off and will need replacing but that can be done from root stock. The added bonus of course is that you will have endless supplies for Thai cooking.
This is a bit like the Boat Lily but spreads rather than being a clumping plant. It needs shade but will take a bit of sunlight.
Umbrella Papyrus (left) and Canna (right):
Heaps of useful information:
Tony: Both of these plants can be grown in the soil or placed in water as we have in the photo. The papyrus are cultivated by locals to cut, dry, dye and then weave into the seating mats you see everywhere in Thailand. The Canna has beautiful shortlived flowers of various colours depending on the variety you have.
I think this plant you see left and right in the photo is one of the family of Chinese Evergreens. They are described as:
There are many hybrid varieties of the Chinese evergreen available which have been cultivated over the last century. This is because of their increasing popularity for indoor growers to use them as ornamental plants for room decoration.
These slow growing plant varieties includes, plain green, speckled, blotched and variegated types. One of the most popular and sought after is the silver queen which has leaves covered in silver mainly with some small green patches.
More information HERE
Tony: The recommendation for shade is a definite. They are not strong sunlight plants. Great for planting underneath shade trees where they are vigorous growers and give a real tropical feel to the garden.
Tony: I think this is a variety of the Corn plant, but could be wrong. It can be either grown in a pot or in the ground where in our case they have reached three metres in height. They will take some sunlight but in our case a shade tree that protected them needed drastic pruning after a tropical storm and that left the corn plants exposed and they haven’t enjoyed the experience in this 40 degree heat.
More information HERE
You can cut the tops off and replant them. The original trucnk will resprout and the cutting will grow roots. A slow grower although the one in the photo is less than four years old so not that slow.
I have some more to add but have had enough gardening so will leave it here. New additions will be made in time and I will keep this post as a permanent on the home page of the blog so you can see when it has been updated.
This has been a time consuming post to put together so if you have found it useful please leave a comment. Please also let me know if I have got names wrong (likely) so that I can correct them for other readers. Any of your own tips and suggestions would be appreciated.