New Orleans may be best known as the birthplace of jazz, but among the gardening crowd, the Crescent City is revered for its lush, colorful gardens. Recovering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city's private spaces in the Garden District, courtyards and cast iron balconies of the French Quarter and Spanish-moss-draped bayous inspire gardening enthusiasts who want to create that same lush, exotic aura at their own homes.
More than 250,000 people were encouraged to do just that at this year's Philadelphia Flower Show earlier this month, where hot New Orleans jazz and steamy tropical gardens were the theme. The largest and oldest indoor show of its kind, the 10-acre gardening extravaganza showcased exhibits by the country's top landscape and floral designers, jazz performances, colorful street parades and plenty of Mardi Gras gold-, green- and purple-hued plants and flowers. The annual show — in its 179th year — is produced by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which has more than 16,000 members nationwide.
It will be difficult for most of those Northerners to re-create the sultry New Orleans garden in their climate, but you can easily jazz up your own garden this spring with many of the same plants that grow in the Big Easy. Thanks to our similar subtropical climate of hot, humid summers and mild winters, the Tampa Bay area and New Orleans offer the ideal environment for Southern charmers such as magnolia, crape myrtle, oleander, ginger, heliconia, banana, bird of paradise, hibiscus, elephant ear, caladium, croton, canna, begonia, bromeliad and orchid. (Both areas are in Zone 9 on the USDA Plant Hardiness map.)
But creating the unique aura of New Orleans takes more than adding similar plants to your garden, show organizers say. Just like a jazz musician, you'll need to add your own personal touch, or what show officials like to call your own "inner music." Think of it this way: When it comes to gardening style, do you like to toot your own horn like the legendary Louis Armstrong, improvise and blend different styles like jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, or present a classy act like the talented Harry Connick Jr.?
"You should . . . not be afraid to do something different. Do a different plant combination, or color scheme, or change your bed lines and do something different to jazz up your garden," said Sam Lemheney, director of design for the flower show. "Your garden is your own space and should reflect your personality. That is what jazz is about, too."
Coming up with your own unique style is obviously up to you, but there are some mainstays of New Orleans gardening you may want to use, such as planters and urns overflowing with tropicals, a fountain or fish pond, decorative ironwork accents and a demure cafe table and chairs (for sipping cafe au lait?). Don't forget the candelabra or overhead candlelit chandelier for those long, hot nights in the garden.
There are plenty of Big Easy plants to choose from, beginning with the flashy and sensuously fragrant magnolia, Louisiana's state flower. There are about 80 species of magnolia trees and shrubs, but the most popular is the Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). This hardy evergreen thrives in so many growing conditions that it is considered the most widely planted ornamental evergreen tree in the world.
Southern magnolia can grow to 90 feet tall and 40 feet wide with 8-inch-long leaves and white flowers, but there are smaller-sized cultivars, including the compact dwarf Little Gem and Saint Mary that can be planted in small spaces and as a hedge or espalier plant. Another good choice for Florida is the evergreen Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia australis), which grows up to 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Most magnolias prefer full sun to part shade and are relatively pest and disease free.
If size is an issue, there are much smaller deciduous flowering magnolias (Magnolia stellata) that can be grown by the patio, in foundation plantings and in containers, but they are recommended only for northern and interior counties of Tampa Bay (Zone 9a) by the University of Florida. The best cultivar for Florida is Centennial, which produces pinkish-white flowers.
A New Orleans-inspired garden wouldn't be complete without a namesake: the New Orleans crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica New Orleans). This small tree produces long-lasting flowers in late spring and summer in shades of white, pink, red or lavender. With their ruffled, crinkly appearance, the blooms resemble crepe paper (hence the name, but not the spelling). The tree can reach 25 feet, but there are dwarf varieties as well. Crape myrtle prefers full sun, is drought tolerant and does well in just about any soil type. Powdery mildew and aphids can be a problem if the tree is placed in shade.
You'll find most of the other Big Easy plants at local garden centers. Choose oleander, bird of paradise, hibiscus, banana, canna and some crotons for sunny locations. Ginger, heliconia, alocasia (elephant ear), caladiums and bromeliads generally prefer some shade, particularly from afternoon sun. Orchids do best in dappled sunlight.
The theme for next spring's Philadelphia Flower Show is "Bella Italia." It will be fun to see which of those flowers and plants lend themselves to Florida gardens.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.