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The Caribbean delivers an ocean of tropical garden dreams

Remember those earnest declarations we made back in spring 2010?

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"No more tropicals for me, uh-uh! It's cold-hardy or nothing from now on."

Even those of us who knew we'd eventually fall off the flower cart shook our heads with grim, been-there wisdom when our friends lusted for tender perennials. Hardiness Zone denial was uncool after January 2010's record freezes.

Some of that firm resolve melted over the long hot summer, and some of us got an icy reality check last December.

Tuesday will mark one year since an Arctic blast torched my garden. But that was a lifetime ago. The sun shines, the memory fades and — I know I'm not alone here — it's hard sticking to a pledge of self-denial unless it's physically, financially or feasibly impossible. And even then I'm on the lookout for a work-around.

Going tropical-free is especially challenging after my post-Thanksgiving week cruising the Caribbean. One of our ports of call was Ocho Rios, Jamaica, where last winter's cold snap sent the mercury plummeting to just below 50 degrees.

It was brutal, cab driver Laurel told my husband and me as we bumped 420 feet up a steep hillside to Coyaba Gardens.

"Jamaicans, when they feel unlike the summer, they say, 'Oh Jesus, it's coooold!' '' she said. "At my hotel job, even the guests were asking for sweaters, and they never ask for sweaters here."

I recall many a short-sleeved Tampa Bay winter. Which means it could happen again. There's no reason we can't have some of the exotic tropicals I discovered at Coyaba Gardens. Right?

Coyaba means "paradise" or "heaven" in Arawak, the language of Jamaica's pre-Columbian natives. It's no exaggeration. The privately owned gardens are 3 1/2 well-tended acres of lushness with a spring-fed stream bubbling up from beneath an ancient tree and tumbling down the hill to spill over the smooth limestone Mahoe Falls.

It's only a few minutes' drive from downtown, and getting there is half the fun if your cabbie takes a wrong turn. We watched a teenager do handsprings down a winding road (for the benefit of tour buses) and a man on stilts, decked out in bright feathers, parading back and forth across the street. An artisan squatted by the road carving intricate birds out of coconuts.

At Coyaba, I saw enough plants I recognized from our own gardens — shrimp plants, ginger, blue butterfly Clerodendrum, angelwing begonias — to make me believe the ones I didn't recognize were worth a try here.

My favorite of those was one our patient guide, Nordia Stewart, called beeswax heliconia. It has bright yellow inflorescences that resemble a honeycomb surrounded by broad green leaves. In the United States, the more popular name is rattlesnake plant, and it's not a heliconia but Calathea crotalifera S. Watson. The only state where it grows wild is Hawaii, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website plants.usda.gov.

Other sites offered a smattering of information about rattlesnake: It grows from rhizomes, likes part shade and is great for large containers. There's also a red variety. It's on my watch list.

Another beauty was coral hibiscus, Hibiscus schizopetalus, which Nordia said grows all over Jamaica. The blooms are exquisite — red-orange petals that arch backward to form a globe the size of a tennis ball from which dangles a long, graceful stamen.

Various websites describe it as a tall shrub with long canes, or a weeping tree. It's in the mallow family and likes part shade and moist soil, according to plantoftheweek.org. That means it will never survive my hot, sunny garden, darn it!

Some plants I'm less likely to try despite their fascinating uses: the calabash tree, whose fruits Jamaicans turn into maracas, purses and, ahem, decorative brassieres; soursop — "nerve food," as Nordia called it — a tonic for bad nerves, including tremors; and Licuala grandis, fan palm, whose webbed fronds are great for roofing a shed.

If you get down to Ocho Rios and you've got time between the ziplines and hair braiding, Coyaba Gardens is worth the $10 admission (plus tip if your guide's as good as Nordia).

Be sure to take lots of pictures. You'll want something to look at if this winter delivers another whopping dose of the zone denial regrets. And if it doesn't? Join me in a nice leap from the cold-hardy-only flower cart.

Penny Carnathan can be readched at pcarnathan@tampabay.com. Join her in local garden chat on Facebook at DigginFloridaDirt, or visit her blog, www.digginfladirt.com.

The Caribbean delivers an ocean of tropical garden dreams 12/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 8, 2011 3:30am]

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