Wisley's secret paradise

Hidden away on Battleston Hill, tucked into a natural basin, is our tropical dell – an oasis of hardy yet exotic-looking plants


The Dell on Battleston Hill is looking fabulous at the moment. This little oasis delights and surprises visitors when they stumble across it, hidden among the more ordinary woodland plants. I thought I would share with you these hardy, tropical-looking plants, which can easily give an exotic feel to your garden or just provide a 'wow' factor!

Musa and TetrapanaxThe giants

Most impressive are the huge banana plants, which tower over you with their paddle-shaped leaves growing up to 1.8m (6ft) in length. These are Musa basjoo, the hardiest banana available, whose roots can tolerate temperatures well below freezing. The 'trunks' (pseudostems) of this herbaceous perennial are not so hardy so will need wrapping if you want to grow giants – see my previous blog about winter protection to see how we do it.

Another fantastic monster plant is Tetrapanax papyrifer, or the rice-paper plant, which produces huge hand-shaped leaves on slender stems over 2m (6½ft) tall. They are deciduous when grown outdoors in the UK and if the stems die in severe winters they will re-sprout quickly from the base. Other similar plants to try are Gunnera manicata (these really are massive – like giant rhubarb!) and Rheum palmatum  (Chinese rhubarb). These are all deciduous plants, so to stop the area looking too bare in winter we've planted evergreen Fatsia japonica and hardy palms such as Trachycarpus fortunei. The Dicksonia antarctica (tree ferns) also remain evergreen in the Dell thanks to its sheltered position.

Understorey plantingUnderstorey plants

With all these big plants there is quite a lot of shade in the Dell. Hostas thrive in these conditions and the best for big leaves is Hosta 'Sum and Substance' whose foliage grows up to 45cm (18in) across! Rodgersia and Darmera peltata also have nice big textural leaves. Ferns will thrive in full shade and really add to the 'lost world' feel. Big ferns include Osmunda regalis, Woodwardia, Polystichum setiferum and Dryopteris wallichiana. Evergreen ferns are excellent for winter interest along with evergreen sedge Carex divulsa, and Aspidistra elatior  (cast iron plant), which loves deep shade.

Begonia and Zantedeschia flowersFloral interest

A little bit of floral interest and colour can really add to the tropical feel, particularly hot reds and oranges. In the Dell we've planted Zantedeschia aethiopica, Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana, Crocosmia, Eucomis, Kirengeshoma palmata and hostas with fragrant flowers such as Hosta 'Guacamole'.

You could also try Hedychium (ginger lily), tender cannas (which would need lifting for winter), and climbing plants such as Tropaeolum speciosum,  clematis 'Ville de Lyon' or similar, and passion flower (Passiflora caerulea).

Another trick for achieving the jungle look is to dot upside-down stumps around, which is a great way to make an area look Jurassic. I should also mention that we do irrigate the Dell regularly in hot weather, as most of the plants mentioned above need plenty of moisture. Regular watering ensures they reach their maximum size and potential.

Come and visit the Dell to get inspiration for your garden – whether for borders or patio pots, sun or shade, there are plenty of plants you can grow.

More tropical inspiration

Hyde Hall Tropical Border
Find out how and why it was relocated

Bedding plants
Some tropical plants are used as annual bedding

Wisley Glasshouse
Home to many exotic plants

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.