NEWS TOO distressing? Forget Canada! Secede in place: Consider creating your own banana republic, a tropical paradise entirely under your own rule.
This is easier than you might think. Perfection is not desirable; a certain dishevelment is, in fact, essential. As if, and in my case indeed, you had scavenged most of the finery, pirating it away from the refuse of an embassy, perhaps.
That said, such a creation must have grand elements; where assistance is required, I find My Prince a handsome stand-in for the exploited labor force of such a republic.
How to proceed? Since this is a gardening column, we will start with . . .
Planting a setting: Some plants appear tropical but are actually not and will happily grow in cooler climes. I have great success with horrendously invasive plants, such as trumpet vines, which come in steamy shades of orange, pink and red and, given a little sun, can rather quickly cover the side of a house. An easy tropical touch is hibiscus syriacus, a hardy hibiscus that grows into a small tree and can be had in a delightful bouquet of colors, in addition to a gorgeous, creamy white—you may know it as Rose of Sharon, which sounds like something one should genuflect in front of.
If you don’t have a greenhouse or sunny spot to overwinter true tropicals, pick at least one of the following and treat it as an annual (or give it to a friend, ahem, to store for you).
Jasmine is your essential eau de jungle, becoming more powerfully scented as evening falls. Oh, that lovely, slightly dirty, heavenly sweet perfume!
Citrus is also divine, orange and lemon and lime and grapefruit—worth growing for the scent alone, but if you’re lucky you may even get some fruit out of them.
Elephant ears grow upright or spreading, with gigantic fan-shaped leaves. (Yank them in the fall, dust off the soil, and store the bulbs in a cool, dry place, like under a chair, and you’ll have them for years.)
Still an experiment for me are bird of paradise, which may at some point spout pointy-nosed flowers with feathery heads, resembling exotic birds. Most frequently orange with plumes of blue and red and purple, but sometimes seen in pure white. I have both, and if they never bloom the foliage is still spectacular.
Palms. Parlor palms, which prefer shade (and are content to overwinter in fairly gloomy corners of the house, hence the name), are fabulous in the tropical garden. Stick yours in an urn to punctuate an entrance, or lushly fill a spot too shady for much of anything else.
Finally, what’s a banana republic without bananas? Find a sunny spot for a clump of them, and holy Fidel! If you don’t have the sun, fake it. Google pictures of “fake banana plants.” There’s an impressive selection—and, added bonus, you can’t kill them.
Attire: All white is good, as are caftans and flowing skirts. Panama hats are optional, but a spiffy touch. Mirrored sunglasses are essential. For a fine selection of tropical garb, try Soft Surroundings and the J.Peterman Company. I also have the remains of an ancient cigar to wave about; it’s probably too poisonous to smoke at this point, but it has a certain flair.
Furniture: Wicker, rattan or bamboo, of course, heaped with downy cushions for lolling. Go with cool white or hot tropical prints, like palms and hibiscus, and monkeys—of course. If you can hang white muslin curtains, do so.
Mirrors: Particularly in the small habitat, like the small habitat I inhabit. Sprinkle them about to reflect the fabulous. The final effect should be that of a cockeyed Versailles.
Lighting: Think glitz! Chandeliers and sconces dripping with crystals. Colored spots to up-light your palms, and projection lights, which offer many effects, and are ridiculously cheap. Baby bought me a kaleidoscope projection light for $15 at Walmart that beams a slowly swirling white pool of light over the garden. Hypnotic.
Water feature: A pond, a pool, a water-filled dumpster, all are excellent —but you must add a fountain. If you have space, one of those triple-tiered numbers would be excellent, but a simple statue will do: a dolphin, a lion, maybe an eagle. Some years ago we picked up a headless maiden, who is now torso-less as well, having fallen into the pond. She gives just the right touch of ruin.
Pink flamingos: Yes, they are too too passé, and in any other setting one would cringe. However, they are a wholly appropriate touch in the jungle. Try to ferret out plaster ones: Plastic flamingos should be reserved for an emergency. Set them by your water feature.
Music: Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day O), is a ripe one, but you can loop it only so many times without screaming. Alternate with the complete oeuvre of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and, for fans of Hasidic reggae, Matisyahu.
Art: Presiding over my personal jungle is an oil painting of a general, whom I call The General. Rendered in the style of Fernando Botero, he was discovered at a yard sale. Now that was a coup! Consider painting your own dictator, or just hanging a poster. A statue would also work, statues are always good.
Something to drink? A banana daiquiri, of course. This one’s from fine foody/drinky writer Kristen Hartke, who says, “Wherever you are and whatever the weather, rum transports us to the Caribbean of our souls.”
Kristen Hartke’s Bananarama
1 very ripe banana
2 ounces chilled coconut water
1½ ounces rum (we recommend a gold or white rum)
1 teaspoon light agave nectar
Juice of half a lime
¼ teaspoon instant coffee mixed with a little granulated sugar (optional)
Put first 5 ingredients in a blender and blend on high until smooth. Pour into a margarita glass and dust the top with instant coffee.
When you have your own banana republic it’s always 5 o’clock.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” beguiles us every Thursday with her ideas about gardening.