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It's not a scene from "South Pacific," it's South Lake County.

Wayne Gruber, owner of Gardens on the Prairie in Lowell, says even though his nursery and greenhouses in Lowell have been in business for 11 years, customers still marvel when they visit, and see swaying palms and banana trees incorporated in some of the landscape designs.

"I get people who say to me: 'You can't grow a palm tree in Northwest Indiana,' " Gruber said.

"And I tell them, yes I can, 'You're looking at one, aren't you? And it's growing and looks great, right?' That's when they realized there are so many fun and exotic plant options to make yards and gardens something extraordinary."

This summer's record run of 100-plus degree temperatures makes tropical themes for the region's landscapes seem like a natural fit, despite hemisphere coordinates that are far from the equator tropics.

However, this summer's growing conditions have been anything but the conditions of tropical rainforests.

Gruber said of his staff of 18, three people each spend nearly seven hours each day watering the vast sea of green and contrasting blooms throughout the property, which amounts to 20 hours a day invested in watering, all by hand to conserve water, as opposed to irrigation systems.

And as for the focal point palms, which can be planted in the ground or used as the centerpiece of a large container garden, they sell for as much as $200 and during the winter months, must be stored inside to weather the winter. As for the huge, broad leaf banana trees, they are priced at $39, and provide a dramatic jungle look, à la the look and feel experienced by the deserted island castaways on TV's "Gilligan's Island."

"Tropical options are such an interesting and affordable investment when you think about how much time and enjoyment you get from having them as part of garden scenery from May to October," Gruber said.

"Think of what so many of us pay to go out to eat at a nice restaurant for a pricey meal with drinks. It might be a great experience, but it's over in a matter of hours. For the same investment, these plants provide joy and exotic beauty for months."

Stacy Brandy, whose parents have owned Samuelson's Garden Center in Valparaiso for 49 years, agrees with Gruber that tropical and exotic plant stock options to offer customers for retail have been a recent trend within the past decade.

"We started carrying our exotic plants and tropical foliage selection about 10 years ago, because that's when these types of plant stock first became available and more affordable to offer as an option," Brandy said.

She said today, everyone from casual gardeners to business landscapers are more inclined to look for new and inventive ways to create diverse designs for yards and gardens.

"If you think about trends, 10 years ago, just using something as basic as ornamental sweet potato plants as a contrasting foliage wasn't all so common," she said.

"But today, you see it more and more in planters, yards and gardens."

The first sight that greets customers at Samuelson's are large containers sprouting beautiful King Tut Grass, also called Egyptian Papyrus and familiar to most from images of the green stalks topped by tiny canopies poking out of the Nile River.

Brandy also said one of her latest favorite finds her family is now selling are containers of Corkscrew Grass Marshland Plants for $8.95.

"The tropical grasses are very popular right now, and it does fine through the winter and comes back in the spring," she said.

"But like any grass, they also spread. So, just like with any plant or flower, pick locations carefully before planting."

And for a splash of tropical color, Brandy is pleased with some new climbing and constantly flowering vines, called mandevilla, and the recent push for the trumpeting blossoms of the hibiscus, the national flower found in Malaysia, the Philippines, Tahiti and South Korea.

"Now, you see more and more varieties of hibiscus and they are affordable and always have great results," she said.

"My favorite one featured for sale in our greenhouse features four different colored contrasting blooms, an effect achieved because the bush is really comprised of four different plants joined by an artistic, beautifully braided, sturdy stem. It makes a great conversation starter on the patio."

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