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by Ian Barclay

Horticulture 425  ·  Spring 2001  ·  Paper 1



Subtropical gardening is a gardening style in which the appearance of a tropical garden is created in a temperate climate.

Subtropical gardening throughout history has been centered on Britain.

· It originated in Britain with the introduction of Mediterranean plants by the Romans, whose work was lost in the Dark Ages.

· It did not begin to develop in the form we know today until the 19th century, when it developed very rapidly into a popular gardening style in Britain in the late 19th century.

Interest was lost at the onset of World War 1.

· World Wars distracted most of the world from being interested in gardening, and made access to new plant material in foreign countries difficult.
· Much of the work that had been accomplished in Victorian England was lost.

Later in the 20th century, subtropical gardening began to make gradual development again in different parts of the world.

· It has continued to develop steadily throughout the latter part of the century.

Today the main driving factor behind the development of subtropical gardening is globalization.

· The improvement of communication technology and the Internet has resulted in an interest in subtropical gardening springing up all over the world.
· Although growth is not occurring on the same scale as it did in Victorian England, the future of subtropical gardening looks promising.


Subtropical gardening is a style of gardening in which an attempt is made to create a garden in a temperate climate such that it appears to be in a much warmer climate.  “The lure of the beauty of tropical landscapes like those found in Hawaii, Key West, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Bali, and other exotic locales is undeniable.  Such beauty has an almost irresistible appeal . . .It is the stuff dreams are made of” (Riffle, 1998).

This style of gardening is based on what has been dubbed the “tropical look.”  “The tropical look is a bit difficult to define with words alone, but its components include all palms” as very important and distinctive subjects, “all plants with relatively large or boldly shaped foliage and flowers, and all plants with colored or variegated leaves and large and spectacular flowers and flower clusters . . .The tropical look is also based generally on evergreen plants, especially large-leaved herbaceous plants like bananas, bold-leaved trees, and ferns.  In short, the tropical look is one of flamboyant forms and contrast.” (Riffle, 1998).

The tropical look can also be considered to include many exotic xeric plants, not just plants that give the appearance of a rainforest or jungle.  "The climax community aspect of [desert] areas is uniquely exotic, tropical and colorful" (Riffle, 1998).

It must be acknowledged that the vast majority of true tropical and subtropical plants will usually not grow well in temperate climates.  Although the subtropics are geographically defined as the areas of the Earth within a certain distance of the Equator, this definition is of limited usefulness in subtropical gardening.  “ . . .A tropical looking plant need not be strictly tropical, either in the geographical or horticultural sense" (Riffle, 1998).  Truly tropical and subtropical plants will not survive if there is too little heat in summer, and more likely too much cold in winter.  Therefore subtropical gardeners must learn a variety of tricks to achieve a tropical look outside of the true tropics.

There are four main ways in which a tropical look can be achieved in a less than tropical climate.  “First, one can use plants which have tropical looking characteristics but which also have some degree of hardiness.  Many people do not realize how many tropical looking plants can be grown well outdoors outside of the truly tropical and subtropical regions” (Riffle, 1998).  Such plants can be called “tropical impersonators, hardy plants with a tropical look” (Reynolds, 2000).  The more tender plants are “grown . . .with a variety of other exotic but relatively cold-hardy plants to create the appearance of a jungle garden” (Reynolds, 2001).  A vast knowledge of plant material is necessary to achieve this, and gardeners who limit themselves to the narrow selection of plants that are the most common in the nursery trade will have a very difficult time doing so.  “Tropical impersonators” are important for creating the backbone of the subtropical garden, since it would be foolish to risk a marginally hardy plant in a location where its function in the garden is important (such as a windbreak or shade tree).  (This also points to the importance of “plant hunting” and collecting for the purpose of having a sufficient variety of material to choose from in a subtropical garden.)

"Second, some protection--burlap-wrapping, poly-sheeting, and so forth--can be given to tender plants" (Riffle, 1998).  Protection can also be offered in the form of growing plants in large containers (or even digging them out of the ground before cold periods), and storing them somewhere warm until the weather warms.  The knowledge of microclimates should also be used to provide suitably sheltered places for more marginal plants according to their needs.  “The modification of microclimate through garden design can . . .capture sunlight in winter, storing heat . . .Dense plantings can also mitigate cold coastal winds” (Beatty, 2001).

Third, “ . . .the gardener may choose to use plants that "die back" to the roots in freezing temperatures, but which will grow again quite vigorously when warmer temperatures return in the spring" (Riffle, 1998).

Finally, the use of hardscape elements generally associated with tropical regions such as bamboo structures and pools to invoke a tropical feel cannot be underestimated.

The gardener who is able to combine all of these elements with a general knowledge of garden design and plant care will be able to achieve an amazingly tropical-looking garden in any climate.  It is certainly one of the more high maintenance forms of gardening, usually requiring more time and energy to create and maintain than other sorts of gardens.  However, the rewards of subtropical gardening are well worth it.


Subtropical gardening seems to have begun in northwestern Europe, particularly in what is now England.  Perhaps it was the dismal weather and lack of native flora comparable to that from the Mediterranean that first compelled the ancient Romans to introduce plants from home as they colonized Britain around the time of Christ.  “ . . .The range of plants recovered from waterlogged deposits and identified as having been cultivated in Roman Britain is wide” and includes such plants as grapes, figs and almonds (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  Any achievements made by the Romans growing Mediterranean climate plants in Britain were lost during the Middle Ages (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).

It was not until well after the Renaissance that Europeans found themselves well off enough to create and enjoy gardens again.  A general interest in gardening followed the Renaissance where it began in Italy, and finally found its way to England by the 17th century.  Gardening seemed to take hold in England with the general public more than in the rest of Europe (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  Once again, this is likely because the dismal climate of the British Isles compelled people to find some good reason to be outdoors, and because a lack of interesting native flora (by most people's standards) in the British Isles compelled people to grow showier plants in gardens, which would have to come from elsewhere.

Subtropical gardening really took off in England during the Victorian Era.  Numerous factors, including British imperialism and a strong economy, combined to fuel a passion for collecting plants from across the globe, rapidly broadening the spectrum of plant material available to gardeners.  Italian and French influences on the styles of gardening in England became popular in the 1840s and 50s (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  Numerous extravagant private subtropical gardens were established throughout warmer parts of the British Isles (Amherst, 1896), and the national collection of plants at Kew Gardens in London grew exponentially.  Other European countries began to follow in Britain's stead.

The first World War in 1914 abruptly put an end to all this (Reynolds, 2001), turning Britain's attention, finances, and resources elsewhere and occupying the rest of Europe.  While Europe's attention was focused towards political and economic strife for the next 30 years, many of the great Victorian subtropical and other gardens fell into disrepair (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).

After the end of the Second World War, the passion for gardening among the general public had been mostly lost as a result of social and economic changes in Europe.  Some gardeners in the United States and Latin America became interested in subtropical gardening for the first time, but generally on a much smaller scale than what had occurred in England before the war.  Some collectors in warmer parts of the United States began to make progress towards gardens incorporating a wider variety of exotic plants, but not generally with the aim of achieving a climate defying subtropical look, as had been the case in Victorian England.

Within the last 15 years or so, an interest in subtropical gardening has begun to grow and spread once again.  The relatively recent formation of local "palm societies" for various temperate regions of the world has allowed people with this common interest to meet and learn from each other.  British gardeners are once again taking an interest in the old abandoned Victorian gardens and in some cases finding the resources to restore them (Nelhams, 2000).  The Internet has also been an essential tool in the sharing of information about subtropical gardening and the plants used.

So then, the history of subtropical gardening developed rather slowly at first, then very rapidly in Victorian England, then came to a halt during the early 20th century, and is now beginning to grow once again.  Now we will look at two of these periods in more detail.


Even before the Victorian Era, in the late 18th century, England already had an edge over the rest of Europe in the area of gardening (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  Because England had developed a sizeable middle class more quickly during the industrial revolution, and many people from this class were now settling into more healthy lifestyles (and with a bit more spare time than at the outset of the industrial revolution), owning and maintaining small cottage gardens and home gardens became increasingly popular throughout England.  In the cities people grew plants in window boxes, and attention was given to making parks attractive with flower gardens and trees (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  By contrast, gardening throughout the rest of Europe was mostly restricted to the royalty and wealthy landowners, since the middle class was generally slower to develop and not quite as well off.

A couple important technological advances resulting from the industrial revolution were important to the development of gardening in England.

The invention of the wrought iron glazing bar in 1816 made construction of the glasshouse possible (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  Wealthy English families purchased private glasshouses to create living areas which would allow in plenty of light but protect them from the nasty weather.  As more plants became available from abroad, people began to fill their glasshouses with exotic plants and even create separate buildings, detached conservatories, for the purpose of collecting and housing plants (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  Initially this hobby was restricted to plants in conservatories, but some people began to try growing some of them outdoors, sometimes with surprising results.

The technology of the industrial revolution also fueled British imperialism.  Better steamships and more efficient military equipment stimulated the growth of Britain's worldwide empire.  Without some of these advances, Britain could not have been so successful in economically exploiting such places as South Africa, the Orient and especially India.  The role of British imperialism in the development of subtropical gardening is less obvious but extremely great.  If England had not colonized so many regions of the world, they probably would not have been aware of all the interesting plants from these regions at all (Amherst, 1896).  The English, with their passion for gardening, began to establish large gardens in the colonies using the tropical plants native to the region.  Interestingly, there is little evidence of ornamental gardening in the tropics prior to the arrival of the Europeans (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  The famous gardens of various tropical cities throughout the world such as Singapore, Calcutta, Hong Kong and Durban were not established until Europe's imperialistic era in the late 18th and 19th centuries (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).

The Victorian Era brought great prosperity to Britain's economy and Britain's empire worldwide.  The booming middle class was becoming increasingly wealthy, and many people had nowhere else to go but on holiday or on business ventures in Britain's colonies.  People were inspired by holidays abroad, and brought back with them a desire to create a similar paradise in the cool foggy climate of England (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).

Thus was born the subtropical garden.  During the 1860s, people began to tire of flower gardens which would only put on show for the nicer months of the year.  They became interested in plants that would remain attractive all winter, and also focused more towards plants with attractive foliage rather than flowers.  "Bamboos and Pampas grass also became popular at this time" (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  Also becoming increasingly popular were French and Italian elements incorporated into English gardens (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  The English would also take holidays on the Mediterranean and return influenced by the gardens of these regions.

William Robinson was the first author to popularize subtropical gardening throughout England.  In 1871 “ . . .the Young William Robinson Published a book on The Subtropical Garden, explaining how its effects could be achieved with hardy plants alone" (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).  "His early books . . .were evidence of a very prominent style of gardening in the period from 1870 to the start of the First World War in 1914: subtropical gardening" (Reynolds, 2001).  It seems that he also coined the phrase "subtropical gardening," however technically correct it may or may not be.

By the late 19th century, the British no longer merely waited passively for plants to arrive from travelers abroad.  The driving passion to obtain more new plant material and the wealth to pay for them allowed a much wider variety of exotic plants to find their way into English gardens.  The formation of the Royal Horticultural Society provided a funding base for sending out collectors to remote corners of the Earth specifically for the purposes of bringing back more interesting "new" plants.  Such people included Sir William Hooker and Robert Fortune, after whom many cultivated plants are named today (Amherst, 1896).

With an even broader array of exotic plants to choose from, the possibilities in subtropical gardening were seemingly endless (Amherst, 1896).  "Victorian England had a fascination for plants that has never been equaled.  Great landowners paid large amounts of money for the latest in rare plants and built large conservatories in which to house the more tender" (Reynolds, 2001).  Subtropical gardens sprung up all over the milder parts of Britain, particularly in the south and west, as subtropical gardening continued to boom in popularity.  "Another form of wild garden contains only subtropical plants.  The bamboo, first discovered to be hardy by Lord de Saumarez at Shrublands, the yucca, tamarix, acanthus, and certain palms can be cultivated even in the more northern English counties, while in parts of Cornwall, camellias, and other plants of an almost tropical appearance, flourish in the open air" (Nichols, 1925).

"Parts of Cornwall are so mild that many things will do well there which are considered as green-house plants in other parts of England.  There are in that county some gardens which would astonish gardeners from less favoured districts.  Pengerrick, Menabilly, Heligan, Tregothnan, Carclew are among the finest of these Cornish gardens" (Amherst, 1896).  (This statement is followed by a list of plants featured in these gardens that includes some which are hardy throughout the British Isles and some that are not.  Apparently many exotic plants were initially assumed to be more tender than they have more recently proven.)  A few subtropical gardens were also established in southwest Ireland (e. g., Rossdohan) and Scotland (e. g., Logan Botanical Gardens).

Tresco Abbey Gardens on Scilly must also be mentioned (Nelhams, 2000).  "Twenty-eight miles southwest of Land's End in Cornwall England in the clear blue Atlantic . . .the beautiful Scilly Isles exude a timeless peace and natural tranquility . . .the Tresco Abbey Gardens have been developed on the site of a Benedictine Abbey dating back to between 1042 and 1066.  Development of the Abbey gardens began in 1834 and by 1872 was one of the most remarkable Victorian gardens in Britain.  The plants that flourish on Tresco and in the Scillys in general include many that are too tender for most of us to even consider attempting" (McGinn, 2000).

"If it was difficult to give a garden a formal design, it could easily be given an exotic planting." Arboreta and collection gardens now began to be grouped by the region where the plants were native.  A renewed interest in the flora of China and Japan also occurred during this time, partly as a consequence of Britain's imperialistic influence in China (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).

So subtropical gardening enjoyed a time of great popularity in Britain that has remained unequalled anywhere in the world to this day.


Subtropical gardening did not continue to develop during the 20th century the way it had in the Victorian Era.  A series of events, and especially two world wars, slowed its development significantly.

The "golden age" of plant collecting and subtropical gardening may have been slowing down slightly even before its abrupt halt in 1914.  Around 1900, political strife in the Orient was making access to that region more difficult.  Many of the people who helped establish the first subtropical gardens were growing old, becoming satisfied with the spectrum of plant material they had already, or losing enthusiasm.  A return to a more traditional style of gardening was gaining popularity once again, especially in cooler parts of Britain where it was deemed more impractical to maintain a subtropical garden (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).

Then in 1914, World War 1 turned Britain's attention away from gardening entirely.  All of their economic resources were now put towards fighting the Germans.  They could no longer afford time and resources to fund plant-collecting expeditions or continue building plant collections.  This continued until some time after the end of World War 2.

As the younger generations were now more accustomed to being concerned with war and other matters than gardening, no one bothered to keep up the Victorian Era subtropical gardens, and most of them became overgrown and fell into disrepair (Reynolds, 2001).  One exception was Tresco, which had the fortune of surviving the war without serious detrimental effects (Nehlams, 2000).

Subtropical gardening was not completely dead, however.  Most of the European gardens established in the tropics continued to be maintained and remain as an inspiration for travelers.  Some French, Spanish and Italian gardens also endured less neglect than British gardens (Huxley, Griffiths, Levy, 1992).

The United States, which had endured less damage from the war and was less directly occupied with it, still kept an interest in gardening which continued to grow gradually.  In the early to mid-20th century (even around the turn of the century, in a few cases), some collectors, arboreta and botanic gardens in the New World followed in Britain's stead of collecting exotic plants, though on a much smaller and more localized scale.  These collectors mostly lacked the vision and drive the English had for obtaining new plant material and creating subtropical gardens, but they did serve to preserve much of the work of the English in the United States, and provide us today with propagation material for some of our more interesting ornamental plants (Reynolds, 2001).  Such gardens as Quail Botanic Gardens and The Huntington in California remain from this era.  Arboreta such as Strybing in San Francisco, the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts, and the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle were also clearly influenced during this time.

Some interest in subtropical gardening also remained in Britain.  It would take a while to re-awaken it, but as Britain got back on its feet and finished cleaning up after the war, the work of the 19th century plant collectors and subtropical gardeners could not be ignored for long.  Gradually people began to relearn and recover much of what had been lost in the early 20th century.  Especially in the last 20 years, increasing efforts have been made to continue introducing new plant material and restore old collections, and attention has been paid to the restoration of the older subtropical gardens.  Although much has been accomplished in the last 50 years, the movement to recover plant collecting and subtropical gardening is still a far cry from its popularity in the 19th century (Reynolds, 2001).

Still more recently, subtropical gardening has gained popularity in some areas among a small fraction of mostly middle class gardeners in the United States and Europe.  In 1984 the Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society was founded in Vancouver, BC (PNWPEPS, 2001).  At about the same time, the European Palm Society and Southeast (USA) Palm and Exotic Plant Society were formed also (SPEPS, EPS, 2001).  These societies and others like it have increased the rate of public recognition for subtropical gardening in some local areas on a small scale.

The Internet has been an important tool in the sharing of information about subtropical gardening within the last five years.  It is largely because of the Internet that subtropical gardening has developed less on a regional basis than in the past.  The accelerated rate of information exchange on the Internet has also served to provide people with the ability to share experiences, advice, plants and seeds on a global scale (EPS, 2001).

So although there has been some development in subtropical gardening during the 20th century, it was certainly nothing as dramatic as what occurred in Victorian England (Reynolds, 2001).  But subtropical gardening has remained very much alive and most of the work of the plant hunters and collectors and subtropical gardeners of the 19th century has been preserved.


Today subtropical gardening continues to gain popularity once again.  All around the world people are beginning to take an interest once again in plant collecting and creating subtropical gardens (EPS, 2001).  The development of subtropical gardening is occurring at a steady pace, but not in the same way that it did in the 19th century.

Globalization is one of the main things influencing and driving the development of subtropical gardening right now.  The popularity of subtropical gardening is now much less concentrated towards any particular region of the world than before.  As more and more information and goods are shared across the globe, an interest in subtropical gardening begins to turn up in a wide variety of areas (PNWPEPS, 2001).  People from such varied places as Bulgaria, Argentina, Sweden, and Australia, where subtropical gardening has not been known in the past, are becoming interested in it and ambitiously starting nurseries and gardens.

Subtropical gardening is also experiencing resurgence in England (EPS, 2001).  Many of the old Victorian subtropical gardens have been restored or are presently undergoing restoration, and it is probable that all of them will be restored within the next 20 to 30 years.  The process will be gradual however since funding is still somewhat lacking.  (A few are being restored in slightly different forms, incorporating elements from styles such as woodland gardening and natural gardening, allowing for lower maintenance costs.)  Visits to these gardens are becoming increasingly popular, perhaps more with travelers from abroad than with the English themselves.  There is usually a fee, providing a limited but steady amount of funding for continued restoration and maintenance.

Numerous small nurseries specializing in exotic plants have also appeared recently in England, including Trevena Cross, Architectural Plants, Oasis Designs and others.  One nursery, the Palm Centre, offers a huge selection of hardy and tender palms to European gardeners, as well as tree ferns, hardy bananas and many other hardy exotic plants.  These nurseries continue to provide gardeners in Britain with a limited but diverse and growing selection of subtropical plants.

Subtropical gardening has never really caught on in most of the United States.  A conventional form of gardening brought over from England before the Victorian Era and evolved here still defines most people's notion of what a garden is.  “Gardens here are considered in various ways: as settings for the house, to establish status and respectability; as ‘landscaped’ yards; as plant collections; or as creative designs, too often lacking spiritual or deep-seated traditions” (Beatty, 2001).  People who try to achieve a tropical look in their gardens in the United States are generally still few and far between.

Subtropical gardening is beginning to develop somewhat more rapidly, though not excessively so, on the West Coast of the United States and Canada.  This may be due in part to the climate generally being a bit more similar to Europe (The Pacific Northwest mirroring Britain; and California with a largely Mediterranean climate), which makes it easier for West Coasters to draw from European experience.  The West Coast also has slightly closer contact with some prime locations for plant hunting, such as Latin America, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Since the formation of the Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society in British Columbia, the Vancouver and Victoria area has become somewhat of a "horticultural mecca" in Canada.  Even prior to that, this region had drawn more influence from Britain's passion for gardening than in the United States (PNWPEPS, 2001).  This shows today throughout the gardens of southwest British Columbia.  Vancouver is now creating an “oceanwalk” lined with palms, bananas and other exotics at English Bay.  The influence of the PNWPEPS has also extended into Washington and Oregon to a lesser extent (PNWPEPS, 2001).

Some enterprises in this region are beginning to follow Britain's example in sending out plant collecting expeditions.  These expeditions are still not generally able to find funding from wealthy landowners, but have generally been successful in expanding the palette of plants available in the area.  The region now has a few mostly small nurseries specializing in subtropical and exotic rarities, such as Piroche Plants and Heronswood (Heronswood, 2001).

California, and especially the San Francisco area, is also very gradually developing towards a more general interest in subtropical gardening (CHS, 2001).  In particular their climate allows them to exploit flora from Central and South American cloudforests, and South Africa.  Here also numerous small nurseries are appearing and there is a higher than usual amount of support from local Universities such as UC Berkeley.

So it can be said that the development of subtropical gardening today is steady and it is global.  This would seem to make sense given the present state of world economic affairs and the present distribution of wealth in countries that would be interested in subtropical gardening.  It cannot develop as quickly as it did in the Victorian Era, since most subtropical gardeners lack the resources and funding to undertake ambitious private projects.  However with economies generally healthy and more means of communication becoming available between all parts of the world, it is developing at a good steady pace.  “Gardens evolve from a confluence of culture and climate. The adaptation to the region's climate comes from a cultural interpretation incorporating intellectual and spiritual thought and values” (Beatty, 2001).

The future of subtropical gardening will probably continue to depend largely on these social and economic factors.  It would probably take some major catastrophe or social, economic or political restructuring of society for things to change abruptly in some unexpected fashion.  It is also possible that a threshold might be reached at some point in the future where certain individuals, modern William Robinsons, so to speak, could stimulate enough interest in the general public to gain funding necessary for subtropical gardening to develop very rapidly once again.

In the meantime it will be interesting to observe the changes in subtropical gardening in coming years.  If its history is any indication, the future of subtropical gardening will be quite exciting.  It will likely continue until all hardy exotic plants are found and introduced and all possible combinations of subtropical plants are tried in gardens throughout the world.


Amherst, Alicia M. T.  A History of Gardening in England. 1896, Bernard Quaritch, London

Beatty, Russel A. The Mediterranean Garden: Image, Style, or Cultural Expression?,  Pacific Horticulture, Vol. 62, no. 2, Apr/May/Jun 2001.  Copyright 2001 the Pacific Horticultural foundation, San Francisco, CA

California Horticultural Society (CHS).  Viewed April 2001.

European Palm Society (EPS).  Viewed April 2001.

Heronswood Nursery Collection Reports.  Viewed April 2001.

Huxley, Anthony, Editor-in-Chief; Griffiths, Mark, editor; Levy, Margot, Managing Editor.  The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening, vol. 4.  Copyright 1992, the Royal Horticultural Society, London

McGinn, Bob. The Paradise Island of Tresco.  Hardy Palm International, Ed. #41, Feb. 2000; printed in Vancouver, BC

Nelhams, Mike.  Tresco Abbey Garden: A Personal and Pictoral History.  Copyright 2000, Mike Nelhams.  Published by Dyllansow Truran, Croft Prince, Cornwall, England

Nichols, Rose Standish. English Pleasure Gardens. Copyright 1925, The MacMillan Company, New York, NY

Pacific Northwest Palm and Exotic Plant Society (PNWPEPS).  Viewed April 2001.

Reynolds, Jim. Book Review: Hot Plants for Cool Climates. Hardy Palm International, Ed. #44, Nov. 2000; printed in Vancouver, BC

Reynolds, Jim. Book Review: The Lost Gardens of Heligan.  Hardy Palm International, Ed. #45, Feb. 2001; printed in Vancouver, BC

Riffle, Robert Lee. The Tropical Look. Copyright 1998 by Timber Press, Inc., Portland, OR

Southeastern Palm and Exotic Plant Society (SPEPS).  Viewed April 2001.