Creating a Tropical Courtyard

Courtyards are the focal point of outdoor living in the tropics, blending privacy and intimacy with relaxation and socialising.

So, how to plant up that special courtyard?

Well, you can always take the simple and easy approach and fill it up with tried and trusted gingers, but hey, do you really want a boring old courtyard that looks just like everyone else’s?

Here’s a list of wonderful tropical natives that will make your courtyard look stunning. And as you get to know the plants and the stories they tell, your courtyard will become a great talking point as well.

This article is based on the assumption that your courtyard is a relatively protected little nook in your garden, and that it is not an exposed open area.

Your courtyard checklist:

  • Agapetes meiniana (Misty Bells)
  • Alpinia caerulea (Common Ginger)
  • Argophyllum spp
  • Cordyline manners-suttoniae (Palm Lily)
  • Myrsine (Rapanea) spp (Muttonwood)
  • Native ferns
  • Noahdendron nicholasii (Noahdendron)
  • Pseudoweinmannia lachnocarpa (Rose Mara)
  • Psychotria spp
  • Pullea stutzeri (Hard Alder)
  • Rhodamnia spp (Malletwoods)
  • Rhododendron lochiae (Native Rhododendron)
  • Rhodomyrtus spp (Rhodomyrtus)
  • Sankowskya stipularis (Sankowskya)
  • Sarcotoechia serrata (Fern-Leafed Tamarind)
  • Syzygium alatoramulum (Tinkling Satinash)
  • Syzygium apodophyllum (Rex Satinash)
  • Syzygium wilsonii (Powder-Puff Lilly-Pilly)


Give your courtyard a backbone…

Rapaneas, Rhodamnias, Rhodomyrtus and Psychotria are shrubs which are basically similar in size, shape and function. They are all medium shrubs of a size well suited to courtyards, with good bushy form, and dense foliage which is excellent for creating privacy between you and your neighbours. Think of them as the backbone of your courtyard planting, since they make a great backdrop for showing off some of the stunning feature plants suggested later in this brochure.
Their common names (Muttonwood, Malletwood and Psychotria) are a bit at odds with elegant, sophisticated, inner-city living, but what the heck … it’s a good talking point!

Plant these backbone species in your courtyard:

  • Myrsine* (Rapanea) sp Cape York (Cape Muttonwood)
  • Myrsine (Rapanea) subsessilis (Red Muttonwood)
  • Rhodamnia costata (Rib-fruited Malletowood)
  • Rhodomyrtus effusa (Grey Rhodomyrtus)
  • Rhodomyrtus sericea (also Grey Rhodomyrtus)
  • Psychotria sp Mt Baldy (Mt Baldy Psychotria)

The Rhodomyrtus have soft, pretty foliage, while the Rhodamnias and Rapaneas have firmer, more glossy leaves.

Mt Baldy Psychotria produces masses of small white fruit much sought-after by birds which will visit your courtyard for a delicious snack. Where’s Mt Baldy? It’s the mountain directly west of Atherton, overlooking the bustling Tableland town.

(*You’ll notice that Rapaneas have had a name change to Myrsine, but Rapanea is easier to say.)

Add some Argophyllums…

Argophyllums are beautiful understorey shrubs, and perfect for a protected position that a courtyard provides. There are a couple of species to choose from, but what they all have in common is the beautiful foliage with its characteristic gorgeous silver sheen beneath.
All the Argophyllums are rare plants in the wild.
Argophyllum sp Babinda is a very rare plant with lovely glossy green leaves. Not surprisingly, being from Babinda, it is best suited in high rainfall areas!
Argophyllum nullumense is from northern NSW, while Argophyllum sp Cape York is (obviously) from Cape York, and both are quite easy to grow.
Argophyllum verae is a really rare species, and is named after Vera Scarth-Johnson, the late Cooktown artist who revelled in recording the Cape York flora on canvas. If you visit the Cooktown Botanic Gardens, you will see her beautiful paintings on display in the Art Gallery at the gardens. This Argophyllum is different to the others, in that the foliage is a soft velvety grey on the upper surface, but the undersurface has the same beautiful silver sheen that is the signature of this lovely group of plants.

Argophyllums really encourage you to get tactile in your garden. Once you’re hooked on the glorious silver underside, you’ll find yourself turning the leaves over every time you walk past, and showing everyone else as well!

And now for some attention grabbers …

The Australian tropical rainforests provide us with some stunning foliage plants, which look just phenomenal when featured in a courtyard setting.

Sarcotoechia serrata is not called Fern-Leafed Tamarind for nothing! This plant has the most gorgeous soft ferny foliage that you can ever imagine. The feathery fern-like new growth starts out pastel pink, fading to cream and green as it matures. What’s more, this plant is only a shrub, so it fits beautifully into a suburban landscape. Being naturally a slender shrub, it needs to be nestled against a more solid backdrop (discussed above) for maximum effect.

Sankowskya stipularis (Sankowskya) is a very rare understorey shrub from the Julatten area. It has brilliant bright red-pink new growth which literally lights up the garden. Named after Garry Sankowsky (author of many of the books and CDs we have for sale here at Yuruga), this plant is unfortunately under threat from misguided landholders who, while retaining the canopy trees, ‘just cleared the undergrowth’ in the rainforest on their properties.

Noahdendron nicholasii

Noahdendron nicholasii (Noahdendron) is an extremely rare plant named after the restricted location in which it grows naturally in the wild. ‘Noahdendron’ literally means ‘Noah’s Tree’, referring to Noah Creek where it is found in the Daintree rainforests. If you look closely at this remarkable plant, you will see that it has quite unusual foliage, featuring bright pink pendulous new growth and large stipules decorating the branchlets. While naturally slender in habit, it is easy to shape into a dense bushy shrub by regular pruning, and its delicately perfumed flowers hang in profusion during flowering time. A beautiful talking point at family BBQs.

Some flowers to knock your socks off…

Syzygium wilsonii (Powder-Puff Lilly-Pilly) is a beautiful small shrub with weeping branches, lovely pink new growth and the most amazing red/maroon powder-puff flowers you have ever seen. It thrives in a protected courtyard situation, and is easy to grow. If you want a talking point, this is it!

Fantastic Foliage Fillers

There’s a family of rainforest plants (called the Cunoniaceae for those with a scientific bent) which have simply gorgeous foliage. When you drive through the rainforest (down the Palmerston Highway, for instance) and you see masses of bright pink or red foliage hanging out over the banks, chances are the plants are members of this family. While they may be large trees in the wild, these plants adapt remarkably well to cultivation, and look simply stunning in a courtyard environment.

Pullea stutzeri (Hard Alder), Pseudoweinmannia lachnocarpa (Rose Mara) and Caldcluvia australiensis (Rose Alder) may have unpronounceable names, but don’t let that stop you! Plant them anyway, prune them regularly to promote a dense shape and lots of brilliant new growth, give them a bit of extra water if they look stressed, and stand back and wait for the admiring comments from your friends and neighbours. Then try a bit of name dropping (if you can get your tongue around the Latin!).

Just for good measure, throw in a couple of broad leafed, strap-like plants to add a great contrast and make a real tropical statement. The native cordylines (eg Cordyline manners-suttonae Palm Lily) not only have fantastic large lime-green tropical leaves, but bear huge bunches of spectacular bright red glossy fruit as well. And the native gingers such as Alpinia caerulea are tough hardy stand-bys to fill in the remaining gaps.

A courtyard always has a hanging basket!

For a hanging basket with a difference, add a beautiful Agapetes meiniana (Misty Bells) to your courtyard. This unusual plant from the misty high peaks of our World Heritage wet tropics rainforests, has thick shiny waxy leaves and beautiful bright pink bell-shaped flowers. In the wild it is found with our native Rhododendron (see below), where it is a vine scrambling over exposed rocks or establishing an epiphytic foothold high in the canopy of the rainforest. In cultivation, it is perfectly suited to a hanging basket, where it will live happily for years as if in its native tree-tops.

If your climate is a bit too hot and coastal for Misty Bells, substitute Medinilla balls-headleyi (Daintree Medinilla) in your hanging basket for an equally stunning effect.

It’s not a courtyard without some ornamental tub specimens!

Did you know that Australia has only one Rhododendron (Rhododendron lochiae)? Our native Rhododendron is a very rare plant, found only in rainforests at the very tops of our highest peaks such as Bartle Frere and Bellenden Ker, where it is actually a rather untidy scrambler. However, in cultivation it can be trained into a tidy plant well suited to pot-plant culture. Put one in an ornamental tub, and tell your friends why it is so special. And after a few years you will be rewarded with beautiful bright pink flowers.

And now for the feature tubs…

Get yourself a couple of large feature tubs, and plant the following lilly-pillies for a stunning effect:

Syzygium alatoramulum (Tinkling Satinash – what a gorgeous name!)
Syzygium apodophyllum (Rex Satinash, from the Rex Range above Mossman, of course).

Both these tropical lilly-pillies have stunningly beautiful foliage and make superb tub specimens. A brilliant centrepoint for a unique tropical courtyard.

Lastly, don’t forget the ferns!

Now all there is to do is to pop in native ferns wherever there’s a space, and your courtyard will be complete.

Now sit back and enjoy!