The author lives in a quiet rural community in lower Puna on the Big Island. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.
Tropical plants are known for their lush green foliage. However, there are a few species that stand out for their fiery red leaves!
The distinct foliage comes in all shades of red color palette and displays its vibrant color year-round. Many of the leaves are variegated.
Here are ten tropical plants with dazzling red foliage that will set your garden ablaze under the sun!
1. Ti Plant (Cordyline fruticosa)
Ti (pronounced tee) is an ornamental plant highly prized for its colorful leaves. Some varieties produce foliage in glorious shades of red – scarlet, burgundy, or ruby. The spirally arranged leaves spread out from the main trunk like palm fronds. Easily propagated by stem cuttings (will sprout roots in a glass of water!), Ti is widely cultivated in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. In Polynesian cultures, people often cook food wrapped in Ti leaves. Native Hawaiians weave Ti leaves into leis and skirts to be worn by hula dancers.
2. Croton (Codiaeum variegatum)
Croton is a popular landscaping plant in many tropical places, known for its intoxicating leaf colors! Native to the rainforests of Oceania, Croton prefers warm, humid climate and full sun. Some cultivars produce vivid red foliage, often with psychedelic blotches of purple, green, gold, orange! Croton looks spectacular, both as a hedge or standalone shrub. It grows somewhat slowly but can reach 10-15 feet high. In temperate climate (with cold/freezing winters), Croton makes a beautiful, easy-care houseplant.
3. Bromeliad (Bromeliaceae sp.)
Bromeliad is a highly adaptive tropical species; it will grow practically anywhere, provided it gets plenty of warmth and moisture. There are thousands of Bromeliad varieties! Some have brilliant maroon or coppery-red foliage. Most like full or partial shade, but some hardy hybrids thrive in sunny locations (rock wall, deck, patio). Bromeliad traps and stores rainwater in its leaf base pools – home to numerous fascinating tiny insects and animals!
4. Copperleaf Plant (Acalypha wilkesiana)
Native to Polynesia, this attractive shrub boasts stunning red foliage! It usually likes full sun but can tolerate some shade. The large, serrated leaves come in many splendid red variations – scarlet, copper, salmon, or berry. Some varieties produce beautiful curly or crinkled leaves. Copperleaf Plant is best grown as a single specimen in the garden to showcase its specular foliage. But it also makes an excellent hedge (planting 4-5 feet apart) to provide windbreak or privacy for the yard.
5. Tropical Smoke Bush (Euphorbia cotinifolia)
Also called Red Spurge or Caribbean Copper Plant, this lovely plant is native to South America, where it can grow into a tree 20-30 feet high. The smooth, oval-shaped leaves are blazing red when they first emerge, then mature into a blueish smoky purple color. In full shade, the leaves change their color to greenish copper. Tropical Smoke Bush prefers warm, humid climate and is drought tolerant. It produces small yellow flowers that turn into white berries. It can be easily grown from stem cuttings. Note: The stems contain a milky sap that may cause skin irritation.
6. Red Leaf Heliconia (Heliconia indica ‘Rubra’)
Also known as Stripe Blood Banana, this remarkable heliconia is the perfect plant for a tropical-themed garden! The long upright, graceful leaves have striking neon red stems and veins. Like most heliconia species, it prefers well-drained, humus-rich soil, along with plenty of moisture. It also needs ample space to grow as its rhizomes (underground stems) can spread quickly! In full sun, the red stripes become even more radiant – a fantastic glow-in-the-dark effect!
7. Bloodleaf Iresine (Iresine herbstii)
This South American native is a popular perennial. Also known as Chicken Gizzard Plant or Beefsteak Plant because of its unique leaf shape and blood-red leaf veins. A low-maintenance plant, but it does require warmth, humidity, and sunlight to maintain its vibrant color. Bloodleaf Iresine does well in container gardens or hanging baskets, ideal for pool patios and sundecks. Pinch back regularly to encourage a bushy grow and prevent the plant from becoming leggy.
8. Joyweed (Alternanthera dentata ‘Brazilian Red Hot’)
Joyweed is a cousin of Bloodleaf Iresine. This particular Brazilian cultivar is known for its brilliant ruby-red foliage. The color is almost too bright for the eye, especially when the leaves are wet! Joyweed thrives in full sun (best leaf color) and prefers moist, well-drained soil. It will multiply freely in the garden by self-seeding. Often grown as a ground cover but it also looks stunning in flower beds or borders! Mix it with other plants with flashy foliage like Coleus or Persian Shield to create an intriguing focal point.
9. Coleus (Coleus scutellarioides)
Coleus belongs to the Mint Family and is wildly popular for their showy, multi-hued foliage. Some cultivars produce solid red leaves. Others are variegated with flashes of glowing colors like lime green, sunset pink, or mustard yellow. Coleus can be propagated from seeds or cuttings. It’s generally a shade-loving plant but can take some morning sun. Their lavender flower spikes attract bees and butterflies. Red leaf varieties look best when planted en masse with other Coleus that have different leaf colors and textures.
10. Hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus)
Also known as Sea Hibiscus or Tricolor Hibiscus, Hau (pronounced how) is a large tropical shrub with gorgeous foliage color phases! Young leaves are bright red, gradually change to blushing pink, then to emerald green, mottled with creamy white patches. The pretty hibiscus-like flowers also change their colors from yellow to orange to rose as they mature. Hau grows prolifically throughout tropical and subtropical Polynesia. Highly adapted to low-land coastal areas, it tolerates wet, sandy, salty soils. In Hawaii, Hau is considered sacred and traditionally used in wood carvings or making outrigger canoes.
Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
Commonly associated with Christmas and snowy weather, Poinsettia is however a tropical species, native to Central America. The flaming red “petals” are actually leaves surrounding the tiny green-yellow flowers on top of the plant. Poinsettia prefers well-drained soil and is drought tolerant. In some dry parts of Australia, the Caribbean, or the Pacific Islands, Poinsettia can grow into an impressive evergreen shrub or tree.
The plants featured in this article are from the lower Puna district (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 12b) on the Big Island of Hawaii. All pictures are photographed by the author.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Viet Doan
Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on August 23, 2020:
Aloha Danny from India! Thanks for your comment. Joyweed and Bloodleaf Iresine featured in this article are related to Amaranth, but not edible. I've eaten red Amaranth veggie, it tastes wonderful. I believe it is on the verge of becoming the next super food! Both the seeds and leaves are packed with vitamins (esp. iron) and antioxidants.
Danny from India on August 23, 2020:
This is so stunning, red plants everywhere. We grow Red veggies (Amaranth) in India, and it's very healthy too.
Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on August 22, 2020:
Aloha Imogen! Yes, most of these plants will make happy house plants, as long as they get plenty of light and moisture. A bright, sunny room or next to a window facing east or west are the best indoors spots. I love smoke bushes, so beautiful and so easy to care for!
Imogen French from Southwest England on August 22, 2020:
Such lovely rich colours. We grow smoke bushes in the gardens of England, but most of the others are only seen as house plants here. Nice collection, thanks.