Tropical plants are everywhere, even in temperate climates. You’ll find them at the nursery and the florist. And they end up on your windowsill, in your living room or even on the back patio or deck. Our most treasured houseplants are tropicals, transplanted to upper latitudes but protected by the confines of a roof and four walls. Read on to learn how to make the best use of these exotic beauties.
From bromeliad to bird of paradise, there’s an indoor plant with an outdoor home closer to the equator. Some star performers with tropical flare include the big, colorful foliage of croton, aglaonema, caladium, stromanthe and dieffenbachia, as well as the uniquely shaped foliage of alocasia, false aralia, arrowhead vine and Japanese fatsia. Palms and ferns bring recognizable shapes, while the bright flowers of African violet, orchid and cyclamen are eye-catching. While care and culture differ according to species, most like bright, indirect light as well as ample moisture and humidity.
Like us, houseplants benefit from time spent outdoors. You can let them vacation outdoors during the warm weather, provided you acclimate them to the conditions. Remember, they don’t get much direct sunlight (if any) indoors, so they shouldn’t be subjected to that outdoors either. Instead find a location in bright, indirect light and protected from wind. A spot under a high-branched tree is one example. Keep plants well-watered since they’re likely to dry out more quickly than they would indoors. And do not leave plants outdoors if the temperature is below 50 F. If you’re going on vacation yourself, use plant watering spikes to keep plants hydrated.
Those tender bulbs you pick up at the garden center in spring are a fine example of tropical beauty. Examples include caladium, calla lily, canna, dahlia, elephant ears, gladiolus and tuberous begonias. They’re easy to grow as long as they go in after the last frost date and are planted at the right depth. Treat them as annuals, or dig them up in fall and store in sawdust or peat moss in an attached garage or other cool, dry spot for the winter.
A Tropical Garden
Some cold-climate gardeners actually plant tropicals in their gardens. They pair plants such as elephant’s ear (Colocasia), canna, coleus, hardy banana (Musa basjoo) and agapanthus in a bed for the summer. Come fall, they dig up corms of the elephant plant and canna and overwinter them in a box with sawdust in a cool basement. Hardy banana and agapanthus can be brought indoors and treated as houseplants, although in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 and higher hardy banana can be mulched and overwintered in place.
A Tropical-Looking Garden
Gardeners in temperate climates can recreate the look of a tropical garden using tropical imposters — plants that are cold-hardy but have a tropical appearance. These are plants with large leaves, unique shapes and bright colors, planted densely to create a junglelike effect.
Some cold-hardy plants that look like tropicals include trees such as Ailanthus, black walnut, cucumber magnolia, strawberry tree and princess tree; shrubs such as rhododendron, viburnum, camellia, hydrangea and hibiscus; perennials such as toad lily, hosta, ferns and pampas grass; annuals such as sweet potato vine, begonia, gerbera daisy, torenia and cleome; and vines such as clematis, climbing hydrangea and honeysuckle.
Tropical plants are grown where nighttime temperatures stay above 50 F; subtropicals can withstand temperatures just above freezing. By growing subtropicals, you can increase the range of plants and still enjoy a tropical look. Think of the advantages of adding such plants as lantana, bougainvillea, mandevilla, abutilon and oleander. You have a larger roster of plants, a longer season of growth, and in some parts of the U.S. subtropicals will overwinter nicely.
Most cold-climate gardeners grow their tropicals in containers, which can be whisked to safety if temperatures drop. Containers also make over-wintering easier — no digging required. Give your tropicals a soil like they’re used to, loose and porous with lots of organic matter. Look for a potting mix containing wood fines (sometimes marketed as raised-bed soil), then add compost. Soil needs to drain fast for most tropical plants, although there are exceptions that like extra moisture, such as cannas.
The Family HandymanContainer Gardening TipsThe Family Handyman editor, Elisa Bernick shares hints and tips for container gardening to ensure you have beautiful, healthy potted plants.
Tropical plants grow fast and have lots of foliage, so they take up a lot of nutrients. In addition to the organic matter in their soil mix, potted tropicals need regular fertilization. It’s best to include a slow-release fertilizer supplemented with occasional liquid feedings. You can buy a soilless potting mix with slow-release fertilizer already mixed in, or you can add it yourself. In either case, pay attention to the duration. The fertilizer in one popular potting mix is good for three months, while another lasts for seven months. Follow label directions during application.