Trendspotting: Tropicals

Banana trees in a Midwestern courtyard

By Teresa Woodard

The Jimmy Buffet syndrome is prompting more and more gardeners to grow tropicals in zone-defying Northern climates.  That’s what John Reiner of Oakland Nursery in Columbus, Ohio, sees as the cause for the exponential growth in tropical plant sales in northern states.

“When people see tropicals, they think of fun, happy vacation images, plus they love the blast of color they bring to the landscape,” says Reiner.

While many enjoy tropicals outside during the warmest months, other soft-hearted – and thrifty — gardeners try to sustain them indoors until it’s time to return outside for another growing season. Try one gardener’s tips for growing and overwintering tropicals in the Midwest:

  • Place the tropical plants in five- to 10-gallon containers with drainage holes and plant them in the landscape after the threat of frost. To encourage lots of blooms, feed the plants with a high phosphorus fertilizer such as a 10-50-10. Follow the labels for the plants’ growing needs, and note many require lots of water.
  • After enjoying the tropicals all summer, cut them back, especially larger ones like banana trees, water them thoroughly, then let them drain before moving them indoors. The ideal indoor conditions are 60-65 degrees with indirect light such as a garage, a four seasons room or a southeastern- or southwestern-facing windowed room.
  • Thoroughly water the plants monthly and allow them to fully drain each time. Remember, overwatering can rot roots. Watch for spider mites and white mealy bugs, and treat with an insecticide if necessary.

    Coleus plants and mandevilla vines

  • Try angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia) for their growing ease, spectacular blooms and intoxicating perfume. One grower tells me they’re simple to multiply — just cut off a branch, dip the end in a rooting hormone and place it in soil. Also check out banana trees (Musa), plumeria (with blooms used in Hawaiian leis), coleus, hibiscus, mandevilla vines. Tropical tender bulbs like elephant ears (Alocasia, Colocasia and Xanthosoma), caladiums, canna lilies and dahlias can be grown in containers through the season then overwintered in the garage.
  • Avoid overwintering more temperamental tropicals like palms, mandevillas and hibiscus. They are so affordable and readily available that it’s easier to replace each year like annuals.
  • Plant cold-hardy lookalikes. Hardy hibiscus with dinner-plate-size blooms look much like their tropical counterparts yet thrive in central Midwest’s climate.

Xanthosoma ‘Lime Ginger’

For more information, check out two books Hot Tropicals for Cool Climates and Bulbs in the Basement Geraniums on the Windowsill.

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