Tropical plants are prized for their lush foliage, brilliant flowers and bold, exotic appearance. Typically grown outdoors where winters are mild and humidity is high, their ideal climate and growing conditions can be duplicated almost anywhere by moving them inside near a south or southwest facing window during the colder months.
Trees and other large tropical plants that can’t be over-wintered inside can usually only be grown successfully in zones 10 and 11 in the United States, or where temperatures do not fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. There are exceptions however, some palms, banana trees and elephant ears—to name a few—can remain outside year-round in colder zones. Always check with your nursery professional or read the horticulture information on the container to determine a tropical plant’s hardiness zone.
Tropical Foliage Plants
The beauty and interest of tropical foliage plants lies in their leaves. Some are lush and large, with varying shades of green, such as elephant ears and ferns. Others have leaves that are extremely colorful, such as cannas and caladiums. Most of these plants can be grown outdoors and moved inside when cold weather threatens.
The elephant ear plant (genus Xanthosoma), also known as the coco yam, is grown as a food crop in many tropical countries. (It’s the tubers of the plant that are edible.) Usually too large for a house plant, they can be overwintered outside in areas with mild winters. Freezing temperatures will kill the leaves, but they will reemerge in the spring in zones 8b and 9 in the U.S. Aptly named, their ears are large, green and shaped like—well, elephant ears.
Ferns are some of the most ancient plants on earth, dating back to about 300 million years. They make excellent house and garden plants because they are almost insect and disease free. There are almost five hundred types of hardy ferns. One of the most popular house plants is the asparagus fern, which is really not in the fern family, but is a relative of the edible asparagus.
Caladiums are some of the showiest of the tropical foliage plants. Some look as if an artist has spattered paints on them. They have heart-shaped leaves of red, pink, white and green–in a variety of combinations and shades. They are summer bulbs and must be dug and stored during cold winter months.
Cannas are bold, striking plants—both flower and leaves—that grow 2 to 6 feet in a huge range of color combinations. They can be used in borders and in pots and can remain in the ground year-round in zones 7—11. In climates colder than 7, their rhizomes can be dug up and stored in a frost-free place for the winter.
Tropical Fruit Plants
There are many tropical fruit plants and trees that can be grown by the homeowner. Three favorites are bananas, figs and citrus. There are both edible and ornamental banana trees as well as tender and cold-hardy varieties. They are striking in the garden or in pots on the patio that can be brought inside during cold winters. There’s also a variety of leaf colors from which to choose, including green, burgundy and striped selections. Many varieties of figs can be grown outside, even in cold-winter areas. Fig trees can also be container grown and will yield as much fruit as those grown outside, but they require more fertilizer and other additives. The dwarf varieties of citrus trees yield fragrant blossoms and tasty fruit as container grown tropical plants. There are numerous varieties available, including dwarf Meyer lemon, Kaffir lime, key lime and sweet lime.
Tropical Plants: Make Them Feel At Home
The most important thing you can do when caring for tropical plants is to create an environment that closely resembles their natural environment. Be sure to read the information posted on the plant: Where did it originate? Was it a wet or dry climate? How much light will it need? What kind of soil does it like? Tropical can mean desert plants, rain forest plants, beach plants or plants that are native to pleasant tropical island conditions. Get to know your tropical plant so that you’ll know how to care for it.