How to Keep Tropical Flair Through Winter!

Sometimes I wonder if I should call my blog "The Happiest Gardener in the World".  I know that almost all gardeners are happy, but it seems as if I'm the most ecstatic when I'm challenged by cold, flooding and rogue landscapers, all conspiring against my helpless plants.  If I wasn't given a set of challenges, how else would I get to be creative and inventive?  How else would I get to find cold hardy plants that no one else in the neighborhood is growing?  Though I don't yet have the right quantities of evergreen trees to keep my garden gorgeous through winter, each winter will get better and better as the garden matures.
Here's how to make it through the winters with tropical flair.
First, choose cold hardy varieties.  Above are some cold hardy bromeliads under a live oak, paired with a macho fern.  The big ones are aechmea distichantha, and it was so cold that even these tough behemoths got a little singed on the parent plants.  As many bromeliad growers will tell you, the pups are always less damaged than the older "mother plant" so its a good idea to wait til after winter to divide them.  This also gives them a better shot at root production and prevents rot. 
The variegated one is Billbergia  "Kyoto" and even though several books I've read will say its super tender, I've seen several left outdoors this winter under trees and left unharmed.
The smaller ones in the second photo are aechmea gamosepala, and they've now survived trampling-by-dog, watering-by-dog, digging-up-by-dog, scorching by too much sun and even hard freezes.  They don't look too great, but they will when they get established. 

Other than choosing hardier varieties, you can also grow plants that quickly grow back from the roots, like gingers!  This is whats left of my shell gingers above ground, but they will bounce back in no time.  Some people slash these to the ground to get a lush groundcover, so I just look at it as easy trimming.  Eventually these will be thick and more cold tolerant.  My false cardamom ginger is still about a foot tall after being frozen back, mostly just because of the density of the clump.  There are even Hedychium gingers that have escaped into wild streams in the colder inland areas between here and Gainesville, and they are so dense that they barely get knocked back and bloom profusely every year.

Here's another one that reliably returns in no time at all.  These agapanthus on a berm got hit hard by the freeze, but are already back.  Even the self sown seedlings have recovered!  In summer this planting becomes an island surrounded by swamp, creating an interesting effect especially when in bloom.

Plant evergreens that keep their leaves in winter.  My little philodendron selloum did well this winter, and believe it or not these aren't even new leaves.  This plant is another good one for flooded areas, and I'm considering doing a planting along the swamp with these at the bases of dahoon hollies for an evergreen backdrop.

Make do with what you have, and replace tender plants with hardier ones.  Sadly, my areca palm did not make it this winter, which I half expected.  So what's a bromeliad fancier to do?  I simply tucked these hardy billbergias in between the dead trunks to start a colony.  Even better, they're about to bloom too!  There is a small nursery in Middleburg that gets much colder than Jacksonville, and they have a gigantic colony in a live oak.  Does anyone know what kind of bilbergia this is?

Here is a small one that's been living in a sweet bay magnolia.  When acclimated in bright sun these will turn a silver color with pink and orange tinges.  If anyone wants to try this, I suggest using a tree with a dark trunk so the bromeliads will glow against the black bark when it rains.  These would also look awesome planted amongst green moss, resurrection ferns, contrasting bromeliads or against a dark green leafy backdrop

Of course the best thing you can do to retain winter interest is use evergreen natives with glossy leaves.  The leaves have just dropped off this wild blueberry, but only to accomodate the pendant bell shaped blooms.  These will give way to berries (which I leave for the birds) and bright new leaves.  In late winter the leaves turn burgundy, making things even more interesting.  Some native evergreens are fetterbush, east palatka holly, florida anise, magnolias, red bay, palmettos, and needle palm.

Last but not least, make efforts to protect your plants with careful siting and by covering on frosty nights when able.  My lovely courtyard garden was made possible by its proximity to the house and by using tarps to protect them from the frost.  We even used shop lights on the coldest nights, which gave an extra couple degrees to the immediate area.  The bromeliads that weren't protected survived, but they look a little ratty for the moment and will take some time to recover.

(Sadly one supposedly hardy native couldn't take this winter, even though it never got singed by the freezes.  My everglades palm clump has had enough of the prolonged cold and was likely weakened by the continuous cold weather.  I also feel that having tender palms nearby didn't help because as those died off, the fungi associated with cold weather must have proliferated and killed what would normally be a hardier palm.  It was also a rainy winter, which is even more favorable for the spores.Bear in mind that there are at least a few huge specimens in the area that have surpassed heights of two stories tall, so this is still a good palm for the area as long as its sited in an area that can warm up quickly.) 


  1. RFG,
    You do well with the tropical plants in North Florida with the cold winter temps. It seems that a lot of perennials would be annuals there.

  2. Your words ring true. I divided some vriesias and guzmanias in between the January attacks and the February attacks, not expecting February to repeat the earlier horror, as it did. There was some damage, and I wonder if it would have been better to leave them alone. All in all, the broms in shade seem to fare well, while the ones exposed to the elements get damaged. It is wonderful to see so many plants returning. I usually wait until the end of May before digging out the dead. Surprisingly, I've had things return that late before.

  3. This has been a challenging winter for you! I was down in Miami a couple weeks ago and it was freezing! I hope you have a lovely spring and summer to make up for it!

  4. Good points! The trees, fences, and house walls also create a micro climate for plants. Some of my plants reacted differently during freeze depending on their location.

  5. You have a great attitude toward this winter's effects on your garden. I like the idea of our gardens getting better and better as they mature. Learning to use more evergreens as backdrops for the hardy tropicals is such a great plan. If each of us share our successes with plants that make through cold winters and hot summers we'll all have a large database of plants from which to choose.

  6. Great ideas, RFG, for a winter tropical garden. You and I have much the same goals. I want my tropical garden year round, no matter what. I moved here from the cold and want a constant reminder of my fantastic environment! You've offered fantastic advise for the winter tropical garden. I'll definitely implement some of your suggestions.

  7. Your choices are all so exotic to this northern gardener... though love to read and see your tropical garden! I love the bromeliad on the magnolia!! Happy Birthday To You! ;>)

  8. Oh - I needed this post. My gingers and cannas are starting to bounce back this weekend, so yay!

  9. It is sad, that you lost the palms. The broms did pretty well considering the cold winter. Your Billbergia could be a B.pyramidalis or alfonsi-joannis, or, or there are quite a few which sport similar broad leaves. You will find out when the flowers appear. I think it is important to be enthusiastic and passionate about the garden, like you said the failures teach us a lot! Anyway there is always a new beginning. I have just planted 3/4 of the orchard into a native garden, so much rain I had to take out some Banksias plant them in pots and replant later because the planting holes were filled with water, some already showed signs of "not happy Jan"! Happy spring gardening. T.

  10. Hey,I came across your blog Last Friday and realy enjoyed it. I spent the day cleaning up the bromeliad bed at work(City of Charleston).It has been 3 years since they have been thinned out and we removed a pick-up truck full.The large plants;A distichhantha 'Schlumbergeri',A.dis.x A.cylandrata and an unknown Billbergia head out to the country to act as a hedge around a friends hen house the rest get cleaned and replanted, the surplus going to our volunteers.I thought you would enjoy knowing you not alone out there and I`m glad to hear there are other experimenters in cool ZONE 9.


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