After a record breaking cold winter, you may be perplexed by my odd habit of growing plants that clearly don't belong in North Florida. Why bother? In a nutshell, here are some reasons to grow tropicals where its not so tropical.
1. Tropicals love the heat
Yes, they also dislike freezing temperatures, but if you choose the right kinds they'll quickly rebound in spring and be at their peak in summer when all those "traditional" plants are wilting and turning to mush in the searing heat and blinding sun.
Summer's heat and humidity are torture to a lot of favorite temperate plants, but if you pick the right tropicals to pick up the slack during the dog days of summer you'll cheer up in no time.
3. Tropicals Defy Descriptions
To someone unfamiliar with gardening, its hard to distinguish flowers beyond the catch all descriptions such as "lily, daisy, daffodil, etc.". In fact many tropical plants have common names that are knock offs of European counterparts like custard apple, Mexican petunia, Japanese plum and many more unrelated plants with lily thrown in the name. Knock your friend's socks off with plants that defy their descriptions too, by growing a Pineapple lily, blood lily, spider lily or perhaps a lily of the nile!
4. Tougher Than You Think
In the tropical rainforest, competition is brutally harsh and plants have to be able to bounce back quickly from a setback to reclaim their spot in the limited light. Most houseplants originate from the rainforests and are able to handle adverse conditions such as drought, darkness, overwatering and however else we can abuse them. Many tropicals, like gingers or elephant ears, have enlarged roots that store enough energy to last all winter without leaves. This means that where the ground doesn't freeze they can be left in the ground despite hard frosts, and where its colder you can lift the tubers before the first freeze and store them over winter! By summer you'll have lush growth to fill in where annuals and perennials have started to decline.
2. There are Cold Hardy Varieties
Here in North Florida there is a lion's share of tropicals at the big box stores (most are too tender anyways), but there are even more cold tolerant species and hybrids if you know where to look! Take bromeliads for example. You normally see them as houseplants and in greenhouses, but there are many that will take the cold even into the teens such as Aechmea Caudata or Billbergia Nutans. Check out websites, plant sales and local garden centers to find something no one in your town has tried before!
5. Its Useful!
Imagine a world without rubber, vanilla, chocolate, pepper, bananas and cocaine! I couldn't live without crack and its no wonder that the world's most important exports come from the rainforest. I was joking about the coocaine, but if chocolate and coffee someday decided to up and leave, I... I don't know what I would do, probably die of a broken heart.
There are useful tropicals you can grow too! Citronella grass provides us with, you guessed it, citronella to shoo away mosquitoes, and its relative lemongrass is great for thai food, soothing teas and aromatherapy. Want a useful vine? Try growing the butterfly smorgasbord known as passionflower, with its gorgeous flowers for floating in water or potpourri. If its an edible kind you'll be treated to the best juice... ever.
Passiflora Incensa is not only useful, but beautiful too!