5 Reasons to Garden Tropical in a Colder Climate

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!


  1. I would add a number six making it the challenge. Its fun to experiment and push the limit for what will grow in a particular zone. You seem to have done this quite well with your tropicals.

  2. I agree that in the middle of summer's heat there are no better plants than the tropicals. You are right that there are so many that will come back strong after winter and they make it so worth those 3 months of waiting for their return. I thought I had lost my bananas but all three varieties have made a comeback. They are new pups however, the mamas didn't make it back so, no fruit this year. But I pretty much just grow them for the tropical effect of those beautiful leaves.

  3. I agree sanddune! Thats one of the reasons its so addictive for me, plus its really cool to discover something that none of the books say should happen, like christams cactus overwintering! I'm doing another list later, but hopefully this is a good start!

  4. I've certainly found that pushing the limits towards more tropical plants works better than trying to get cool weather plants to survive our long hot summers.

  5. Oooh, what a wonderful vanda! Vandas are my favorite orchids, though I only own two, in purple hues. Orange would be a nice foil to them. It's nice to read the reasons why we SHOULD plant tropicals, when our thoughts have been consumed with why we should NOT these last couple months. I agree that they stand up to our heat and humidity very well.

  6. I love the Passiflora Incensa. Unfortunately we had to get rid of ours. We had a constant trail of Florida carpenter ants entering any little crevice in our house each night finally to determine they loved chowing down on the passion vine. When we got rid of the vine, the ants went too. Haven't had a problem with them since. A shame really because the Passiflora Incensa was one of our favorite plants.

  7. As you know, I am from the tropics... tropical plants grow 100% well here! They are really tough, loves, humidity, warmth and sunshine. If you have been to a tropical country in the equator like Malaysia where I stay - the climate is really hot and it is home to many tropical plants ;-)

  8. aloha steve,

    what a great post, when i lived on the mainland i was also in zone denial, in a frost zone, but alot of my sub tropicals always bounced back in the spring including my bananas so anything is feasible...but i don't have to worry now :)

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  10. deborah- I agree! It sure beats that slow and agonizing death in the summer, at least in winter things have a chance.

    floridagirl- ironically my vanda didn't make it over winter not from the cold but lack of humidity and watering indoors. The sad thing is that I actually bought it in one of those little baggies too, so it would have been really rewarding.

    el jardin- lucky for me, it dies down in winter! I guess thats one good thing about gardening north of the correct zones.

    stephanie- Out of all the tropical locations I think Malaysia is one of the most intriguing and beautiful. So much history and diversity!

    noel- I used to think I'd want to live in the tropics, but its too much fun to do something different and daring! Okay, maybe cocoa beach or tampa would be nice too...

  11. At the garden center we really push tropicals to be thrown into the annual mix used here in the summer. They absolutely love our heat and humidity and preform very well. At the end of the season they can be brought in and used again next year, or just buy another one next summer.

  12. Thanks for visiting my blog, my husband and i both love gardening. we will be visiting your site for interesting tips on tropical plants.


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