Don’t Fear Extreme Temperatures
Story and photos by Joshua Kornegay, owner of Joshua’s Native Plants & Garden Antiques
Many homeowners shy away from tropical plants when planning their gardens; they've had bad experiences in the past and are afraid they're just throwing money away. Tropicals can go the distance in almost any garden if you fine-tune your landscape plan by selecting the toughest of the tough. We’ll discuss those plants that can survive a freeze and return after winter, while also enduring our long, humid summers.
Brugmansia, or angel's trumpet, will bloom with salmon, orange, pink or white flowers. These will get burnt in a frost or even go all the way down to the ground in a hard freeze but are always root hardy. These can reach eight feet in height in just one year’s growth and will bloom huge showy flowers, making for an extremely fragrant evening show in summer and fall. These are also very low care; if they get too large simply cut the plant back.
Another favorite can be seen all over town. Some call them tractor seat plants or giant leopards, but whatever you call it these farfugium japonicum Gigantea are very popular in shady spots. Typically making a three foot by three foot mound in a dappled shade or part sun garden, these are very low care with no pest or disease problems. The leaves are up to ten inches across and shoot up a tall stalk of yellow daisy during fall and winter. The plant thrives in almost any soil with low water demands. This rugged tropical is untouched by a light frost and is dependably winter hardy after a hard freeze.
If you need a lush, thick and showy vine to cover an ugly fence try giant Dutchman’s pipe, Aristolochia gigantea. These fast-growing, low-care vines are hard to beat for vigor, disease and pest resistance, plus they are tolerant of even poor soils. Huge velvety maroon mottled blooms will appear most of the summer and fall. These will lose a few leaves in winter but are seldom damaged; no covering or replanting needed here. The Dutchman’s pipe loves the heat and humidity, too.
Don't forget the hundreds of different species of ginger, banana and taro. These tropicals are mostly corm, rhizome and bulb-forming plants. Yes, they will freeze to the ground every single winter but will return every single spring. Most of these are quite suitable for our super hot and humid summers. They may need a little extra water in a drought, but are well worth it. One of our favorites is the pocket taro (Xanthosoma albo marginata variegata). It features Mickey Mouse looking leaves that are mottled in white, cream, seafoam and dark green — perfect for a dappled shade or partly sunny area. It typically will grow to three or four feet tall and will form thick clumps that absolutely glow in the dark.
I've barely scratched the surface here with a few of our tried and true winter-hardy rugged tropical favorites. Don't be afraid to try them. Many gardeners swore off tropicals after the hard freezes a few winters back, but these species depicted here popped up again on schedule without the protection of frost cloth covers. With the very mild winter this last go-round these tropicals were barely touched. Ask your favorite nursery professional for advice.
I’ll mention a couple more tropicals that can’t take a freeze at all, but I’ve got a creative workaround that will keep snake plants and bromeliads going. Try this little faux potting trick: Don’t plant them in a large heavy pot. Simply fill an empty planter with old bricks, other empty pots or even packing peanuts. As these particular species have smaller root systems than most, they can live many years in their little plastic growing pots. Pair the snake plant (Sansevieria) with a striped Neoregelia bromeliad, then display them in a sunny inside window or in a shady spot in the garden. Simply pop them back out and into the garage for the night when freezes are predicted. It’s well worth the effort.
Joshua’s Native Plants & Garden Antiques, Inc. can be found at 502 West 18th, 713-862-7444, www.joshuasnativeplants.net