Bananas in Ohio? No problem. Angel trumpet in Maine? That works too. It's even possible to grow anthurium in Chicago, palm trees in Birmingham, Ala., and colorful crotons in the coldest climates.
It's not necessarily easy growing plants in such unlikely settings, but the impact can make it worth it, said Steven Bender, editor of Southern Living Garden Book, which has information on more than 7,000 plants. "Tropicals flower continuously as long as the weather stays hot, while most perennials bloom for just a couple of weeks," he said. "Or you can get a lush, bold effect with tropical foliage plants like ti plants, bananas and crotons."
Most people aren't likely to tear up their yards and replace all plantings with tender tropicals, but brilliantly colored tropical plants can become scene-stealers against a backdrop of hardier plantings, said Monica Brandies, author of Sunset Book's Landscaping with Tropical Plants. "To some degree, people have been doing it for years -- we plant cannas and caladiums and just expect to dig up the roots every winter. It can be more complicated with some of the newer plants, but many can be overwintered and grown year after year."
The miracle of tissue culture has made tropicals -- even plants that were once very rare and expensive -- affordable for many people, said Robert Bowden, director of Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando, Fla. "Years ago, when I was growing up in Ohio, we had a plant in the calathea, or praying hands, family that we treasured because it was so special. Now people use them as annuals, planting them in the spring and letting them die when temperatures drop."
And more and more people are growing once-rare tropicals far north of their native lands, according to Ty Strode, director of marketing for Agri-Starts Inc., a Florida company specializing in tissue culture starts of tropical plants. "We've seen a huge increase in our business over the last five years, when 90 percent of our sales were local. Today, we're shipping 40 percent of sales to out-of-state wholesalers."
Agri-Starts grows 112 varieties of bananas, some strictly for flowers and foliage and others with unusual fruit including one that tastes like ice cream and another that is bright red, Strode said. "We ship them all over the East Coast and we think it's just the beginning of a trend. Most of the tropicals being sold now come from nurseries, and the big-box retailers haven't picked them up yet. Once they do, the market will really explode."
The new varieties -- and new information about older varieties -- also are making it easier for northern growers to enjoy tropical plants. For instance, the golden lotus banana is hardy down to 17 degrees, so it actually grows in the snow, said Bowden. "It was discovered in China where it was almost extinct because farmers were feeding its roots to their pigs, but now you can find it in nurseries across the country. It's a gorgeous plant with an incredible golden yellow flower bud that looks just like a lotus."
Tropicals also can be extremely fragrant, Bowden added. Plants like plumerias, angel trumpets, evergreen wisteria, citrus, tea olive and jasmine are all fragrant and add a tropical effect to any garden, even in the dark.
In Birmingham, Bender tries out tropicals like sabal and windmill palms, oleander and flowering maple -- which isn't a true maple but has maple-shaped leaves and flowers that look like a cross between a hibiscus and a hollyhock in colors that range from white to red, yellow and orange. "The oleander has been in a pot outside for 20 years and blooms every year," Bender said. "My windmill palm came through temperatures as low as four degrees with no damage. It just goes to show that some plants we think aren't hardy may be fine in cold weather if we give them a chance."
Two kinds of people grow tropical plants, he added. "Some people just want a tropical effect for one growing season, and they can get a lot of impact in a very short period of time." Others get more attached to their plants and work to save them from year to year. Some highly imaginative gardeners do things like dig up giant banana trees or stack potted plumeria and store them in their garage every winter.
It's not always necessary to go to great extremes, Brandies said. "Almost every plant will go dormant if you put it in a dark and cold -- but not freezing -- place. Many tropicals are easy to root and smaller plants can come inside for the winter." Others, like the dwarf Poinciana or fragrant daturas, grow quickly from seeds started indoors.
Bringing tropical plants inside for a long cold winter has another advantage, said Brandies, a native of Ohio who now lives in central Florida. "A small greenhouse or sunroom full of tropical plants may help save your sanity because it can be dark and gloomy and depressing through a long, long winter."