Winter-Hardy Tropical Plants
Many of the plants that project the tropical look aren't winter hardy below 15 to 20 degrees (USDA Zone 8). But many of these plants make excellent houseplants and can be overwintered in the home, spending summers in your garden.
The Fiber Banana Plant
Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo) doesn't have the beautiful coloration of the more tropical ornamental bananas, but it's much more cold-hardy (hardy to USDA Zone 6, and, well mulched, has even come back from -20 degrees F). It grows up to eight to 10 feet tall in one season. Produces huge, light-green leaves great for use in projecting the tropical look in the garden. Will not flower from the mid-South and northward, due to the short growing season.
Hardy Sugar Cane
The handsome gray-green foliage of the hardy sugar cane provides a wonderful tropical feel and vertical accent to the garden. The effect is heightened in fall when flower panicles are produced in large numbers and tower to as much as 15 feet. The plumes begin as soft pink, open to silver and look great through the winter. Hardy sugar cane performs well down to USDA Zone 6.
The huge trumpet-shaped flowers and large leaves of angel's trumpet make a dramatic statement in any garden. A tropical plant that can grow up to 10 feet in one summer, this plant is great either for containers or the mixed border. White-, pink-, yellow-, peach- and purple-flowering varieties are available.
Give this plant moist, rich, well-drained soil in full sun to part or light shade. During the growing season feed every two weeks with a balanced fertilizer. Hardy to USDA Zone 7. In frost-free areas of the country--and in its native South America--angel's trumpet is a woody evergreen shrub.
Elephant's ear is a tuber-based plant with a very tropical look. It grows to six feet tall (and some varieties top eight feet or more), adding a dramatic look to the garden with massive leaves up to two feet wide and three feet long. All elephant's ear are tolerant of a wide range of conditions--sun or shade and a well-drained site, but especially loving damp, aquatic conditions. Use in containers with mixed plantings or as an accent plant in the garden. Hardy to USDA Zone 7.
There are many cultivars on the market, ranging from those with green leaves to purple stems to those with variegated foliage.
'Black Magic' has showy, purplish-black leaves. Hardy to 0 degrees F.
'Nancy's Revenge' has a creamy-white mid-stripe.
Susan Hamilton is an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Landscape Systems and director of the UT Gardens at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.