Tropical plants are an amazing statement to add to any garden, offering exotic design sense and wonderful texture and color. Ok, we love ’em ’cause we can pretend to be on a beach in Fiji, or wandering around the rain forests in Hawaii, or pretty much any other place in the world where tropicals thrive. The trouble is, tropical plants are just that… tropical. And most of us don’t live in such exotic growing zones. (All of you lounging under your palm trees in Florida, stop laughing at us. ) However, we found these cold hardy tropical plants you can grow, just about anywhere! Some of them are pretty hardy in all but the coldest climates (hey, there are places even roses won’t grow!) and some of them need some winter protection. Some of them come back every year, but a few others are annuals you can use to fill in your tropical garden as it grows. All of them are worth a try for any gardener!
How to Grow Hardy Outdoor Tropical Plants
There are three types of hardy tropical plants we are going to cover for the sake of planning such a space. There are too many to list them all, so if you choose a few in each category, you are well on your way to a tropical zone! Remember, to always have hardscaping structure when trying to grow a “wilder” type of naturalized garden like this. A well placed path, deck, or gazebo will help pull the garden together when those huge leaves, bountiful flowers and dramatic focal points start to make your world their own!
Tall & Fast Growing Tropical Plants
The most cold hardy palm grown in the U.S. is called the Windmill Palm. Hardy down to zone 7, it can be made even more hardy by taking winter precautions. Many gardeners grow palms in Ohio, New York and Virginia, by wrapping the tree with burlap, planting in a wind protected position, and mulching deeply. Generally grows 10- 20 feet tall, in full to partial sun. Can be potted in a large container. Often used at tropical location hotels. Photo from ‘Fast Growing Trees‘.
If you are thinking about getting some bamboo for your tropical paradise, good choice. And make sure you read our post on how to grow bamboo. The trick here is to know the difference between clumping bamboo, and running bamboo. Plant the latter only if you want your home, yard and the nearest neighbors to be swallowed whole by the plant. Clumping bamboo is a tall tropical plant has none of it’s more aggressive cousins nasty qualities, but all of the good ones. Photo by ‘Bella Bree‘.
Elephant Ear is a tender tuber that can be planted anywhere, as long as you lift the tubers after the first frost and store indoors until spring. This mammoth plants can grow to 6 feet tall with 3 foot long leaves, and do well in partial shade. Definitely a plant for drama! Photo by ‘Wayside Gardens‘.
The Hardy Banana Plant is hardy down to below zero at the rhizome, but the leaves will freeze and fall off below 28 degrees. If you mulch well and keep the rhizome from freezing, you will have a banana come back year after year. Cisco Morris from ‘The Seattle Times’ has a great tutorial on how to prep your hardy banana for winter. Photo by ‘Amazon‘.
Gunnera, or Giant Rhubarb
Another plant hardy only to zone 7, but can be lifted in the fall and stored in peat or vermiculite. This is one of the largest herbaceous plants on earth, growing 8-10 feet tall and wide. Protect from afternoon sun, and keep well watered. They can also be grown in a large container and moved into a frost free garage to go dormant for the winter. Photo by ‘Missouri Botanical Garden‘.
Hardy Tropicals with Color and Scent
The toad lily is an exotic looking hardy lily plant that blooms in August and September, in the shade! 1-2 feet tall and wide, this plant is hardy down to zone 4 and is a great filler between and under this larger drama plants, giving you pretty pink flowers that look like orchids. ‘Missouri Botanical Garden‘.
Hardy Hibiscus, Rose Mallow
Hardy Hibiscus grows 4-6 feet high, and has plate size tropical blooms all summer long. It’s one of the best tropical plants for full sun. Oh, did we mention it’s hardy down to zone 4? Coming in blues, purples, pinks, reds and whites, this is a show stopper! Photo by ‘White Flower Farm‘.
If you’ve never tried the Hardy Fuchsia, and only had the hanging tender variety, you are missing out, Hardy Fuchsia grow 6-10 feet high and as wide as a shrub, with the same gorgeous pendulous flowers. Only this one is hardy down to zone 6! Can you imagine the butterflies and hummingbirds? Protect from afternoon shade and keep moist in fertile soil. Photo from ‘Fine Gardening‘.
A vigorous vine that needs a strong support to grow, but will keep your garden full of tropical looking tubular yellow, orange or red flowers all summer. (And keep those hummingbirds around!) Full sun and something to grow onto is about all this plant needs, hardy down to zone 5. Fine with poor soil, fast growing, but can take a couple years to start blooming.
Tropical Annual Plants & Flowers
Sweet Potato Vine
Sweet potato vine is an annual, so not hardy anywhere except the Southern US… It is however, a very cheap bedding plant that grows very quickly to 6 feet long. Great in containers it also can be used as a bedding plant to create some tropical lushness. Both in free and red leaved forms. Our favorite is ‘Margarita’, in a lime green. Sun, partial shade, keep moist, fertilize regularly. We pinch ours back when about 12 inches high to create a busier plant. Photo by ‘White Flower Farm‘.
A flowering bedding plant that is hardy to zone 9, but most of us grow it like an exotic form of petunias. They usually grow 6 inches – 1 foot tall and as wide, and are covered all summer long with flowers in pinks, whites and reds. They are self cleaning, which means they don’t need to be deadheaded. Drought resistant, full sun, but do best well watered, with some moderate fertilizer. A workhorse in the tropical garden! Photo by ‘BHG‘.
Here is your colorful foliage tropical for the shade. Caladiums can technically be made to be hardy, because they are bulbs you can dig up in the fall… When the daytime temps drop into the 50’s, dig the bulbs and leaves, let ‘em dry for a week or so, trim off the tops and store the bulbs in a warm (60°F+) ventilated area for planting next spring. Shade and a well drained moist soil is all they need to make a glowing tropical bed or container. There are so many different varieties too! Greens with pinks, reds and whites mixed in so many ways. Photo by ‘Classical Caladiums‘.
Have you tried tropical in your garden? Share how you made it work in comments! Photo below by ‘Balcony Garden Web‘.
If you enjoyed learning about how to grow hardy tropical plants, we think you will love our posts on Privacy with Plants and How to Grow Orchids.
First of all, I would like to say thanks to you for sharing your knowledge with us. This topic is normally interesting but your outstanding writing skill makes it more enjoyable. I really enjoyed it so much.
Hi, growing tropicals is my passion. Every year i grow cana lilies, dahlias form april until the first frost ic the second half of october or in november kills the leaves. Last year one cana lily gave flowers around nov. the 4th which was after an unusually early forst in september. I also get my washingtonia robusta out when the morning temperature doesn’t go under 23 degree F which in my city is in the first 2 weeks of march, and i keep it outside until the end of november. I want to try to grow alocasias, windmill palm, lantana, and some other tropicals.
I love the exotic, tropical plants in all your pictures. Is it possible to bring a very huge pot of elephant ears inside before the frost and actually keep it in a sunny spot inside the house during the cold weather, then take it back outside in the spring….or does it have to go into a dormant state over the winter months?
Thats a REALLY good question! We are actually going to do just that with our 2 large pots of elephant ears! They don’t go dormant in their native environment, so in theory this should work! Watch for insects inside, and also any powdery mildew and have an insecticidal soap ready. The only issue we have had in the past bringing topical indoors, is that they dry out more and get more susceptible to insects and disease. Good luck!
In my city the elephant ear is a typical house plant. When i first saw about 3 years ago that it can be grown also outside i was so happy. So i think it will be ok for it to owerwinter in the room with tmeperature above 60 degree F. Good luck. :)
My mom loves the tropical plants of Hawaii and wanted to have her own little tropical garden. So we planted 2 Banana tree’s, a clumping bamboo, a trumpet vine plant, a couple hibiscus plants, several toad lilies along with several giant calla lilies to her morning sun afternoon shade garden/yard here in Washington state (chehalis). Being located where we are we get what my dad called a banana belt of weather, in the summer when the wind is coming from the west to the east we get the cooling ocean breeze, and if the wind is coming from the east we get the cascades warm breeze. That created an ideal growing environment for her tropical garden.
All the plants florished here with the proper nutrients/fertilizer added her garden grew beyond even her expectations. The banana tree’s multiplied over the years, from 2 to over 20 of them in all different growing ages, it has been 30 years since we planted the original 2 tree’s. I have dug some of them smaller tree’s up to divide them up and thin them out of one area. They do grow amazing well in large containers/planters as well, with a generous blanket of mulch in the winter along with some shelter from the direct wind and weather.
All the other plants grew and some multiplied just as well as the banana tree’s. Which once they reach maturity, do grow a fruit very similar to a banana. However, the fruit failed to ripen enough to actually eat it. After the tree produced the fruit it died back completely. To our surprise the bulb/root (which is very hard & almost impossible to seperate or divide) produced offshoots from the “mother bulb/ root”. Lots of baby shoots… Which I had to use a sharp shovel to dig and cut it apart with.
Afraid I might damage or kill the first time I divided them was quickly relieved by several baby banana tree’s sprouting up through the soil once the ground warmed up. When the weather froze in the fall I left the dead leaves and plant material where they laid/fell, not sure if like calla lilies the stalks are their food for spring blooms and it also provided protection from the cold and I did not need to mulch as much. In the spring when the weather warms I now remove the old dead leaves and stalks. New plants grow amazinly fast.they grow to 10-12 feet tall with the leaves being 4-5 feet long and up to 2 feet wide! The base of the trunks start small and grow quickly over the first few years then slow once they reach approx a foot in diameter. Like I said previously, they do spread through their root system almost like a big hard vine structure that forms these ball shape bulbs every so far on the roots. They even look similar to having tentacles or long fingerling like roots. It is best I have found to divide them after a couple years…do not wait 7-10 or longer years.. It is extremely hard to divide them then..it can be done and all parts of the root WILL REGROW.. Even the small candy bar sized chunk! Lol.
Sorry about the length of my comment.
Loved your article on tropical plants being grown in less than tropical areas.