Ever looked at your garden in a cooler climate and wished you could have a tropical feel to it? I have, and I’ve discovered that there are a lot of tropical plants that are pretty cold-hardy.
There is a certain look to tropical plants that many of us crave, especially when we’ve just returned from a tropical holiday back to our cold locations.
If you plan carefully and use the right plants, you can have a tropical garden in a cooler climate that you can be proud of.
If that floats your boat, let’s get started so you can get out and create your own tropical garden paradise.
Tropical Plants That Are Cold Hardy
A tropical environment is warm and humid, and the plants that grow there are lovers of that heat and humidity. Tropical environments often have a lot of rain too.
Because of the climate, tropical environments are usually lush and colorful. In these areas, nighttime temperatures don’t drop below 50ºF.
It’s that consistent heat and humidity that makes tropical plants grow huge seemingly overnight.
This list is far from exhaustive, so by all means, see what is available in your area. These are some of my favorite tropical plants that are cold-hardy.
As a side note, don’t just rely on plants to get the tropical feel. Build a pergola, use hammocks, or well-placed chairs and outside beds.
1. Hardy Banana
I started with hardy banana because I don’t know of a plant with leaves that look as tropical as this foliage. The leaves will freeze and die in temperatures below 28ºF, but the underground rhizomes will survive if you mulch them thickly.
This will keep the plant coming back every year and in some cases, will grow to over 20 feet tall. The tropical leaves can grow to 12 feet long. The yellow banana-like flower spikes are inedible.
To ensure hardy banana survives even in the coldest of areas, try the following to protect the stem:
Choose two or three stems to protect and cut off the leaves. Wrap the stems with old, lightweight blankets or insulation, and then wrap them in plastic. Tie the plastic on because you don’t want to get the blankets wet.
Cover the whole thing in a plastic rubbish bag until all danger of frosts has passed in spring. Doing this will give the hardy banana a head start, and hopefully, the resulting growth for the year will be twice as big than if you allowed the plant to die off above ground or you cut it back.
2. Clumping Bamboo
When people hear the word bamboo, they think of the type that takes over the whole garden, and the neighbors’ as well.
That is running bamboo. We are talking about clumping bamboo. It is tall, tropical, and doesn’t spread like wildfire. Aim for a mountain variety that is hardy down to -15ºF.
The upright canes of bamboo are called culms. Cut any tired and dull culms back to ground level. If you want a truly striking effect, cut any drooping, bent, or damaged culms, leaving only the ones sticking straight up.
3. Elephant Ear
The size of elephant ear leaves is tropical looking, to say the least. Amazingly, this dramatic-looking plant is grown from tender tubers.
You can plant them in any type of soil, and there is only one rule to growing elephant ear in a cold area. That rule is to dig the tuber up as soon as you get the first frost and store it inside until spring when you can replant it.
4. Giant Rhubarb
Giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) is perfect to grow in a large container in your tropical garden so you can move it inside to a garage or shed to let it go dormant.
This plant is only hardy down to Zone 7, but it’s worth it for the tropical look it provides. If you plant this in the ground, you will need to lift it out and store it in peat during winter.
5. Hardy Hibiscus
Plate-sized blooms are your reward for planting hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos, H. laevis, and their hybrids). Give it full sun and plenty of water and you’ll be rewarded with flowers that can be blue, purple, red, pink, or white.
This tropical plant-looking is actually hardy down to Zone 4. How good is that?
Where hardy hibiscus is your tropical sun lover, caladium (Caladium spp.) is your tropical color that grows in more shaded areas. Available in many different colors, caladium loves moist soil, and is a bulb that can be dug up and stored inside until the following spring.
The time to remove caladium is when the daytime temperatures hit the mid to low 50ºF. Dig up the bulbs and put them inside. Allow them to dry for about a week before removing the tops. Store the bulbs in a dry, well-ventilated area at a constant 60ºF.
7. Hardy Fuchsia
The tender variety that most people are familiar with is not the same as hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica). This species grows up to 10 feet high and nearly as wide. One thing that is the same as tender fuchsia is the lovely pendulous flowers, but the main difference is, hardy fuchsia is perfect down to USDA Growing Zone 6.
Make sure the soil remains moist and protect the plant from the harsh afternoon sun.
8. Trumpet Vine
Provide trumpet vine (Campsis spp.) with a sturdy structure to grow over, and it will give you the bright tropical look you’re after with bright yellow, orange, and red flowers. With full sun, trumpet vine is hardy down to Zone 5.
This is a vigorous vine that will even grow well in poor soil. It may take a couple of years to establish itself and bloom well, but the wait is worth it.
9. Toad Lily
The toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta) is another plant that looks at home in any warm and humid tropical garden. The exciting thing though, is it is hardy down to Zone 4. On top of that, it blooms in the shade.
The pink flowers look like orchids. This is the perfect plant to grow through and under bigger types.
Though technically not a tropical plant, passionflower is a tropical-looking vine, especially when in full bloom and before the fruit develops.
Sometimes called maypop, this vine can withstand temperatures as low as -20ºF. Provide plenty of water and as much sun as you can, and sit back and enjoy the fruit when it drops from the vine. It even tastes tropical.
11. Jelly Palm
Probably one of the hardiest cold tropical palms, jelly palm (Butia capitata) is happy down to 10ºF. In cool climates, jelly palms stay reasonably compact, growing up to 10 to 20 feet tall. You can even grow jelly palms in containers, which keeps them even more compact.
Like passion flower, jelly palm produces a wonderful palm fruit used in jams and jellies or even fermented wine.
Most fig trees are not cold hardy and are suitable down to Zone 7. There are two varieties though that are hardy down to Zone 5 and can withstand very cold temperatures.
Choose ‘Chicago Hardy’ or ‘Violette de Bordeaux.’ Not overly fussy when it comes to soil and conditions, these cultivars will give you tasty, tropical fruit in colder areas.
Not actually a true lily, daylilies are a perfect addition to a tropical-inspired garden in a cool area. They are a perennial that requires little attention once established, and the more modern cultivars are less inclined to spread vigorously.
Daylilies are not fussy when it comes to soil either. They are cold and salt tolerant. Plus, they’re edible!
14. Bird of Paradise
Grown best in tropical areas, the Mexican Bird of Paradise variety is cold hardy to temperatures as low as 24ºF. If you get a lot of frost, grow in containers you can move inside.
While hostas are good for larger ground cover in tropical gardens, there are some cultivars and hybrids that are perfect for cold areas. ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Lakeside Shore Master’ are two such cultivars.
They like moist soil and are happy with partial shade. Dig in well-rotted manure to give them plenty of energy to withstand cooler temperatures.
5 Tips For Growing Cold Tolerant Tropical Plants
The first step is finding the right cold hardy tropical plants, but there are things you can do to help your tropical and tropical-looking plants survive even in colder climates.
Think about the typical tropical environment. Most have thick layers of organic matter on the ground as fast-growing plants shed foliage. Mulch keeps moisture in and keeps the ground warm for as long as possible into cooler seasons.
Mulch can also stop rhizomes and bulbs from dying if you leave them in the ground.
In most tropical regions, rain comes quickly and hard, rather than in little bits constantly. When you water your tropical plants, water deeply, and let the ground dry before watering deeply again.
The deep layers of organic matter in tropical environments feed the plants naturally. This means the tropical plants we grow in cooler areas will benefit from additional feeding.
Use a tropical plant-specific fertilizer if available and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Talk to Experts
Talk to the expert growers and sellers of tropical plants in your area. Many tropical plants have specific needs and you can learn great tips that improve the chances of tropical plants in cooler areas.
Your local extension office is always a good resource.
Winterize Your Plants
Depending on the cold-hardy tropical plants you choose, some need to be moved inside when temperatures really drop. Others like hardy bananas may need to be cut back to ground level and mulched thickly.
Learn about the specifics of your chosen varieties.