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A Touch of Tropical Splendor
Posted on : April 13, 2017

It only takes one hard freeze to bring us back to the reality that we do not live in a truly tropical climate. Seeing the dead Queen and Pygmy palms, brings me back to re-evaluating my garden and selecting plants that do not need covering or replacing in the spring. I have included a short list of root hardy tropical perennials and the most cold hardy palms for sun and shade areas.

A tropical perennial can freeze back to the ground in the winter and return from the roots the following spring and flower before winter arrives. When planting these tried and true choices, work expanded shale into the soil as this permanent soil amendment loosens clay soils, creates air spaces for the roots to grow and allows plants to breathe. One of the main reasons tropical do not return in the spring is their roots die due to heavy clay soils that prevent plants from developing a large healthy root system prior to going into the winter. You only get one shot to get the planting right and shale is the cheapest form of “insurance” to grow that healthy plant.

Grown for Beautiful Flowers

Angel Trumpet (Brugmansia) is a fast growing, big leafy, sun loving accent plant for any space. It produces flowers that may be pink, white (single or double) or golden yellow. The flowers are fragrant starting at dusk and emit fragrance throughout the night and are pollinated by sphinx moths. These plants can grow 6’ to 15’ tall in a season and are very easy to propagate by cuttings. If these plants freeze to the ground, in the spring cut the stems back to 3” and fertilize with a granular, organic fertilizer like Arbor Gate Blend. Once the soil warms up, shoots will emerge and grow quickly when the soil and air temperatures escalate. Do not be tempted to prune them as they will fork naturally and this is when the first round of large, fragrant trumpets flowers appears.

Shirley Temple Hibiscus is MY FAVORITE Hibiscus, as it grows into an 8-10’ tree, can have hundreds of blooms on it at once and suffers minimal freeze damage. It is a soft pink, single flower with a dark red eye zone. A solid white form emerged in the market last year and is called the Shirley Temple ‘Alba’. Grow this in full sun or part shade and enjoy! I have also heard this plant called Anderson Crape Myrtle by a local.

Hardy Palms

The most cold hardy, single trunk palm is the Butia capitata, also known as the Pindo palm or the Cocos plumosus palm and grows to 10-15’ tall. It is from South America and very drought tolerant, slow growing and can be used under the power lines and not get decapitated by the power company! The Butia has a beautiful silver or green feather frond instead of a palmate frond giving this palm a more tropical feel. It needs to be the replacement palm for the pygmy and queen palms as Butia will never need to be replaced. NOTE: This palm should be planted with 50% expanded shale to loosen the heavy clay and sandy soils as this will aid the palm in overwatering and during periods of high rainfall.

A wonderful hardy, slow spreading palm is the Rhapis palm also known as the Lady Palm. Grow this drought tolerant palm in shaded areas under large trees and watch it slowly colonize an area and NO it is not invasive. It has beautiful, dark green fronds with leaflets that are corrugated and rigid. It can grow 4 -6’ tall and adds just a touch of tropical to a native yaupon bed. This unique palm can also be grown in a container for the shaded patio or inside the home as is a low light interior plant, but is incredibly hardy.

Exotic Colorful Foliage

In the hot, humid, tropics colorful foliage is the summer theme because these plants grow fast and big. Color and texture replace the look of flowers. Variegated Tapioca has deep yellow and green palmate leaves attached to light colored trunks by pink stems. Growth habit is upright and the multi-trunk stems give a full, shrubby look. Grow as a container plant or garden accent in full sun to part shade. It can grow 5-7’ tall and as wide in a summer, but don’t overwater as this can rot the underground tuber.

One of our showiest, shade-loving foliage plants is called Red Ginger or Triostar, it is not a true ginger. The Latin name is Stromanthe tricolor (if you want to do further research on it) and really brightens up shaded areas with beautiful maroon, green and white leaves. Use as an accent plant in the ground under native trees or in a shaded patio pot with friends.

There are so many hardy tropical plants, I only highlighted a few. To learn more about tropical gardening in Houston, watch for my Tropical Summer Session to be held this summer at The Arbor Gate Nursery in Tomball.

Enjoy this lovely Spring!

Written by Linda Gay

Linda received her Associates Degree in Horticulture from Trident Technical College in Charleston, SC. She moved to Houston the summer of 1979 and worked in the commercial green industry until 1985. October 1985 Linda stared at Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens and retired in May 2011. She was the director for 11 years. Linda is first and foremost a gardener, constantly manipulating soils and putting new plants in the garden, always learning and growing. She has killed plants every which way you can and this experience has made me a plant expert. After 6 months of retirement Linda was very fortuitous and landed in the coolest gardener’s paradise, The Arbor Gate in Tomball, Texas.

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