There are so many rewarding, as well as challenging, plants from the tropics and subtropics to delight all the senses. Plants, shrubs and trees bearing fragrant flowers, exotic foliage, and rare fruits, many that defy description, are to be found in the relative comfort of nearby botanical gardens. With a little work, you can grow your own tropical treasures at home. This is just a teenintsy peek into the world of having your own tropical (or subtropical) paradise in a subtropical climate. Kind of like getting finger food when you’re expecting a full dinner.
Many tropical and subtropical plants prefer humid conditions and are pretty vigorous growers when their needs are met. Overwintering without a greenhouse can be a challenge because the plants are more susceptible to pests that thrive in dry air indoors. It is important to monitor plants regularly and eliminate pests and disease as soon as they are found. Isolate unhealthy plants to prevent pests and disease from spreading to healthy ones. Maintaining adequate moisture indoors can be a challenge, so keep indoor plants in an area where you can keep the humidity in the 50-60% range, with a humidifier, by hand-misting, or with humidity trays under the plants.
You Want Unusual Flowers?
Clerodendrums are native to a wide range of tropical and subtropical regions, mostly from Africa to Asia. For those of us north of zone 8, C. ugandense ‘Blue Butterfly’, a shrubby plant with true blue bi-colored flowers, will have to be over-wintered on a protected porch, indoors, or in the garage. It may lose most of its leaves, but it should recover quickly once temperatures rise above 60°F. C. x speciosum ‘Java Red’, a vining plant with red and purple flowers, has similar growing requirements.
Holmskioldia tettensis ‘Chinese Hat’ is related to mint, hails from Africa’s tropical zones, and definitely can’t take
the cold temperatures in our area. It has an upright shrubby habit, and likes a moist, but not too wet sunny location best. Some people refer to the red H. sanguinea as ‘Chinese Hat’, so don’t shy away if you find that one instead. It’s also lovely.
How About Unusual Fruits?
Malphigia punicifolia, recently determined to be the fruit known as ‘Barbados Cherry’, is native to various Caribbean islands, and has been naturalized on other islands, in Central and South America, and in Florida. The shrubby plants or small trees grow to 20’ tall, bearing one inch orangey-red fruits. M. punicifolia is fairly adaptable regarding situation, but does not tolerate temperatures much below 30°F. The fruits, also known as acerola, have a high ascorbic acid content, and were once used to make powdered ascorbic acid. The fruits may be eaten fresh, but the seeds must be spit out. Barbados cherry is used in jams, sauces, and sorbets.
Psidium guajava aka guava, is native to Mexico and Central and South America. There are about 100 types of guava, now naturalized in just about every tropical and subtropical zone on the globe. Say guava to anyone who grew up in Florida, and they’ll probably wax poetic on the virtues of guava ANYTHING. Guavas don’t like temperatures below 25°F, and will fruit indoors in pots.
Clearly there’s not enough information here to set you up for life as a successful guava farmer, but hopefully you get the idea. You don’t have to be wealthy enough to build a conservatory to bring some tropical into your life.