I WAS AT THE local garden center the other day, when a truck full of tropical plants was being unloaded. And in the heat of a summer day, they looked like just the right choice to bring home to liven up the place. But which ones among the many choices could become what Marianne Willburn calls “best friends,” and carry over year to year without too much fuss?
Marianne Willburn, author of the new book, “Tropical Plants and How to Love Them” (affiliate link) is a regular contributor to “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine, and to the popular multi-author garden website, Garden Rant dot com. She gardens in Northern Virginia and yes, a lot of the non-hardy things we call tropicals are among her faithful garden companions. She recommended some favorites, and shared how she cares for them, too.
Plus: enter to win a copy of her new book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the July 19, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
‘best friend’ tropical plants, with marianne willburn
Margaret Roach: Hi, Marianne. Before I go and run amok in the garden center, I need help.
Marianne Wilburn: Yes. There’s a lot out there right now surprisingly, because we’re starting to get into the heat of summer.
Marianne: So this is a great time to figure out what can you buy? What is going to work if I have to spend that money?
Margaret: So I should say congratulations on the book. The subhead is wonderful. It says: “Building a Relationship with Heat-Loving Plants, When You Don’t Live in the Tropics.”
So it kind of made me smile that you titled each chapter, each group of plants that are arranged in chapters, with descriptors of the kind of relationship—to find the kind of relationship we can have. Like from summer-romance plants, to high-maintenance partners and so forth. So maybe just tell us a little bit about how you think of all these “tropicals,” some of which aren’t tropical at all exactly, but tender.
Marianne: Yes. Tender or subtropical. I had been lecturing on the tropical plants that I was growing in my garden, because a lot of my local area garden groups don’t use tropicals or subtropicals. And I found that sort of putting them into these categories, made them so much more accessible to people, because people are so worried about killing plants. And they feel like it’s beholden on them to keep these plants alive. And if they took on a tropical plant, it’s obviously going to die unless they go to extreme measures.
And so I thought, well, just splash out and have a summer romance or realize that when you’re going to get really into a specific plant, you don’t have to treat it all the same way. You can one year, you can overwinter it. And the next year not. Or this year, you can have just a whole bunch of summer romances. And so, I came up with this idea of categorizing them into relationships and it really, it seemed to resonate with people. And so from there, I thought there was a book in that.
Margaret: So there I was in the garden center, Marianne, watching them unload all these gorgeous things. But which to choose, which to choose? The usual plant-shopping dilemma [laughter]. And what sort of filter would you look through or would you advise me and listeners, to sort of look through right now? Because we’re already halfway through the sort of outdoor garden season, even where you live, and especially farther north and so forth. What would be a good filter for shopping through?
Marianne: Well, I think that if you’re not just going to go all out and just fall in love with just a gorgeous Mandevilla or something like that and say, “Hey, it’s O.K., I’m just going to have it for the season.” Then maybe think about the plants that can go dormant very, very easily and you’re just going to keep them above freezing. And I’d say a lot of us have that ability to put them into a crawlspace or a basement or a garage or somewhere that it’s just going to keep them above freezing. You don’t need to worry about light. That’s always an issue for people. I don’t want to set up lights.
You hardly need to think about water. You’re just thinking about keeping them from being desiccated. And that means maybe checking on them every four to six weeks. This last winter, it was every six weeks for me. So those, the plants that can go with dormant like that, those would be the easiest to get into if you’re feeling that you need to keep them alive into next year. And those are things like cannas, some beautiful cannas out there right now. Things like dahlias. People don’t think of dahlias as a tropical or subtropical plant, but they are.
Brugmansia, angel’s trumpets—that still has its peak season in front of us. And Colocasia, elephant ears. Those go dormant; they die all the way back to that main organ, that storage organ, whether it’s a bulb or a corm or rhizome. And they can just sit there in that frost-free location and do really well. And I have different ways of approaching them, to make your chances for survival better. But some are super-easy like canna. I know you grew up canna, Margaret. How precious are you with them? Because I’m not very precious with them.
Margaret: Basically [laughter], I throw them down the basement stairs through the … Well there’s a lot of them, and they get to be big, huge clumps. I grow the one that some people call ‘Grande’ or the banana canna, or ‘Musafolia’ [above]. It’s a big, big guy, and the corms get gigantic. And so, I basically shake off the soil and maybe I let them sit out for a little while, cure a little bit, and then just put them in tubs or bins like shipping crates with a little ventilation.
I’ve sometimes put them in open plastic bags in the cellar. So I’m not careful with them.
Now you mentioned dahlias. Those I would give more TLC to, than I would to rock-solid cannas. For instance, I’d rate those a little harder to store. Not hard, but a little harder. Yeah?
Marianne: Yeah. Absolutely, and gingers, too. It’s the same sort of rhizomatous structure, but they need a little… You got to be a little bit more careful with them that they don’t rot. But the cannas yeah, mine goes in a garbage bag.
So they go into a garbage bag. And I have had them this year, because I have bags and bags of them. This year, one of the bags of one, a cultivar called ‘Red Stripe,’ I completely forgot about. And I came across it while I was cleaning out the garage. And it had poked through the garbage bag, which doesn’t say a lot for the garbage bag [laughter]. And the leaves were coming up through. I had to cut that away. I put them into the garden. They’re doing beautifully.
It’s hard to hurt them. So that’s a really good place to start. And I know that in garden centers, the cannas can look a little ragged,and that can put people off. But it’s mostly because they’re usually outgrowing their pots. They’re usually been under-watered for a little black plastic pot. And so they’re going to consequently look a little ragged. But you get those into some good soil, you get some water on them, you get some fertilizer on them. And oh my goodness, what they can do in a garden.
Margaret: So you mentioned ginger, gingers, and that you’re a little more careful, a little more TLC with those when you’re storing them. Now, ginger doesn’t mean the hardy gingers like we have in the United States, like Asarum canadense, or Asarum europaeum, the perennial European ginger. You’re talking about more true gingers and turmeric and things like that? Is that what we mean? What do we mean about gingers? [Above, recently awakened turmeric or Curcuma longa waiting to be transplanted.]
Marianne: That’s correct. The common name for the Asarum is ginger. But what I’m talking about are the hedychiums, the turmerics, the official ginger—because I actually grow Zingiber, the gingerthat you get in the grocery store. And I grow that in order to grow young ginger, which can be sliced and pickled for sushi, because that’s one of my favorite things to make. So those are the gingers that I’m talking about.
There’s many, many, many different types of ginger. And you may not see them all—well, you won’t see them all at the garden center. You’re going to see turmerics. I’m seeing a lot of turmerics now at the garden center. Even the Curcuma zedoaria, which has the beautiful red line down the center of the leaf. A lot of the hedychiums. I’m trying to think if there’s a common name for Hedychium beyond ginger. Sometimes they’re hardy in Zone 7, Zone 8, but really Zone 8. You’d have to do Zone 7 with a lot of shelter and a lot of warm walls, I think. [Below, Hedychium coccineum ‘Tara.’]
Margaret: O.K. Now, I think if I remember correctly, those sometimes don’t wake up as fast as that canna you just described, that was poking through the bag on its own [laughter]. It was so energetic. Are they a little slow sometimes to reawaken?
Marianne: They sure are. You can’t treat them exactly the same way as you would canna. I like to get those going a little bit earlier. If I’m growing just store-bought ginger, I’ll put that out on the countertop and let it start to … First, I’m picking one in the store that has some nodes on it that are going to sprout, because they’re usually treated. And I’ll put that out on the countertop and let it start to really sprout. And that’ll be in sort of February time, pretty early.
And then once it’s starting to show some growth, I will bring it back down, put it into soil and give it a very light amount of water, but keeping it really warm. They need that heat. And that’s true for the hedychium, it’s true for the turmeric. And they will rot very easily. So it’s good to get them going with just a little hint of water. And then once they’re starting to go, “Oh, O.K., it’s spring. It’s time to start this game,” then to go ahead and give them the water that they need and to be aware of that.
Margaret: O.K. So in the book you talk about the “elephant ears,” and that’s a couple of different genera of plants as well, or a few. And you point out something that the way you just described the gingers reminds me of—that sort of hesitation to wake up on command.
Margaret: Some of the elephant ears—the alocasias and the colocasias—some of them are again like those kinds of rock-hard, tough guys. And some of them are a little fussier. And if they do go to sleep, maybe you try to make them limp along as a houseplant, but you don’t want to water them too much in the winter, but a little bit. And then sometimes they sulk, they go to sleep. And sometimes … I have one big, big old pot right now, that still hasn’t awakened, and it’s July. And I know what it’s going to do. It’s going to wake up when it’s good and ready [laughter].
Marianne: That has got to be an Alocasia.
Margaret: It is an Alocasia. So tell us.
Marianne: Yes, those are the reticent best friends, the alocasia. They would rather not go dormant if they had their druthers. That’s not their natural state. And so if you do put them to sleep, it’s going to take them a little bit longer to get going. And again, that heat is going to help a lot; a cold spring sitting out there, is not going to … Cold soil temperatures are not going to encourage that. So heat, warmth, a good amount of water. And if you want to keeping it as a houseplant—an alocasia actually makes a pretty decent houseplant.
It’s not as tender as a Colocasia. It has a thicker, sturdier stem, a sturdier leaf, much more structures. So it’s for playing around with. Play around with what’s working for you. Are you using that … You’re letting that go dormant, but do you ever use it as a houseplant? [Above, Colocasia ‘Coffee Cups.’]
Margaret: I try. And what happens is, at a certain point in the winter, it decides it wants to go to sleep. And I think it’s … I mean, there’s multiple factors obviously with overwintering something in an awakened state: your light, your temperature or your humidity, and then you’re watering, how much you’re watering and so forth. And so, apparently I displease it on one or several of those factors at some point. And some years it just decides to go to sleep.
But I do try to grow it as a houseplant. I think I don’t have the ideal situation. I have cold sort of mudrooms—bright, light, cold, but they’re cold. They’re not a happy place for that. And then I have places that are lower light and maybe a little warmer, but dry. You know what I mean? Like a typical house. I mean, a lot of people have that situation.
Marianne: Yeah. None of us have perfect situation do we, for overwintering plants? And for the longest time, I was in a much smaller house, much smaller garden than I have now. And I had to put a lot of these in the corner of my dirt basement, past all of the mess and the crumbling walls [laughter]. And there’s never an ideal space. And I really didn’t have a lot of indoor space, to give to anything other than a plant that was looking really good. I didn’t have a lot of places to put the pity puppies, the ones that … The high-maintenance partners.
Margaret: Pity puppy is not a chapter in the book, but I love that. But you call them the high-maintenance partners [laughter].
Marianne: Yes. Those are the plants that they really challenge us to learn a little bit more about, perhaps, a specific genus or just something that we maybe have a sentimental attachment to, but it’s tough to get through the winter. And I really do look at those as a challenge, but I try not to take on too many of them at one time. Because you just don’t want to have windowsills completely overflowing, or at least you do it first and then you don’t.
Margaret: That’s interesting that you say that, because I’ve been gardening a long time and I started with houseplants probably 40-something years ago. And I’ve noticed in the last few years, I’ve gotten tired of looking at the sort of sorry, certain types of houseplants, even just some of the fancy-leaf begonias, don’t love it by the end of the winter. And some are fine and sturdier and some don’t.
And you do get tired after a while of nursing along everybody and some gardeners don’t. But I didn’t, I thought to myself, you know what? I want more of these sort of sturdy types that look better or the ones that just go to sleep. Like my rock-hard cannas in the basement [laughter].
I wanted to ask you about, those aren’t the only things that we could do that with. The cannas, the dahlias, the gingers. Even a big Brugmansia—other ones, like Plumeria maybe? What other ones?
Marianne: Yes. Plumeria. I have a beautiful Plumeria on the deck right now. I was just looking at it this morning, that overwintered stick-like in my basement, no light, just above freezing. And it’s happy as a clam. Looking beautiful right now. It’s a tree, and this is a very small one, but it can be cut back easily. Brugmansia is another one, angel’s trumpets. You can’t believe that it’s going to come back, but it really does. It’s amazing.
One of the ones that was a surprise to me, but sort of validates my idea of keep experimenting, is Cissus discolor, the rex begonia vine.
And I love that plant. And I can’t always find it easily other than mail-order. And so, I thought … I had it in a pot one year and it was growing up through my autumn fern and looking beautiful [above]. And I thought, I’m just going to take the pot and throw it in the garage. What do I have to lose? And the next season, it came back, it took a little bit of time sort of like a ginger, but it came back and by July, end of July, it was absolutely beautiful. So there you go. That experimentation with, well, why not? Why not take a chance? What do you have to lose?
Margaret: Yeah. So you just mentioned … And I guess by the way, bananas would be another one, right? The Abyssinian bananas are another one we could even cut back a little bit and lie on the basement floor asleep, couldn’t we? [Below, a red Abyssinian banana.]
Marianne: Yes. Now there are a couple of caveats with that. So the bananas start out as best friends, because they are super-simple to overwinter. I don’t lie them down, but however, they always stay upright because even with the small amount of light that a garage usually has, lights going on and off, they will gravitate—their growing point, will start to move towards, just gravitate and start to move up. And you’ll end up with a deformed plant really easily. So I keep those vertical or at least toward vertical.
But as they get bigger and you’re bringing them in and out and I’ve got some that are five, six years old now, they get heavier. And one of these large Ensete ventricosum, the big red Abyssinian banana, that can weigh probably 100 pounds. This year, I admit that I told my husband, “That banana over there is going to die if it’s left in the garden. I can’t bring it in.” Well, my husband loves bananas. He adores that tropical look.
And so I knew that he’d go and get it for me if I did that [laughter]. So, I sort of used manipulation basically to get that banana in the garage this year. But I think that might be the last year for it, because it’s just gotten too big for me.
Margaret: So, and that’s what happened with my oldest Brugmansia a number of years ago. I had it and it was better and better and better and amazing every year. And then finally there was just too much to it. It kind of was unwieldy. It wasn’t that it was 100 pounds, it was just that it was unwieldy to really give a good winter home to.
So I wanted to ask you, so we’ve talked about some plant ideas and you mentioned with the Cissus discolor, the rex begonia vine, I think you mentioned a combination which conjured an image for me that you have it out in the garden somewhere.
So tell us a little bit… I mean, you’re using these not just on your patio or deck in a pot, but you’re incorporating these plants, and where have you taken inspiration from in doing that?
Marianne: Oh, some of the great botanical gardens out there—Chanticleer is one of them that’s close to me, within a couple hours—use tropical plants in incredible ways, and that’s incredibly inspiring. But I’m seeing more and more tropical accents in temperate gardens of good designers. And they add energy. And that’s really inspired me to add that energy to my summer garden, and to do so in a way that accents and doesn’t overwhelm. That’s really my philosophy with these plants.
I have no desire to create a tropical garden. You can do that if you wish, but I want to create a temperate garden that is energized by these bursts of interesting foliage, contrasting colors, textures and unusual… That’s surprising, that surprises people when they come around the corner, whether they’re gardeners or not gardeners.
I have so many non-gardeners come to my garden, and the first thing they say, “Is that a banana?” It doesn’t even occur to them … How could you have a banana here in the mid-Atlantic?
And that just makes me giggle. It makes me happy [laughter] that they’re suddenly they’re a part of the garden. They’re experiencing the garden in a way that they understand. And this is just a fun energy to cultivate in your garden. And it brings us through some of the hottest periods in the summer. This is a time where we have a lot of temperate plants that can handle the heat that we’re getting, and the humidity. But those pops, those accents, just keep you sailing through, as some of the temperates come into peak and out of peak. That’s what I really love about tropical and subtropical plants, and how to use them effectively.
Margaret: Yes. And you’ve inspired us to adopt some new best friends [laughter]—if one can adopt new best friends. Is there one more plant you just want to shout out, for those of us who are going to go shopping this week now out in the garden centers? Any others?
Marianne: Yes, absolutely. Tuberous begonias. I think a lot of people think of those as annuals, but they’re just sumptuous, they’re very feminine, gorgeous plants, incredible color throughout the season. The I’conia series is so beautiful. And then at the end of the season, you don’t have to throw those away. You collect that tuber and you treat it as you would a dahlia. So if you’re seeing that color—and they are everywhere right now—grab one, enjoy it. Throw it in with the caladium.
Margaret: O.K. Good. Two more suggestions. Thank you so much, Marianne Willburn. And I have been enjoying the book “Tropical Plants and How To Love Them.” And I’ll talk to you again soon, I hope.
(All photos except canna and author portrait by Marianne Willburn. Used with permission.)
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