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Get Up and Grow: Growing tropical plants in Zones 5 and 6, and how to keep them over winter

The Star Press (Muncie) logo The Star Press (Muncie) 9/24/2021 James Edwards
Tropical plants are part of Minnetrista's annual displays. © Photo by Chris Carroll/Provided by Minnetrista Tropical plants are part of Minnetrista's annual displays.

I love tropical plants. I believe this is an extension to my love for house plants, since most house plants are shade-loving tropicals. That being said, I do love the sun-worshiping tropical also, with their huge leaves with endless colors and textures and the rapid amount of growth that can happen in just a few months. If you visit Minnetrista, often you will find plenty of tropical plants in our annual displays. They add such a dynamic feel to the displays and often really get going in the end of summer, when everything else is winding down. And there is very little maintenance throughout the growing season, just watering and feeding. No deadheading!   

One question I often get is “what do you do with them in the winter?" Now I would like to say we keep every single plant but a few do make it to the compost system or simply die in our below freezing winters being in zones 5 and 6. But that is OK because these plants reproduce very freely. Take cannas, for example; they grow from swollen underground stems know as rhizomes. These rhizomes can start with only one eye or growth point and before the growing season is over, have many eyes. Each growth point is a potential new plant for the next summer display.

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Another favorite of mine is the elephant ears, which I group into pointing upright (Alocasia, on which leaves tend to point upwards) and pointing down (Colocasia, on which leaves tend to point down). Both are great plants for focal points in a display or the thriller in a planter. The colocasia can handle more sun and loves all the water it can get. They can even be pond plants, while the alocasia enjoys the part shade and moist but well drained soil.

a close up of a flower garden: Minnetrista includes tropical plants in its gardens. © Photo provided by Minnetrista Minnetrista includes tropical plants in its gardens.

Now to the down side of tropical plants: they must be dug up to survive our winters or if they are in a container they need to be brought in to a frost-free environment such as an unheated attached garage or basement. I always start with my elephant ears first. They do not tolerate the cold as well, being that the growing point of the corms (sometimes called bulbs, but not true bulb) is above ground, unlike cannas rhizomes, which are protected by being under the soil. This also gives me more time to get everything pulled out of the ground and stored away.

Before I dig up the elephant ears I cut back the stems to about 3-5 inches; this makes it easier to dig up the plants. Be sure not to cut into the plant. I then wash off excess soil. I use a large heavy duty tub to store them in. In the tub I start with a couple inches of dry peat moss; you could also use shredded paper or sawdust. I then layer the corms and rhizomes in single layers alternated from plant material to peat that is just damp enough not to be dust. If you were to squeeze the dampened peat, no water should drip out. Then I hide the container away in the garage or basement. only checking on it once or twice throughout the winter.

I have had very good success using this process, only losing a few plants here and there throughout the years. This year I actually planted elephant ears that had been stored away for two years. They simply did not make it out last year in the garden. That being said, this process hasn’t been very good for my caladiums. I have lost them two years in a row. This year I’m going to overwinter my caladiums after they cure and dry out completely and store them in completely dry peat and see what happens.

James Edwards is horticulture manager at Minnetrista.

This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Get Up and Grow: Growing tropical plants in Zones 5 and 6, and how to keep them over winter

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