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Anne Moore June 5, 2009
Photos by Anne K Moore

In the not too long ago, houseplants filled the glassed-in porches and parlor rooms of homes in wintertime. In the summer, the houseplants would move outdoors for a respite under the trees. Their work was done until it was cold outside. Then they were moved back inside to brighten up the rooms.


Houseplants, today more familiarly known as tropicals, are now often grown exclusively to perk up outdoor rooms. Angel wing and dragon wing begonias or the lovely reddish-leaved phormiums fill outdoor spaces with color. Then they do double duty by moving indoors during the coldest months, adding an outdoor touch to an indoor space.

Others, such as angel trumpets and cat whiskers, can spend their winters as cuttings, rooting in the light of a window or greenhouse. Still more, such as caladiums and ornamental sweet potato vines, spend the winter indoors out of the soil, saved as bulbs and tubers for the next growing season.

Tropical plants can perk up the summer landscape. They thrive on heat and humidity. They need regular feeding to attain their maximum potential. Feed them while they are working outdoors in the garden. Let them rest indoors during the coldest months, withholding food and lightly watering. When new growth begins, start feeding again.

A garden does not have to be static. Something die in the landscape? Use pots to fill in bare spaces. Slip in a large potted split-leaf philodendron for instant drama. Tropicals are the travelers of the plant world. Indoors or out, they aim to please.

Alocasia sanderiana is a small elephant ear. It has arrowhead leaves with prominent white veins. Its leaf color is a rich shiny black. Very unusual. Low growing lacy-leaved begonias with delicate pink flowers show well against the dark leaves of the sanderiana. The Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia splendens) has been a popular houseplant for generations. As the name suggests, this is a plant with a nasty side, too. Watch out for the thorny stalks. Its soft pink flowers and small foliage also play well off the sanderiana.

Move the tender plants indoors before the first cold nights. Tropicals do not like temperatures below 50 degrees F. and can be killed outright with even a light frost. Most will do well in the sixty to sixty-five degree range or higher. Use a window with the same or as close to the same light as where the plant grew outdoors.

Take them back outdoors after the heat arrives, when temperatures stay above 50 degrees day and night. Gradually acclimate them, to keep the leaves from scorching. Place them in dense shade first, for three or four days, then into filtered light for the rest of the summer. Make the final move on a cloudy day, if possible. They can be acclimated to full sun outdoors, but then they suffer mightily when they have to go back indoors.

Elephant ears come in an assortment of leaf and stem colors. There are green leaved, black leaved, and green and black leaved varieties. Some have green stems, some have red stems, and some have black stems. All are very exotic looking.

flower 2Many of the elephant ears, with their extreme leaf size, shape, and color need to be over-wintered as bulbs indoors. They can stay in the ground in USDA Zones 7 and above. If in doubt about their survival, dig up the bulbs and keep them from freezing. Replant in the spring. Even though most of them like a wet growing area and are suited to the edge of ponds or in bogs, they need drier soil in the winter or the bulbs will rot.

Windmill palms, yuccas, and agaves are toughies for the sunny dry landscape. Most ornamental grasses love the sun.

Sansevieria trifasciata (also known as Mother-in-law's tongue), Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema), and Cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) are deep shade dwellers. If you want a surprise textural contrast in the shady landscape, add Northern Sea Oats or Japanese Forest Grass.

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The massive leaves and jewel colors of tender plants, combined with more familiar shrubs and flowers, make a memorable vignette in the garden. Tropicals will be happy doing double duty, giving year-round enjoyment. If in doubt about a plant's hardiness, pot it up and take it indoors. Inside or out, these hard workers cheer up their spaces.

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