The weather outside certainly feels tropical in the middle of summer. In July, August, and even into September, the temperatures soar and the humidity hangs on your body like a wet towel. Roses droop and hydrangeas howl for mercy. And gardeners don’t want to be outside past 9 a.m.
One category of plants literally lives for such conditions: tropicals. Tropical plants are loosely defined, according to the Tropical Plant Society of Denver, as those that originate from the area around the equator between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in elevations that do not freeze.
These Plants Like Hot, Humid Summers
Most gardeners are familiar with canna and hibiscus, two tropical plants commonly found in garden centers. But if you’re looking for something a little more unusual, give these tropicals, and tropical look-alikes, a try.
Although native to Japan and therefore not a true tropical, the hardy banana (Musa basjoo) looks tropical and thrives in USDA Zones 5-10. Dwarf species grow to about 5-feet tall, while the straight species grows to about 12-feet in the Triangle. Its wide leaves are very attractive. The top growth will die back to the ground every winter, but it will resprout every spring. You should feed Musa basjoo regularly throughout the growing season with a 5-3-2 fertilizer. The plant can be susceptible to rust, which is difficult to eradicate, but it won’t kill the plant. Hardy banana needs full sun and rich, well-drained soil. It grows best in soils that are consistently moist. Its fruit is ornamental, not edible.
Windmill palm (Trachycarpus sp.) is a plant that can really take the August heat. That’s great because no one wants to go outside and water it then. It’s one of just a few palms that are cold-hardy up to zone 7-8, but it will need winter protection in areas that get below 10 degrees. Different species grow from between 3 to 4-feet tall to roughly 40-feet tall, and their fan-shaped leaves look beautiful when a breeze hits them. Site windmill palms in full sun—ideally, somewhere you can enjoy the view from inside your house—and give regular water the first year until established. That may mean watering during its first August. Focus on the palm when everything else outside is limp and puny-looking.
Mandevillas (Mandevilla sp.) are true tropicals, originating primarily from Central and South America. They are vining plants that can reach between 4-feet and 16-feet in length. The foliage is glossy and the trumpet-shaped flowers bloom in shades of red, pink, yellow, white, and purple. Fidler likes the varieties ‘Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Sun Parasol.’
Mandevillas grow from rhizomes—rootlike underground stems—and must be lifted and brought inside for the winter. Before the first frost, they should be dug up and the rhizome stored in very slightly damp peat moss or sawdust, in a dark, frost-free place. They can be replanted in the spring a week after the last frost, but if an unusually late frost should threaten, they should be protected with old bedsheets tented over the plant. Like the hardy banana, mandevillas also need full sun and rich, moist, well-drained soil.
All tropicals should be fed regularly to ensure strong, healthy growth and good flowering.
Featured image – Banana tree with Windmill Palm / JC Raulston Arboretum
Amy Hill served for ten years as an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer for Durham County. She now blogs about gardening at MissingHenryMitchell.com.