12 Cold Hardy Tropical Plants to Grow Now
Even if you live far from the tropics, you can still enjoy the beauty and style of tropical plants
Everyone loves the feel of the tropics. Palm trees swaying in the breeze. Exotic flowers with intoxicating aromas. The fragrant fruit that seems to melt in your mouth. But did you know you can grow cold hardy tropical plants as far north as New York State?
By incorporating some of these cold hardy tropical plants in your garden, you can enjoy your own tropical stay-cation without leaving your backyard!
Best Cold Hardy Tropical Plants for Cooler Climates
You can’t get much more tropical than a banana tree. And luckily for most gardeners, there are a few varieties of this cold hardy tropical plant that can survive as far north as New England (USDA Zone 5). Sadly, these banana plants won’t produce edible bananas. But they will delight you with their broad tropical leaves and vigorous growth.
Cold hardy tropical banana plants can grow up to 13 feet tall. Cut your hardy banana tree to the ground after the first frost and mulch heavily over the stumps. This will protect the tough “tropical” plant so it can survive temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
With its stunningly pretty flowers and beautiful vining habit– not to mention its tasty fruit– the maypop is the perfect fit for cold climate gardeners looking for a tropical vibe. This vigorous vine is the hardiest of the passion flowers (Passiflora spp.). Like its tropical cousins, the maypop dazzles with exotic, unique flowers that last from mid-summer through fall.
In warmer climates, this vine can get very aggressive. So, make sure you give it plenty of space. Maypops can survive temperatures below -20 F, and these topical-looking hardy plants can even thrive in a container. Just make sure to give them plenty of sunlight and water.
Maypops are tough to find at local garden centers, so buy them online from Logee’s.
Elephant ears (Colocasia spp.) can’t survive year-round in climates below USDA Zone 7, but they still deserve a special mention in this list of cold hardy tropical plants. The enormous leaves that give elephant ears their name simply scream “tropical.” And the giant leaves will give your garden a serious “Wow!” factor.
Elephant ears make a wonderful tropical accent, whether you can grow them in the ground year-round or need to bring them inside during the winter. If you live in Zone 6 or below, you can grow them in a pot or in the ground. But before the first frost, bring your potted elephant ears plant indoors and dig up the corms (bulbs) in the ground and store them in a cool, dry place until spring.
You can find a selection of elephant ears online at Burpee.com.
The paw paw seems tropical—even though it’s not. Paw paw is actually native to temperate North America. Its closest relative is the soursop—a broadleaf flowering evergreen tree that grows in the tropical regions of the Americas. In fact, the paw paw is the only temperate member of a very tropical family of trees.
The large, abundant fruit it produces (up to 30 pounds per paw paw tree!) is said to taste like banana custard. And because this tree originates in America, it is cold hardy, pest resistant and virtually maintenance free. Grow these bountiful trees for a tropical look and tropical taste! Just make sure you grow more than one tree for cross-pollination.
Available at Logees.com.
The canna lily is one of those special plants whose foliage is easily as gorgeous as its flowers. These summer-blooming bulbs are much hardier than they look. Plus, they are very easy to grow.
Canna lillies are available in a wide variety of foliage and flower colors, from bright yellow to pink and red. Check out ‘Tropicanna’ or ‘Yara’ to see just how gorgeous these cold hardy tropical plants can be.
You can find canna lilies seasonally—in spring and fall—at Wayside Gardens.
When most people imagine ferns, they think of the popular (but delicate) houseplants such as Boston ferns. Hardy fern species, however, are about as tough as they come. And several of them are native to North America.
Hardy ferns are ideal for shady areas of the garden. They come in a wide variety of textures and colors, from the classic evergreen Cyrtomium fortunei (Zones 5-9), to the stunning silver-plated Japanese Painted Fern (Zones 4-9).
If you want a cool, tropical feel in your garden, check out the selection of hardy ferns at Wayside Gardens.
The Jelly palm, also known as the Pindo palm, is one of the toughest palm trees around. In fact, a Jelly palm can withstand winters down to 10 degrees F. This tough, cold hardy tropical plant is one of very few palm trees able to handle freezing temperatures.
Jelly palms stay nice and compact, especially in cooler climates, only growing to about 10-20 feet tall. They also produce tasty palm fruits in the summer that are popular in jams and jellies (hence the name of the plant). For the more adventurous, the fruits can be fermented into wine. These palms can grow in containers, so gardeners in Zones 6 and colder can still enjoy them.
Jelly palms are available at Nature Hills Nursery.
With its tropical flair and showstopping flowers the size of dinner plates, what’s not to love about hardy hibiscus?? These shrubby perennials look very similar to their tender tropical relatives.
But the cold hardy tropical plants can withstand winter temperatures down to USDA Zone 4. Hardy hibiscus such as “Lord Baltimore” and “Plum Crazy” (pictured above) are the result of many decades of careful breeding. They are easy to grow and widely adaptable. Plus, they give an unparalleled flower show from summer through fall.
Learn more about the hardy hibiscus’s fascinating history, and purchase one for yourself at AmericanMeadows.com.
Bamboo is the world’s tallest member of the grass family. These wonderful plants can make a delightful addition to any garden that’s inspired by the tropics. Bamboo is a fast-growing plant, and some mature bamboo plants can grow up to 12 inches a day.
In addition, bamboo is an aggressive grower, and many species can be invasive. However, clumping varieties such as ‘Sunset Glow’ are hardy, low maintenance plants that are a delight in any garden in Zones 5-9.
Learn more about growing clumping bamboo at Monrovia.com.
For a nice cold hardy tropical plant that gives fruit as a bonus, you can’t go wrong with a fig tree. These trees are widely adaptable to different soils and climates, and their fruits are delicious when cooked, dried or picked right off the tree.
Most fig trees are only hardy to USDA Zone 7, but a select few, like ‘Chicago Hardy’ (pictured here) and ‘Violette de Bordeaux,’ can handle winters down to Zone 5.
You can find fig trees easily online at reputable retailers such as NatureHills.com.
Learn more about growing fig trees in containers in our story on growing Perfect Patio Fruit Trees.
If you’ve ever enjoyed the intoxicating smell of a jasmine in full bloom, you’ll be delighted to learn that there is a hardy species.
This beautiful tropical-looking vine can handle winters down to Zone 6 with some extra protection. In fact, a hardy jasmine needs a cold spell in winter in order to bloom the following spring. Provide your hardy jasmine vine with a trellis to climb on, and plenty of sun and water. It will reward you with many weeks of blooms from late spring through summer.
You can purchase hardy Jasmine at Logees.com.
Toad lilies (Tricyrtis sp.) are not nearly as popular as they deserve to be. These cold hardy tropical plants have a wonderful, exotic flair with their uniquely intricate blooms. As if that wasn’t enough, the plants are surprisingly tough.
Toad lilies are prized for their attractive foliage for most of the year. But starting at the end of every summer, they dazzle as they burst into bloom. These lilies prefer partial shady areas with rich, loamy soil.
Toad lilies are hard to find at most brick-and-mortar nurseries, but you can find them online at retailers such as Wayside Gardens.
Tips on Growing Cold Hardy Tropical Plants
Most of the cold hardy tropical plants featured here do not require much specialized care. But it helps to be prepared and to do your research before buying.
1. Read the Label
Like all plants, cold hardy tropical plants have specific light, water and soil needs. Do your research, beyond just checking your USDA Growing Zones, to make sure you can provide for your new plant’s needs.
Most of the cold hardy tropical plants mentioned here can withstand very cold temperatures. But they require high humidity and consistent moisture to thrive.
(Sorry, desert gardeners. You’ll have the best success growing these plants in a humid indoor environment. So, grow tropical plants in a greenhouse.)
2. Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
Mulching is always a good idea. For tender tropical-looking plants, it’s a 100% requirement. Do not skimp on mulch! Mulch will keep weeds down and make your garden beds pretty. It also insulates your plants’ roots against hot and cold temperatures, and it is vital for retaining moisture in the soil.
3. Water Properly
With a few exceptions, such as the Toad Lily, most plants prefer to be watered deeply. After watering, allow them to dry out a bit before you water them again. Rather than taking the “little and often” approach, water thoroughly—but only when your plant needs it.
The success of growing tender plants (like the hardy banana) at the edge of their growing zone comes down to winterizing properly. In Zones 5 and 6, for example, you will need to cut your banana to the ground and mulch it with a pile of straw for extra protection from the cold.
Other plants, such as the fig tree, may also need to be brought into a shed or garage to sit out the winter cold. Do your research on proper winterizing before you bring a cold hardy tropical plant home. This is especially true if your garden is at the colder edge of its growing zone.