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Last month, we began talking about the drama of one of the hottest trends in gardening today—tropical plants. In my research, I will on occasion pose a few questions about my writing topics to other gardeners and team members to get their response. Are they familiar with my topic or not, is the topic easily understandable or confusing, or what do they think is important to gardening today? Sometimes I get the answers I predict; other times I am amazed at the variety of responses.

In preparing to write about bromeliads for the At Home in the Garden column in April, I asked my gardening friends the question, “Is there a difference between houseplants and tropical plants?” Was I ever surprised with their answers! I had always used the terms tropical plants and houseplants interchangeably, but what I didn’t expect was that no one else I talked to did.

According to my dictionary, a houseplant is simply a plant grown or kept indoors, and a tropical plant is a plant relating to or occurring in the tropics. It is true that most houseplants are native to the tropics, and I can’t seem to think of one example of a houseplant that isn’t tropical.

Is it a palm tree?
One of the trendiest houseplants today is the Strelitzia nicolai—white bird-of-paradise or giant bird-of-paradise. Native to South Africa, this lush, tropical-looking plant has thick, large, beautiful grassy-green leaves. The leaf blade can be up to 4 feet long and emerges from the top of a long, dense stalk or stem. You will most often find these plants for sale in 10″ nursery pots where they are on average only 3 to 4 feet tall. But don’t be fooled: they can grow 15 to 20 feet tall as a houseplant if they have the space and optimal growing conditions. In their native habitat, they grow 20 to 30 feet tall. Their natural fan-like habit reminds us of a palm tree, and the white bird-of-paradise is often mistaken for the Ravenala madagascariensis—traveler’s palm—or Ensete ventricosum—banana.

Today’s interior design styles have also helped make the white bird-of-paradise so popular. It is the perfect looking tropical plant and the best part is that it is also quite easy to grow, thus making it a great houseplant. Bright light for three to four hours is best, and while they will tolerate a drought, they are best grown with adequate moisture. Inside the house, the leaves tend to be the most beautiful because they can emerge full and are protected from harsh winds that can tear or shred the leaves.

Outside care
Outside, this tropical plant performs beautifully in full to part sun, can be planted directly in the garden for a dramatic tropical statement or grown in a container on your porch or patio, and can then be brought indoors during the winter.

This plant is tougher than it looks and is reported to go undamaged at temperatures as low as 28°. What does this mean? It is still way too cold for us to grow this plant year-round outside, but when planted in your garden it will grow much longer before it becomes damaged by our winter. And if it is growing in a container outdoors, you won’t feel as rushed to get it inside in the fall.

Do your research
Not all tropical plants will make good houseplants, so it’s important to know which ones are best for indoors before investing in them. One of the books I used in college was Success With Houseplants by Reader’s Digest and it is still one of the best references. It may have a more updated edition, but my old, well-worn 1979 edition seems to have all the necessary information I need.

There are a few other great tropical plant references you might want to consider owning, but most are broad, lacking the focus of growing plants indoors. A few of my favorites are: The Tropical Look Book by Robert Lee Riffle, and Tropical Ornamentals by W. Arthur Whistler. If you love tropical plants like I do, grow them both inside your home and in your garden, because no other group of plants can make us feel like we are on vacation every day of the year.

Easy to care for houseplants

  • Phoenix roebelenii—pygmy date palm
  • Howea fosteriana—kentia or paradise palm
  • Platycerium bifurcatum—staghorn or elkhorn fern
  • Aglaonema—Chinese evergreen
  • Sanseviera trifasciata—mother-in-law tongue
  • Peperomia obtusifolia ‘Variegata’—baby rubber plant
  • Caryota mitis—Burmese fishtail palm
  • Dracaena marginata—dragon tree
  • Aloe brevifolia—short-leafed blue aloe
  • Ananas bracteatus—red pineapple

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