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Florida yard plants that prosper in our homes

When a gardener travels, her interests go with her. So it was, during a short visit to Florida last week. I saw plants everywhere I went, from the airport landscape and median strip to front yards and the hotel lobby.

And what plants were they? A great many were our everyday houseplants, all grown up, stretching out in the sun as happy perennials in a suitable climate.

Let me introduce you to a few of them, or renew your acquaintance.

>What is really an annual?

Before the visit, a few terms are in order since we Northerners sometimes get a little loose about our nomenclature. In our region -- mostly considered a USDA Zone 5 growing area -- only some perennial plants grow well.

(The USDA hardiness zone map designates zones according to the lowest temperatures reached. In Zone 5 the low is minus 10 degrees to minus 20 degrees.)

Many perennials aren't perennial here, but they are still perennials. Yet we tend to call them annuals, or say "that's not a perennial," just because we can't keep it alive over the winter.

Let's speak accurately. A plant is an annual if it completes its growth cycle, sets seed in one year and then dies. A perennial has a root system that lives on after flower or fruit production, so the same plant grows and flowers repeatedly. Some go dormant during a rest period, and some stay green above ground.

We may use tender perennials as if they were annuals, but we shouldn't call them annuals. The right language would be, "It's not a hardy perennial here" or "It's a perennial for Zone (6) and above" or "hardy only to Zone 7."

Nevertheless, our garden centers and houseplant departments sell lots of Southern perennials that we use in our homes, or outdoors as annuals in containers or gardens. Many surely became known here first because somebody brought them home from Florida or a tropical vacation; some lasted and some didn't.

Here are some that like visiting up North:

*Aloes: The genus Aloe has more than 300 species, mostly of African origin, but most of us know the very helpful "medicine plant" or "burn plant," Aloe vera. In good light it can grow to 2 feet indoors, and it does flower. But outside, wow, did I see some tall species or cultivars spreading and sprouting, with huge orange-yellow flower spikes!

*Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii): It is common in Florida landscapes, to 3 feet tall, with bright red bracts and tiny yellow flowers. The genus Euphorbia has at least 40 species, including some hardy perennials that are growing in popularity. (My personal favorite is E. griffithii 'Fireglow,' that some consider Zone 6; mine has thrived for 10 years on a cold hill with no protection.) Experiment!

*Dracaena: Collectors might consider this genus "dull as dirt," as they are and have been ubiquitous houseplants for generations, originating from equatorial Africa and Asia.

*D. marginata is a common sight in office reception areas and shopping malls, especially the cultivar 'Tricolor.' (Guess how many colors in the striped leaves.) They are equal workhorses in Southern landscapes. If you ever get to see a 25-foot Dracaena draco (Dragon's-blood tree) you won't forget it.

*Ti plant, New Zealand cabbage tree (Cordyline): Often mixed up with dracaenas because of the strappy foliage, these plants come from New Zealand, Hawaii or other southwest Pacific areas. They have unusual downward-pointing rhizomes. In warm climates (Zone 9-11), they can grow into 6- to 20-foot shrubs or trees, depending upon the species.

Lately some dramatically colored cordylines have entered the "designer tropicals" market as desirable container plants, especially cultivars of Cordyline fruticosa, some having bright pink stripes. Who knew there is even an International Cordyline Society? (www.cordyline.org).

*Tradescantia: Is there a houseplant grower anywhere who hasn't owned at least one Moses-in-the-cradle, Wandering Jew or Purple Heart? Houseplant books also list them as Rhoeo or Setcreasea, with about 50 in the genus. Whatever the name, they have draped and trailed in our houses for generations, and are clambering all over landscapes as attractive Florida ground covers.

We have at least one that is hardy enough to live here; ask for Spiderwort.

*Hibiscus: You may not know that the genus Hibiscus includes Rose of Sharon and hardy (dinner-plate) hibiscus, as well as over 200 mostly tropical perennials and some annuals. The flowers are a good clue to this genus. In the South, this summer patio plant or winter houseplant is a 6-foot flowering shrub.

*Swiss cheese plant, split-leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa): These even become huge as houseplants, and are handsome, tough landscape plants at my mom's Florida condominium.

*Palms: They symbolize Florida, or California, or just vacation for many people, and we certainly grow them in our homes (preferably with increased humidity). But we won't be covering them here, because there are 202 genera with over 2,500 species. They have been enormously important to human life throughout history, and all parts of the plants have been used in many ways.

A good way to learn about palms -- in fact a good way to study plant classification and world ecosystems -- is to take a winter stroll around the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, 2655 South Park Ave.

If you can't get to Florida or another tropical clime, for a brief while you will at least feel as if you're there.

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Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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