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Overwintering tropical plants

I write about overwintering tropical plants with several emotions this week. I have gotten to know some Florida plant growers in recent years. Twice FNGLA (Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association) hosted garden writers from across the country to tour historical tropical plant gardens and growers, so we would understand and use more of their plants.

Then they enhanced our Garden Writers Conference by teaching and providing great palms, gingers and many other tropical plants for the large planters that decorated restaurants, the convention center, street corners and tour gardens. In Buffalo this summer more gardens than ever sported Elephant ears (Alocasia, Colocasia), caladiums, cannas, bananas and kin.

Florida’s plants are our plants. Eighty percent of the nation’s houseplants and 21.5 percent of palms and tropical foliage plants come from Florida. Florida’s agribusiness is a $120 billion dollar industry.

And look what just happened to them.

Someday I may submit a summary of what the hurricanes of 2017 did to public gardens, farms, nurseries and natural land in Florida as well as other damaged places; it’s too soon to report data. What I can share is more personal: My friend Sylvia Gordon of Homestead, Fla. – the farmland and tropical plant production region south of Coral Gables and Miami – had redefined her business during the last two decades, slowly recovering from devastating Hurricane Andrew (1992) and others (especially during 2004-05).

This time her saga sounded hopeless, something like this: “We’ve had no power for days here so no communications. The shade houses blew down or blew away – and my three acres of crops are mostly under shade. The plants take root through their pots to anchor them but now they’re all ripped out so they’re lying sideways and uprooted and they’ll dry out and die. My one helper couldn’t get to me because of all the trees down on the roads and we had to unbury our equipment to start to pull the trees away. (Last time storms like this came I lost all my workers because they had to go home to help their families who were in danger.) Then the crop insurance companies say not to upright anything so they can assess the damage ... but if we don’t upright and water them we’ll lose it all. I’ve called and called but it’s been days. I don’t mean to complain but I am so physically and mentally exhausted and this is so frustrating.”

Sylvia has fought cancers and works from dawn until dark even in good times.

Meanwhile I had fallen in love with tropical plants and gardens of Southern Florida and was planning a group tour for February to the Fairchild Botanical Garden, beautiful Vizcaya on Biscayne Bay, the National Tropical Botanical Garden Kampchong, plus orchid and bromeliad growers. Many of my destinations sustained severe damage; no trip this winter. My plan is to go there in 2019.

What to do now with tropical plants?

Two choices:
• Let them go and buy new ones next season. This decision might satisfy you if (a) you don’t have a good storage arrangement, indoor lighting, or time to fuss with the plants, or (b) you want to direct your consumer dollar toward growers who have taken a loss. That may seem oblique now – perhaps more direct aid for devastated areas appeals to you more – but all growers would like you to buy their plants every year.

• Store and save them. Still, many plant lovers just don’t have it in them to toss their cannas and caladiums on the compost pile or let them freeze. If that’s you, here are some guidelines for keeping some of the most popular ones.

My tropical plant growing friends said: “Wow, you Buffalo folks really have dahlias, hibiscus and cannas down ... We’d like to see more Curcumas and Acalypha next time!”
But cannas we have, and they’re easy to keep: After the first frost, cut off the leaves 6 inches from the soil. Dig up the rhizomes and trim back the roots. Brush off the soil and air-dry them (out of direct sun). Store in a box in peat moss or sawdust, or wrapped in newspaper, in temperatures above freezing but not warmer than 50 degrees. Check regularly for mold and toss anything rotting. When a few show signs of sprouting, pot them up in late winter and provide light.

A similar process applies for dahlias and many other tubers, rhizomes or bulbs.

Directions for keeping these foliage beauties differ only slightly from the canna process. Air-dry them for at least a couple of weeks (outside but under cover) with the leaves still on, until the leaves dry out entirely. Then cut off the leaves. Many gardeners use a sulfur powder or chloride solution to clean them. Store the dry tubers in peat or sawdust between 50 to 60 degrees, checking for rot periodically. They require 70 degrees to grow outside.

Ensete (bananas)
While we may have “hardy” bananas that can live through winter planted outdoors, they start up so slowly that they’re not very impressive until late summer. So store them. If you have a greenhouse or cold storage area above freezing, repot the plant. (Cut off all but two leaves, trim off most of the old roots, and plant it in good houseplant mix.) Keep cool.

Dribble in some water if you see it completely dry. The other method is to prepare the plants and roots as above, then wrap the roots in newspaper, stick them in plastic bags with a few air-holes, and stack them in a storage area above freezing. Pot them in spring.

Or ... keep them as houseplants.

Keeping houseplants indoors is an old art. We keep learning what works as new plants enter the market or attract our attention. Some foliage plants (Acalypha, coleus) will please you indoors. Some flowering plants (hibiscus, mandevillas) may flower for months. Try them. Our Florida friends hope we keep experimenting with their plants and think about them as we do so.

Let us wish the growers a full recovery, and thank them for the beauty they provide.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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