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You would have to move to Hawaii or Puerto Rico to experience truly tropical conditions, but you don’t have to go that far to get a hint of the tropics. In the extreme south and southwest it’s flip-flop weather before gardeners in most of the country have shed their sweaters. In Hardiness Zones 9 and 10 — in Miami, Phoenix, and San Diego, where low temperatures rarely fall below freezing — there’s always something blooming in the garden. In these areas, palms are part of the landscape; giant elephant’s ears add drama, and flowering vines cover arbors and clamber along fences.
Gardeners in Phoenix set tomato and pepper transplants out into the garden in February; and in early March, the ground is warm enough to sow bean seeds. Snow may still cover gardens in Milwaukee while Angel’s trumpet and mandevilla vines are blooming in Miami. Gardeners in southern California are pruning their roses while northern gardeners wistfully flip through catalogs and place orders for the coming season.
If you don’t live in these short-sleeve climates, you can still grow many of the plants that make tropical and semi-tropical gardens so lush — and, at least for a few months every year, you can experience the tropics in your own back yard. Here are a few tropical plants to try:
• Caladiums, which are grown for their colorful shield-shaped leaves, are cultivated by the acre around Lake Placid, Florida. Caladiums grow from tubers; they’re harvested in winter and shipped to gardeners in northern climates in spring. Plant them in the ground when the soil warms up, or start them in pots in a sunroom or greenhouse and move them to the garden in early summer. A transplanter trowel with inches marked on the blade makes it easy to plant them at the right depth, covering the tubers with one to two inches of soil. Hardy in Zones 9-12.
• Mandevilla vines are popular mailbox plants in many areas. They’re winter-hardy only in Zones 9-11, but they flourish in hot summers everywhere. In the past few years, hybridizers have introduced trailing varieties and new selections with bright red blooms. Look for plants in garden shops in spring, and give them plenty of sun.
• Canna lilies stand up to eight feet tall in a garden; their leaves may be bronze, green, or dramatically variegated, and their gorgeous, long-lasting flowers attract hummingbirds. They’re hardy only to Zone 8, but they bloom in bright sunny spots in gardens far from their native zone, until frost kills them.
• Hibiscus plants bloom for months; when the weather heats up they will produce more fancy, frilly flowers than you can count. Hibiscus plants are large shrubs or small trees, and many specimens at garden shops are trained as standards, on a single stem. A pair of hibiscus plants in pots brings a touch of the tropics to any garden. Give them plenty of sun, and prune them with sharp pruners to keep them bushy and lush.