By: Ilana Goldowitz Jimenez, Plant Scientist & Writer
Can you grow tropical plants in zone 8? You may have wondered this after a trip to a tropical country or a visit to the tropical section of a botanical garden. With their vibrant flower colors, big leaves, and intense floral scents, there is a lot to love about tropical plants.
Zone 8 is far from the tropics, but it would be a mistake to assume that no tropical plants can be grown there. While some plants are ruled out unless you have an indoor greenhouse, there are plenty of cold hardy tropicals that would make great additions to a zone 8 garden. Some great zone 8 tropical plants are listed below:
Alocasia and Colocasia species, known as elephant ears, have impressively large leaves that give them a very tropical look. Some varieties, including Alocasia gagaena, A. odora, Colocasia nancyana, and Colocasia “Black Magic,” are hardy in zone 8 and can be kept in the ground over the winter; others should be dug up in fall and replanted in spring.
The ginger family (Zingiberaceae) includes tropical plants, often with showy flowers, that grow from underground stems called rhizomes. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) and turmeric (Curcuma longa) are the most familiar members of this plant family. Both can be grown in zone 8 year-round, though they can benefit from protection during the winter.
The ginger family also includes many ornamental species and varieties. Most species in the Alpinia genus are hardy in zone 8, and they provide ornamental foliage in addition to their fragrant and colorful flowers. Zingiber mioga, or Japanese ginger, is also suitable for zone 8. This species is used both as an ornamental plant and as a flavoring and garnish in Japanese and Korean cuisine.
Palms always add a tropical look to a landscape. Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), and Pindo palm (Butia capitata) are all suitable for planting in zone 8.
A banana tree would be a surprising addition to a zone 8 garden, but there are several banana varieties that can overwinter in climates as cold as zone 6. Among the most reliably cold-hardy is Musa basjoo or the hardy banana. The leaves and fruits look like those of edible bananas, though the fruits of hardy banana are inedible. Musa zebrina, a banana with ornamental red-and-green variegated leaves, can grow in zone 8 with some protection during the winter.
Other tropical plants that are good selections for zone 8 include:
Of course, other options for creating a tropical garden in zone 8 include growing less cold-hardy tropicals as annuals, or moving tender plants indoors during the winter. Using these strategies, it is possible to grow almost any tropical plant in zone 8.
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Mealy-cup sage, which must be treated as an annual in the North, is cold-hardy in zone 7. Standing 18 to 24 inches tall, this perennial has striking blue flowers and is useful, for example, in red-white-and-blue color schemes. For the best displays, deadhead the flowers (both to keep the plant fresh-looking and to promote additional blooming).
We declared on Facebook that this is the year we break out of our comfort zone and plant tropical plants. Over the weekend, we did something we had not done in years: we took a trip to the library. I returned home with George Little and David Lewis’ gem of a book A Garden Gallery.
This book is a wealth of knowledge regarding what tropical plants will succeed here in our beloved Zone 8. I cannot speak highly enough of it or the gardening duo who wrote it.
Little and Lewis offer this advice: trust yourself and go with what feels right. In other words, garden with your heart and don’t overthink it!
Little and Lewis garden photo credit July Hays
Their world renowned garden located on Bainbridge Island is a living gallery of tropical plants juxtaposed with concrete sculptures and paintings of their own creation. What makes tropical plants so attractive is their unique ability to transport you to another place. They offer all of the characteristics for good plant design: color, structure and texture, and yet, they are the exception in most Pacific Northwest gardens.
This year, I vow to plant at least one Musa basjoo (banana tree), and all of the plants listed below.
Here are five of my favorite tropical plants that are hardy in Zone 8:
Canna ‘Tropicana’ – It’s no wonder that it’s considered by some to be the most striking of all cannas. Its stunning multicolored foliage is reason enough to plant it, but come summer, it delights even more with orange flowers.
Rice-Paper plant – I first came across this massive, sculptural plant at the Bainbridge in Bloom garden tour in 2012. We were blown away by the impact of its large, jade-green leaves and Jurassic Park feel. It can reach 20′ in height with a span of up to 15′, so plan for mature growth.
Tetrapanax papyrifer (Rice-paper plant) spotted at Bainbridge in Bloom garden tour
Elephant Ears ‘Black Stem’ – Giant, shiny, heart-shaped leaves set atop black stems that can grow up to 7′ in height. Yellow flowers produce a fragrance of papayas. Need I say more?
Elephant Ears ‘Black Stem’ photo credit Thomas J. Walters
Banana tree – I’ve seen these growing in Costa Rica where they are massive. Here, their height and spread will reach 14’. For you doubters out there, Musa basjoo has survived winters as far north as New England and Ontario, Canada.
Banana tree at left photo credit Joshua McCullough and Lilyvilla Gardens
Dinosaur Food – My first encounter with Gunnera was at The Bloedel reserve, and if I remember correctly, it’s planted in a bed with heathers and hydrangeas. So don’t be afraid to plant it next to more common garden plants. This is another plant much loved for its leaves, which can reach 6-8’ across.
Gunnera manicata (Dinosaur food plant)
What tropical plants do you love that will thrive here in Zone 8? Let us know in the comment section below!
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