Tropical Plants: Hot Plants for Gray Days

Looking for a way to lift your spirits now that the last bit of color has drained from the landscape? In the market for an inexpensive holiday gift or hostess present? Don’t start laughing, but I’m going to suggest that you consider a houseplant.

Houseplants are boring but call the plant a tropical and it suddenly becomes exotic and very appealing. Besides being a serious plantaholic, my day job is to travel the world searching out new plant varieties (imagine getting paid to shop for plants!) Here are a few suggestions for plants to brighten your spirits:

Orchids: My enthusiasm for orchids is infectious. I now have well over 100 orchids! Moth orchids are the easiest orchids to grow indoors. They like the same temperatures we do and are content with a moderate amount of light. Their blooms last for weeks, and if you cut the flower stalk back to the first node (after blooming) the plant will often send out a second flower spike. My orchids spend the summer outdoors under filtered shade, growing larger and more floriferous each year.

I also recommend miniature cattleyas (which grow just 4-8 inches high), and paphiopedilum, better known as lady’s slipper orchids. Many paphs have beautifully patterned foliage and are quite content on a windowsill or under grow lights. As with all orchids, they should be repotted each spring with fresh fir bark chunks to ensure the roots don’t get water-logged.

Begonias: “Ho-hum,” you say? Not any more. Angel wing begonias are prolific bloomers. They will thrive for many years with very little attention. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, and many have beautifully-colored foliage. Their pendulous flowers range in color from white to pink, peach, orange and red. Angel wing begonias are ideal plants for busy people. They don’t mind going dry for a week and are happiest when potbound.

Indoor color can come from foliage, not just flowers. And when it comes to flashy foliage, Rex begonias are king. Each Rex begonia leaf is a beautiful combination of colors from purple, magenta and wine, to silver, cream and pink. Give them filtered light, good air circulation and minimal watering, and you can enjoy the same plant for decades. Don’t fertilize Rex begonias in the winter. They are happiest with 65-degree nights and 75-degree days.

Gesneriads: An ugly name, but this large plant family includes lots of tropical beauties, such as African violets, gloxinias, lipstick plant, columneas and streptocarpus (Cape primrose). All these plants dislike direct sunlight and prefer to go slightly thirsty. Water with a balanced fertilizer from below to keep their leaves dry. I grow most of my gesneriads, including a pretty large collection of gloxinias, under lights. With good light, warm temperatures, and moderate humidity, they’re happy and some are always in bloom.

Bromeliads: With both interesting foliage and unusual, long-lasting blooms (30 to 90 days), bromeliads are one of the hottest new tropicals on the market. Native to Central and South America, they do well with indirect sunlight and a temperature range between 50 and 90 degrees. I grow dozens of bromeliads and have come to really love them indoors as well. I especially like Tillandsias. Also called air plants, most have wild and wonderful foliage, and some have truly spectacular flowers.

What else? I am a fan of mini cyclamens. They’ll bloom for months with indirect light, and are small enough to fit almost anywhere. Just don’t over water them or the bulbs will rot. I also suggest looking for a compact and ever-blooming hibiscus. Most of the hibiscus available locally are too tall for indoors and only bloom in the summer. But there are some great hybrids that stay small and will keep on blooming.

My own favorite winter-blooming tropicals are geraniums (tough and dependable), abutilons (also known as flowering maples) and bougainvillea (which needs a sunny south-facing window). The abutilons and bougainvillea are susceptible to whiteflies, need consistent fertilizing and heavy pruning, but their fabulous blooms are worth it!

I hope I’ve piqued your interest in some of the terrific tropical plants that are out there at your local garden center, waiting for a good home. You’ll get a colorful mid-winter pick-me-up and the opportunity to learn about a whole new plant family.