Growing Tropical Plants in Indianapolis?

Written by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, contributing writer
Updated June 15, 2021
tropical flower
Tropical plants and flowers can add color and an exotic touch to your garden. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Hoosier Gardener informs Angie’s List members about the benefits of adding tropical plants to spruce up Indianapolis landscapes.

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Summer in Indianapolis can make us feel like we’re in the tropics: hot and humid. To take advantage of tropical temps Hoosier-style, many gardeners embrace the lush foliage, incredible colors, textures and blooms that come with tropical plants.

“Tropicals are so popular right now due to their versatility and diversity,” says Kelly Frank, a horticulturist at Perennials Plus, a plant grower, wholesaler and retailer in Westfield, Ind. “Tropicals add texture and color that cannot be had with most hardy Midwest perennials.”

One exception is a hardy banana (Musa basjoo), which usually winters over in the landscape with a protective layer of mulch. It’s rated hardy to USDA 
Zone 5, which covers portions of the Indianapolis area.

“Tropicals are a favorite group of plants for creating an ambiance that varies from the traditional Midwest landscape,” Frank says, adding that the demand for big, bold, colorful, and often impressive, foliage or flowers has increased as homeowners carve outdoor rooms 
in their landscapes.

“I started planting them after seeing different gardens that use them,” says Angie’s List member Jim Kincannon. His totally tropical property on the Northeastside of Indianapolis was featured in a tour for garden writers from throughout the U.S. in 2011.

Large banana trees, elephant ears (Colocasia or Alocasia) and canna dominate the scene, adding lush foliage, which is supplemented with shade or sun loving annuals. A canna is a good tropical starter plant for gardeners because it’s readily available and it grows fast once the season heats up. Most bloom a bit later in summer, which is why cannas are appreciated for their foliage

“Cannas are always a top seller,” says Dottie Wright, manager of the highly rated Dammann’s Lawn, Garden & Landscape Centers in Indianapolis. Other customer favorites include Mandevilla, a hummingbird-attracting vine with trumpet-shaped pink, red, yellow or white flowers that love the heat, Wright says. “Mandevilla ‘Fire and Ice’ is a new one that we are so excited about,” she says of the plant that boasts vibrant red flowers and variegated foliage.

The most popular tropicals at Perennials Plus showcase the most color: Dipladenia and Mandevilla, Lantana on standard (a tree form of the popular sun- and drought-loving annual), hibiscus on standard, palms, Colocasia varieties, and assorted succulents. “Although most landscape companies treat tropicals as high-powered annuals, homeowners often over-winter them and return them to the outdoors when the weather moderates,” Frank says.

That’s exactly what Kincannon does. “I winter mine over in the basement,” he says. Kincannon first digs up the cannas and rinses off the soil. He then allows them to dry and stores them in bags with peat moss. Tropical plants in containers are dragged into his unheated garage, which stays at about 45 degrees.

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, the Hoosier Gardener, lives on the Northside of Indianapolis in a midcentury modern with a yard she refers to as a “living laboratory.” In addition to co-authoring “Indiana Gardener’s Guide,” her freelance writing appears in many publications.

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