Have you ever gone on vacation somewhere tropical and fallen in love with the plants there? I have. I’ve brought home cactuses. I’ve hauled succulents. I’ve packed those goofy plumeria branches you get in any Hawaiian gift store. Once potted in soil, the plumeria stick will actually grow into a tiny tree. You don’t get many blooms, but the stalk will put on foliage and it’s a fun if not temporary endeavor.
There are some tropical plants that are easy to grow indoors. In the north, we don’t have the luxurious high sun of Brazil, India, Indonesia, or Africa but there are choices. When I visited the Chicago Botanic Garden’s tribute to Roberto Burle Marx in 2017, I was reminded of what those choices can be. Check out the list below.
Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart’
This tradescantia (commonly called Wandering Jew) sports such deeply rich purple leaves and stems that it’s difficult to not sit and stare lovingly at it all day. There are green and pink versions but ‘Purple Heart’ makes the boldest statement. It grows easiest in a sunny window (like south or west-facing). If grown in soft indirect light, the plant will become leggy, producing long vines that flow over the pot. If this happens, simply snip the vines back. It will produce more from the base. In an earlier garden I had in Tucson, Arizona, I grew tradescantia as a groundcover outside in hot boiling sun. It loves full sun. As I don’t have that garden anymore, I also grow it outside in Seattle in containers. It takes off like a rocket during the growing season and dies completely in winter.
With little hairs covering its leaves, tradescantia doesn’t like wet leaves so water the soil beneath and let it dry out between watering. Once a week should be fine. I’ve found it doesn’t necessarily need super rich soil either. When it blooms, it has triangular dark pink flowers that pop brightly against the dark foliage. Awesome plant.
Canna indica ‘Phaison’
Also called Canna Tropicanna, this is a showy plant that sports variegated green leaves with luscious dusty pink stalks and explosions of orange flowers. Wowzers. It reminds me of a Brazilian carnival costume.
Cannas need moist soil to thrive as well as good light and fertilizer. They don’t need a dormancy period, which means they will produce leaves and flowers all year long if given the right conditions. But they love their nutrients. They need them to grow those giant oval leaves and shoot out bold flowers. That takes a lot of energy so the more light and food you can give a canna, the better. Think of them as a portly uncle who’s a lively joy to be around but eats all of your food and drinks all of your booze.
If you put your canna outside in summer and let it bake in the sun, it will thank you for it with robust growth. And as far as outdoor cultivation goes, it can be done in the Northwest. I’ve grown cannas outside in Seattle for several years. Cultivars come and go, sometimes they rot, sometimes not. The one canna that returns every year for a bright showing is ‘Pretoria.’ It’s been in my garden for several years.
There are a gazillion bromeliads but those in the genus Neoregelia seem to be tougher than others. They also make striking indoor houseplants because of their colored foliage. On the Burle Marx tower (above), Neoregelia ‘Fireball’ was used in mass. You can see how this column of maroon contrasted stunningly with the searing yellow color of bromeliad Aechmea blanchetiana in containers.
To grow ‘Fireball’ or similar neoregelias, make sure to keep a little distilled water in its central “cup” of leaves. Because bromeliads take in water through their leaves and not really roots, this is essential. But at the same time if there’s too much water or stagnant water, it will rot and make you sad. So just give it a splash and make sure it eventually drains.
Neoregelia also likes bright, bright but indirect light. An east-facing window would be ideal since the plant would get direct sunlight but not the harsh afternoon sun. In weaker light the leaves revert to green. It’s happiest in loose soil like an orchid mix with bark that drains well. The flower of this plant isn’t as pronounced as other bromeliads. It forms a smallish purple flower that’s a bit “meh” but that’s okay because the red foliage is really the show.
Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’
Also called Elephant Ears and Taro, colocasia is a swamp plant so keep that in mind. If you’re one of those people who kills houseplants because you overwater, colocasia might work for you. It also likes humidity, benefiting from misting or being grown in a bathroom. It produces spectacularly large black leaves, though it won’t get as tall inside as outdoors.
Colocasia likes indirect light. If put in a west or south-facing window, it may get crispy. Also, it wants to go dormant in winter since it grows from a bulb so if it starts to “wilt” in November, know that it’s normal. I’d cut down the foliage and only water lightly once every 10 days until January when the light starts to lengthen again. If planted in a container with dusty miller, orange begonias, and black mondo grass, it makes for a spooky arrangement during Halloween.
For Northwest gardeners, the most important thing to remember when growing tropical plants indoors is light, light, light. As I write this, I see a dim gray day outside my window, which means if plants are in a corner or against a wall, they will suffer. So make sure to place your plants squarely in windows and rotate them every few weeks or so. Sometimes if I want a plant in a corner for decorative purposes, I’ll put it in front of a window in winter, then switch back in spring. How ever you grow these plants, you’ll be rewarded with blasts of color, amazing foliage, fresh air, and a little bit of Brazil.