BY DUANE CAMPBELL
Mark anything 90 percent off and I’ll buy it. That is how I got a new book, Florida Top 10 Garden Guide. I got the usual dirty look from my wife, but the truth is that many of the plants are not only in Florida but here in my basement. Frankly I don’t much like Florida, but I do like the plants that like Florida.
Some are tropical and grow all year round in southern Florida; they don’t like any frost at all. But many plants growing there are semi-tropical or sub-tropical. They like it warm but can weather the occasional cold snap by going dormant. They have one thing in common: they don’t like Pennsylvania, at least not in winter.
The former are shivering on my sunporch, the later in empty-looking pots in the basement. Those are mostly bulbs, Colocasia for instance.
You probably call them elephant ears, those grapefruit size lumps sold pretty cheap from large crates in big box stores. They produce huge leaves in clumps for an easy and trendy tropical effect in your garden. You can dig that bulb and store it in a warm, dry place to save yourself five bucks next spring. In fact if you can still get a spade into the ground, it might not be too late to dig it up. Worth a try.
But beyond these common bulbs there are numerous varieties too elegant for the nickname elephant ears, so I use their proper name: Colocasias. In better garden centers and mail order suppliers like Plant Delights you might find Illustrus (royal taro), Black Magic, Kona Koffee, Diamond Head and a couple dozen others. With different leaf forms and sizes and colors, it is easy to get hooked on Colocasia. And if you are adventurous, you can make poi from the bulbs.
My efforts to overwinter some varieties have been problematic but strangely successful. Some struggle through winter on the sunporch, others not. But the ones that seemingly succumbed have taught me more about them. Dumping the soil in the pots I have often found small sections of spaghetti-like roots. Laid horizontally on a pot of soil in a warm spot, covered lightly, and kept ever-so-slightly moist, each section sprouts new plants. Small, but they grow, and you can get several from one undead plant.
Alocasia is very similar to Colocasia, even fancier, except for one thing (maybe two). I can overwinter Colocasias but I can’t Alocasias. Colocasias don’t like the winter temperatures we keep in this house, but they endure it. Alocasias don’t.
In the same family are two of my favorite tropical bulbs, Amorphophallus konjac (a smaller version of the giant corpse plant that makes the news every few years when it blooms in a conservatory) and Sauromatum venosum. Sorry, they don’t have common names. You can try to order Voodoo lily, but you can’t be sure what you will get. The leaves are different but both provide that tropical look
Both bulbs, which after a couple of years will reach the size of lunker potatoes, have a common feature.
Dug out of the garden in fall and rinsed off, you can put the bulb on the kitchen table, maybe hold the napkins down. In late winter a stalk will begin to grow out of the naked bulb, reaching three feet tall with mature bulbs before it opens into a … let’s call it a unique flower which has two qualities. First, the day it oens, if you cup your hands around the flower about an inch away, you can feel it radiating heat. And second … well, I’ll let you find out for yourself.
The flower will fade and wither. Then the leaf grows. After danger of frost has passed, you can plant it outside and start over.
Another semi-tropical bulb great for patio tubs is lily of the Nile. For some reason, lily is a very popular name for flowers that are not lilies – lily of the valley, day lily, etc. (“etc” is used when you know there are more but you can’t think of them.) Lily of the Nile is really Agapanthus. It grows stalks of blue or white flowers that are a standout on the summer deck, then go off somewhere and sleep out the winter.
I did my deck this year not in blue but in red — red pot sized dahlias and red cannas. These are both tropical plants that die with the first killing frost but leave behind roots that can be dug and stored in a cool dry spot over the winter. I pack them in kennel bedding in plastic grocery bags and hang them from the basement rafters. There are more than three dozen down there now (watch your head). Occasionally I’ll lose one or two in winter, but I have some that have flowered year after year for two decades or more.
There are several smaller bulbs that I just love, especially grouped three or four in a pot. Caladiums are pretty easy to find in spring, often potted and growing, sometimes just the bulbs in bags (cheaper). To get started, the bulbs need warmth and careful watering. If you are an admitted duffer, get one already growing.
Easier to start are Peruvian daffodils (which aren’t daffodils, but at least they didn’t call them Peruvian lilies). They are really Hymenocallis. The flowers are not just beautiful but have one of the top ten scents in the floral kingdom. Most are white, but if you run across the yellow variety, grab it. And grab one for me; mine died.
The unfortunately named blood lily, Scadoxus, deserves a less sanguine name. With red, bristly flower heads the size of oranges, or at least tangerines, guests will notice them. All of these flower in summer and just get stuck dry in the basement or under the bed for the winter. You don’t even need to take them out of the pot.
Speaking of tangerines, my sun porch has several citrus trees. I have never understood why the Benjamin fig is the ubiquitous indoor tree. It is boring and drops its leaves at the slightest affront. Citrus trees don’t carpet the carpet with leaves, at least not as much. And they have sweet scented flowers in winter. Oh, and fruit. Dwarf lemon trees are the most reliable; if you ever pick a lemon off a tree in your family room and taste it, you will never buy a supermarket lemon again.
Another tropical plant not hidden away in the cellar is clivia. If you have only one houseplant, this should be it. Dead easy to grow – it doesn’t even need watering in winter -- tolerant of indoor light, and every year without fail it throws huge flower heads in bright orange. They are a little pricey, about the cost of those Valentine’s Day roses, but the roses die. Clivia will perform for decades. Think of the money you’ll save.
Some semi-tropical plants want cold but not freezing temperatures. Those go in the Bilko door leading from outside, and I leave the lower door half open. They will sprout when they are ready, so you need to check on them occasionally and move them out into the light.
And of course there are the amaryllis. They should be half price soon. With care they too can bloom for many years. If you have the opportunity, get a butterfly amaryllis. Unlike the usual bulbs, these do not go dormant, so the care is less tricky, and the flowers are elegant.
When our kids were young we used to take a winter vacation to Florida. Now I just have to go down the cellar steps or step out on the sunporch. It’s not quite the same, but at least the trip is easier.