Winter Care for Outdoor Tropical Plants

By Gil Medeiros, former Fairfax Master Gardener
I am a New Englander, born and raised. Nevertheless, I love the look of tropical plants in the landscape and have grown quite a few here in Northern Virginia. Unfortunately, by their nature, most tropical plants cannot survive our zone 7 winters – unless, as I have found, you take steps to protect them when cold temperatures hit.

There are thousands of tropical plants. Here are the ones that are most commonly grown in our area, along with my tried and true recommendations for protecting them come winter:

Needle Palm

Needle Palm

True Palms
I learned the hard way that most palms can’t survive our winters without help. I grew Windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) and Sabal ‘Birmingham’ palms in my backyard for three years, confident they were hardy here despite what the literature said. Reality crashed down upon my “trachies” and sabals during the first polar vortex winter. Temperatures fell to the low single digits — several times. That killed the little growing tips at the apex of the trunks. Goodbye palms.

I still grow Windmill palms along with a European Fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) and a Pindo palm (Butia capitata). These are in pots now and go into an unheated greenhouse for the winter. The greenhouse provides zone 8 conditi