Don’t Lose Your Plants This Winter


Winter can be tough on tropical and exotic plants. Although few plants compare to these showy beauties in the heat of summer, low light and freezing temperatures turn even the most robust tropical plant into a shriveled mess. But preparing early can help avert such gardening disasters. Here are a few ways the professionals at Mercer Botanic Gardens protect sensitive plants. Using these tactics, you can reproduce your most valuable plants and protect tender outdoor plants from the next freeze.

Have a Backup 

Gardeners have a few options when it comes to reproducing plants. Some tender grassy plants and bulbs only need dividing,  but annuals are popularly grown from seeds. More advanced gardeners take cuttings from healthy plants and use a rooting hormone to stimulate new roots. Some vegetative plant varieties easily sprout roots when placed in water, but woody plants and shrubs are trickier. For a step-by-step guide on plant propagation, click here:

A few cold-sensitive plants that you can propagate include justicias, kapok trees, queens crape myrtles, salvias, coffees, and princess flowers.

Keeping Plants Warm

Now that you have completed the propagation steps, focus on protecting the parent plant. Certain sensitive tropical plants and palms must be dug up and stored through the winter. Zombie palms, fish tail palms, black bananas, and plumerias cannot withstand any cold weather, even Houston’s mild winters. Plants like plumerias suffer at temperatures below 35 degrees and die after only an hour in freezing temperatures.

For less sensitive plants, drawstring bags, cardboard, blankets, and even small heaters may produce enough heat to keep the plant healthy through a freeze. Even if left unprotected, these plants often spring back from the roots after a hard freeze if mulched appropriately.

Plants like large tropical trees and vines that can’t be brought inside can be wrapped in burlap so they do not go completely dormant during a hard winter. For large trees and shrubs that can’t be wrapped, consider the following tips:

  • Keep plants well watered.
  • Wrap the trunk from the ground to the main branches. 
  • Clear the ground around your tree. Bare soil radiates heat that can protect trees from frost. 
  • Consider using holiday lights in tall tree branches. These lights often emit enough heat to keep freeze damage to a minimum.

With a little work, you can keep your tropicals healthy through winter, so they’ll come back better than ever in spring. For more gardening tips, attend Mercer’s Lunch Bunch meetings the second Wednesday of each month from noon to 2 p.m. Bring a lunch to enjoy while listening to a lecture on a variety of gardening topics. This article was adapted from the Lunch Bunch presentation, Don’t Lose Your Plants This Winter by Jacob Martin.