bright yellow hibiscus flower

Tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) in full bloom

Updated: September 29, 2021

Key points

  • Tropical plants such as bananas, caladiums, elephant ears, tropical hibiscus, mandevilla, palms, ficus, and schefflera provide a summery ambiance to outdoor living spaces during the warmer months.
  • Plants do well outdoors from late spring (mid-May) through early fall. Before the end of the growing season (when nighttime temperatures regularly drop into the mid-to-low 50s ℉) a plan needs to be in place to overwinter the plants, providing you want to enjoy them again next season.
  • Ficus, schefflera (umbrella tree), and palms can be moved indoors and treated as houseplants. Mandevilla and hibiscus plants can be overwintered indoors, provided there is a bright-light location. Or they can be stored as dormant plants for the winter months. This web page has detailed information for overwintering these and other plants.

General tips 

Treat them as indoor plants...

  • Before moving plants indoors, treat them with a houseplant insecticide such as a horticultural oil labeled for houseplants or insecticidal soap to reduce the chance of pests. Outdoors, pests are kept in check by natural parasites and predators
  • Lessen watering and do not fertilize until you see new growth in later winter or early spring. 
  • If necessary, supplement lighting with artificial lights.
  • Monitor for pests when you water. 
  • Pests to look for - scale, mealybugs, aphids, whitefly, and spider mites. Begin treatment immediately if you see insect pests or signs of pests like webbing, honeydew (a sticky substance found on leaves), stippling (tiny yellow spots), or a white, waxy substance on the leaves or on stems. 

Or maintain them in a dormant state...

  • Prune if needed to reduce the size of the plant if it is too large for the overwintering space.  
  • Before moving plants indoors, treat them with a houseplant insecticide such as a horticultural oil labeled for houseplants or insecticidal soap to reduce the chance of pests. Outdoors, pests are kept in check by natural parasites and predators.
  • Move containers to a frost-free space. 
  • With little or no light all of the leaves will drop but this is not a concern.
  • Check the containers periodically and water sparingly to keep the roots alive. But do not let plants sit in wet soil.
  • In April, move the plants to a sunny location indoors, increase watering, and fertilize with a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer. 
  • Prune again if needed to shape the plants. 
  • Move plants back outdoors after the danger of frost has passed.

Banana plants, Musa spp.

Red banana plant leaves
Red banana
  • Typically, the red banana plant (Ensete vetricosum ‘Maurelii’) is the variety most frequently grown. The leaves have deep red markings and plants do not grow as large as most other bananas (Musa spp).
  • Unlike larger banana varieties, they can be brought indoors. They will most likely decline, but will survive until next spring. Keep red banana plants in a very bright window and water thoroughly whenever the soil dries completely.
  • The older leaves will die and need to be trimmed off.
  • Spider mites are often a serious problem. 
  • When preparing to move red banana trees back outside, stimulate growth by cutting off the top two or three inches of the stem on mature plants.
  • Container-grown bananas can also be overwintered in the dormant state indoors.
  • Japanese banana (Musa basjoo) is the most cold-hardy banana tree. The rhizomes are cold hardy to -10 degrees F.

 Overwintering bananas in the ground

  • In the warmer regions of the state, like Baltimore City, the Eastern Shore, and Southern Maryland, large in-ground banana plants can be overwintered outdoors. For this process to be successful they need to have been planted in well-drained soil in a wind-protected location. 
  • After frost kills the leaves, cut stems back to 2 ft. Encircle the roots and the cut stems with a cage (can use chicken wire or something similar) and fill it in with layers of collected leaves or straw. If necessary, the top of the plant can be covered with a plastic tarp to shed rain, sleet, and snow. 
  • Uncover and remove the mulch when nighttime temperatures are in the low to mid 50 ℉ range. Begin to water and fertilize.

Caladiums and elephant ears, Colocasia spp.

different varieties of caladium
Caladiums come in white and mixtures of reds and shades of pink
  • Caladiums are colorful natives of South America that brighten up shady places in the landscape. 
  • Elephant ears are related to caladiums but leaves are a solid green and they can take more sun. Leaves can grow as wide and long as three or four feet. Dark-leaved cultivars of elephant ears can make a dramatic statement in a garden. Both are started from tubers.
  • Plants do not survive well indoors but tubers can overwinter with proper preparation and storage.
    • Cut leaves at ground level when they start to yellow or after they die back following a frost. Carefully dig up the tubers to avoid damaging them.   
    • Brush off the soil but do not wash them as that can cause them to rot. In a dry location, place them on a screen, cardboard, or newspaper in a single layer to cure for about 7-10 days. Turn them periodically so they dry on all sides. 
    • Place them on a mesh bottom tray, in a crate, or a cardboard box with ventilation holes punched into the sides. Do not let the tubers touch each other. Cover them with dry potting soil or shredded paper. 
    • Store them in a cool, dry but frost-free place.
    • Tubers should be on the dry side during the dormancy period but not allowed to completely dry out. Periodically, check them and mist them with water if they are starting to dry out too much. Discard any that are rotting.
    • For a headstart on the growing season, pot them up in late February. Place one tuber in a container filled with soilless potting mixture just a little larger than the tuber.
    • Move the pots to a warm, bright location. Water them as needed to promote new growth. Plant them outdoors in mid-May through early June.
    • Or tubers can be planted directly outdoors once the soil has warmed (mid-May in central Maryland).

Tropical hibiscus, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

  • Potted hibiscus can overwinter indoors or be allowed to go dormant. 
  • If treated as a houseplant, they need bright light so place near a sunny, southern, or southwest window. It is possible they will flower again once they adjust to their new growing conditions. 
  • During the adjustment period, they will drop some leaves and stop growing. Cut back on water and do not fertilize until you see some new growth. 
  • Large plants can be trimmed back, which will help them grow fuller. 
  • Susceptible to spider mites and scale insects.

Mandevilla vines, Mandevilla spp. 

Mandevilla vine with pink flowers
Mandevilla vine
  • This popular tropical has pink, red, or white flowers and is usually grown as an annual. 
  • With a little care, mandevilla can overwinter indoors either as an indoor plant or allowed to go dormant. 
  • If planted in the ground it will need to be dug up and planted in a container before bringing it indoors. 
  • Before digging it up, prune it back to reduce its size to accommodate the space where it will be overwintered and to compensate for any root loss.
  • Place it in a bright, sunny location such as near a slider door.
  • Mandevillas are susceptible to mealybugs and spider mites.

 Ficus trees, Ficus spp.

the leaves of a weeping ficus
Ficus benjamina (weeping fig)
Photo: Raffi Kojian / Gardenology.org
  • Three well-known members of the genus Ficus are rubber plant (F.  elastica), weeping fig (F. benjamina), and the fiddle leaf fig (F. lyrata). 
  • The most commonly grown type is the weeping fig but fiddle leaf fig has grown in popularity with indoor plant growers. 
  • Outdoors in the tropics, plants can reach 20 feet or more. Indoors, they are typically floor plants and are maintained at the desired height by pruning.  
  • Weeping fig is known for dropping leaves when moved indoors. Always place them in the brightest location in your home, especially for the first few weeks. During this period of adjustment, keep the soil a little drier than usual. 
  • Weeping figs will eventually produce new leaves that are better adjusted to indoor light intensities. However, rubber trees and fiddle leaf figs will not replace leaves that are lost indoors even when moved back outdoors. 
  • All ficus are susceptible to scale.

Palms

arching palm leaves
Palm leaves
  •  Various species of palms are used outdoors during the summer. The most commonly sold palms are parlor palms (Chamaedorea elegans), which have arching leaves that are about two feet long. 
  • Fortunately, all palms adapt quite well to being moved back indoors as long as they are not overwatered. 
  • Bring them indoors and place them in a bright, sunny window. Older leaves may die until they adjust to the change. 
  • Palm leaves can collect a lot of household dust. This reduces the amount of light received, resulting in leaf yellowing. Clean them with a damp cloth periodically during the winter. 
  • Indoors, palms are quite susceptible to spider mite damage.

 Schefflera, Schefflera actinophylla

Schefflera foliage
Schefflera foliage
  • Schefflera (umbrella trees) are very popular, attractive, and easy-to-grow plants either indoors or outside. 
  • Outdoors in the tropics, they grow almost 40 feet tall. Indoors, their sizes range from 6 ft. to 15 ft. 
  • They thrive outdoors in the summer but often have trouble adjusting to lower light intensity when moved back indoors. Expect some leaf drop as they make the adjustment. 
  • They need a medium-to-high light location indoors
  • Relatively pest-free but still monitor for pests, especially spider mites.

Based on publication HG 105 Overwintering Tropical Plants (archived). Author: Raymond Bosmans, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland. Compiled by Debra Ricigiliano, HGIC. Revised 2021