Gardening: Tropical houseplants need a warm, welcoming touch

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News
Cordyline is a genus of about 15 species of woody monocotyledonous flowering plants in family Asparagaceae, subfamily Lomandroideae. The subfamily has previously been treated as a separate family Laxmanniaceae,[2] or Lomandraceae. Other authors have placed the genus in the Agavaceae (now Agavoideae). Cordyline is native to the western Pacific Ocean region, from New Zealand, eastern Australia, southeastern Asia and Polynesia, with one species found in southeastern South America.

Now that tropical houseplants have again become all the rage (they were really hot back in the '50s and '60s), you’ll find them popping up for sale in unexpected places. While I buy most of my houseplants at garden centers, like any good shopper I’m always on the lookout for hot buys. I expect they will soon be selling at gas stations.

I stopped at a local garden center several days ago to pick up some potting soil for transplanting and spied a good-sized houseplant – a gorgeous red Cordyline -- that would make a colorful addition to the OPC Stonehouse Garden next summer. Lucky for me I can over-winter a plant of this size in the OPC Atrium until planting time outdoors. The problem was it was bitter cold and windy outside. Those aren't the kind of conditions one should subject a tropical plant to, so even though the plant was on sale, I passed.

When it’s cold outside you should wrap a houseplant before taking it out doors but in winter there are days when even that won’t work.

Plastic bags are not recommended for use as frost protection as they actually conduct the cold and do more damage than good. Bubble wrap, on the other hand works well, but it takes up a good bit of room.

A professional gardener gave me a great tip several years ago about the versatility of those heavy-duty paper bags used to recycle yard waste. He always carries a bunch in his truck and car, along heavy-duty scissors, because they are so versatile and he’s always finding uses for them.

They can quickly be cut up to use as protective floor liners, when transporting plants.

When cut to size they make great temporary pots to hold when moving and dividing plants because they don’t fall apart when dampness permeates them. There are dozens of uses for them in the garden, but for me they are also perfect for transporting tender plants in cold weather. If you have room in the trunk, empty cardboard boxes also work. The scrap paper left over when cutting down the bags can be scrunched up to use as a filler. That’s what shippers used before plastic. It makes a good insulator and stabilizer.

When buying tender plants out of season, understand that if  they have been subjected to cold, they need time to adapt. Some will pout and droop a bit. Others will drop leaves. Our knee-jerk reaction too often to water, water, water and fertilize, which does more harm than good. Best to give them the recommended care they need and time to re-adjust.

 Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.