Destinations Magazine

Exotics in the Winter

By Alternativeeden @markngaz
One thing we sometimes get asked is what happens to all our exotic plants over winter and how do they cope with the snow and the cold?

The first thing to remember is that not all of our plants come from tropical locations, an exotic plant by definition is one that is not native, however like many others we use the word to conjure up the image of the tropics. Only some of our plants are actually tropical, many are unusual or hardy relatives of tropical plants or simply hardy plants that help create a feeling when grouped with other plants.

Of course we do grow a number of tender tropicals, and for the small number of these plants, there are warm places for them to get tucked away into, such as our two greenhouses which are heated, the "exotic shed" Mark mentioned in this post, or even the house (see the photos here of our kitchen from 2010).  But for the majority of plants they just have to get on with things out in the garden, taking the snow frost and cold in their stride.

Exotics in the Winter

Cycas revoluta, reasonably hardy, however we keep these in pots and move them if very bad
weather is expected. But for the majority of winter they stay outside. Last year they were moved
under cover for just a couple of weeks or so.

Exotics in the Winter

And the cycad with the recent snow...

Plants that are truly tropical would not cope with such weather, for example coconut palms, which immediately make you think of tropical beaches, quite simply would not grow in the UK. So instead of using tropical plants we use plants that look tropical but in fact are often far from it.

One of the hardiest palms that will grow in the UK is Trachycarus fortunei. This is very tough, with some reports indicating it can survive well below -20C (the worst we have ever had is -10C). It is tolerant of our cold and wet winters, and is reasonably fast growing. The humble Trachy, as its affectionately known by many, can put on a foot or so of trunk in a year once it is established and we now have several that are growing at this rate. It is also pretty tough when it comes to being dug up or transplanted so larger specimens are available to buy for that instant impact. There are of course a number of other hardy palms suitable for growing in the UK, such as Chamaerops humilis, but in terms of speed and the ability to take what nature can give them, nothing else beats the T. fortunei (including the smaller, stiffer leafed T. wagnerianus.)

Trachycarpus leaves

Palms look tropical, but Trachycarpus fortunei is totally hardy here

For height we also grow quite a number of bamboos and all of the ones we grow are reliably hardy for our location. Bamboos such as Phyllostachys nigra,  P. vivax, or P. aurea are easily available, fast growing and tough. Bamboo does have a reputation for being aggressive, but we have found by keeping on top of them and by not planting the very thuggish ones such as Sasa palmata f. nebulosa, they can be controlled. These bamboos are not going to be adversely affected by a typical winter. So are they exotic? Yes they are, with some of them originally hailing from East Asia. But are they tropical? No they are not, rather temperate plants but they do look tropical, and by combining them with other tropical look-alikes then you can easily imbibe such a feel to the garden.

Exotics in the Winter

Butter yellow new cane on Phyllostachys vivax 'Aureocaulis'

Exotics in the Winter

New shoots on Phyllostachys aurea

Other plants such as unusual looking ferns, rhododendrons, grasses, and hostas also helps add to the feel of being exotic.

Exotics in the Winter

Exotic looking, but all hardy plants

Exotics in the Winter

Big leaves, palms, and ferns give the exotic effect. The ferns on the right hand side are potted as not fully
hardy, these are moved to warmer places over winter.

Plants with big leaves, the bigger the better, also help weave the story. Fatsia japonica (on the left hand side of the photo above) looks far more delicate than it actually is, its relative Fatsia polycarpa is slightly more tender, but is happy in our garden. 

As well as using plants that already have a long history of existence in the UK such as those mentioned above, we also use a number of newer introductions. The fact that these are not widely available and won't be found in your ordinary nursery or garden centre helps with the illusion, if people are not familiar with something then it can seem far more exotic. One of the best families of plants for this are the Scheffleras, with S. taiwaniana and S. rhododendrifolia amongst the best for growing in the UK. We have featured a number of these before, including this summary from November last year.

Exotics in the Winter

Schefflera kornasii

So although we have an exotic and tropical style garden, and grow mainly exotic plants that look tropical, most of them are actually hardy in our location, and can sail through the typical winter conditions our garden receives every year. Saying that, we always live in hope that we don't get seriously cold temperatures every winter, and every mild spell during that season is certainly preferred and appreciated.


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