Sunday, February 1, 2009

What's Growing So Far

Plants in my garden can be grouped into six categories:

1) Broad leaved evergreens such as southern Magnolias, Aucuba, some Viburnum species and others.
2) Desert plants inluding various cacti, Yucca and Agave
3) Tropical flowering plants like Canna, Albizia, Gardenia and Clerodendron
4) Bamboo
5) Palms and bananas
6) Tropical looking hardy plants like Hostas (which we are not going to discuss here).

Broad Leaved Evergreens
Click on pictures for a better view.

Evergeen Magnolias are a favourite
in southern states, but amazingly they survive here as well. They stand out in summer with their large glossy foliage, which is retained right through winter. Some varieties may brown somewhat by April but new leaves will follow. I am currently trying three in my garden. They are in order of hardiness: Magnolia grandiflora Edith Bogue, Magnolia g. Victoria and Magnolia g. D.D. Blanchard. The latter is on a sheltered east facing wall and the other two are out in the open. Victoria (top left) has survived four winters, DD Blanchard (bottom left) two and Edith Bogue (bottom right) is experiencing it's first Niagara winter.

Other broadleaved evergreens that are doing well for me are several varieties of Aucuba. I have both the variegated (below top left) and green (below top right) forms, but the variegated forms add a definite tropical touch to the landscape. These are best in a sheltered location protected from winter wind and mid-day sun both of which can burn the foliage. That having been said, the one I have out in the open looked all but dead for the last few weeks with temperatures around -10 C, but today it's 3 C above freezing and the leaves have perked up nicely. The other broad leaved evergreen that is performing very well is the evergreen cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus (below bottom left and bottom right, at right in winter). These stand up better to extreme cold than Rhododendrons. Cherry laurels produce masses of fragrant white blooms in spring.

Desert Plants

Most gardeners in southern Ontario are probably familiar with hardy cacti in the form of Opuntia or Prickly Pear. These plants grow wild from Canada down to Patagonia so it's no surprise that they survive Niagara winters. But many lesser known species of cacti will grow here as well. Pencil Cholla Cactus (below, top), Corypantha vivipara (bottom left) and Cylindropuntia imbricata (bottom right) have all wintered several years in my garden. In some texts the hardiness for Cylindropuntia is said to be 5 C above freezing. The one in my garden has survived two Niagara winters, and I have seen others nearby that have grown to five feet tall...In Canada? So don't always believe what you read. Instead, experiment and have fun!

Needless to say, Cacti are desert plants and will not do well in wet soil. Plant these in raised beds of gravely soil or near foundations where the ground is drier. The ones I have tried will hang limp in cold weather, but they have all recovered in summer.

Yuccas are another group of plants not uncommon to our climate, but the one typically seen is Yucca filimentosa which is stemless. Other types of Yucca produce an above ground stem which gives mature specimens the appearance of a palm tree. Some of these will survive our winter as long as they are grown in well-drained soil and protected from rot caused by snow and excessive rain. It is not clear to me how quickly (or slowly) they will produce a trunk. The best bet for our particular climate I am told is Yucca elata as it seems to be slightly more tolerant of wet soils than other types. So far in my garden it is holding up well, although it has no trunk yet. Stay tuned.

Tropical Flowering Plants

There are many types of tropical flowering plants, some of which are hardy in our zone 6 climate, while others need a little protection to come through.

My favourite currently in my garden for its finely textured foliage is Albizia julibrissin also known as Mimosa Tree. I have two in the garden, the straight green form (top) and the much rarer Albizia Summer Chocolate (bottom left). Both produce the silky pink flowers (bottom right) in summer. Albizias are a bit late to leaf out in spring giving them a generally dead appearance in May, but the summer foliage is worth it.

Clerodendrum trichotomum is the only species of this tropical genus to survive in Niagara. There are several growing at the Niagara Parks in Niagara Falls and some winters these behave as die-back shrubs, with new shoots coming from the roots and in milder winters they produce new buds from the old wood. Either way they produce interesting flowers in summer (top) which give way to fruit in fall (bottom). This is the first winter for the one in the garden.

Another flowering plant that is experiencing its first Niagara winter is Gardenia Kleims hardy pictured last summer and below a few weeks ago. So far it's holding up well to the cold under a layer of snow. But winter is not over yet so time will tell.


The name alone tends to frighten some people because bamboo has a reputation for being aggresive. Some types like Phyllostachys are indeed aggresive spreaders, but these can be managed with barriers or by pulling back new shoots in spring. Other types like Fargesia are well behaved clump forming plants. Either way they add a touch of the exotic to the Canadian landscape. Until a few years ago bamboos were difficult to find. But growers are suddenly producing lots of them and these are available at most garden shops. The trouble is they are young plants that will take some years to reach landscape size. If possible try to find field dug specimens that will add to your landscape instantly. A field dug Fargesia in my garden produced enough stems in four years to make four new clumps. I am also trying Fargesia robusta which is supposed to grow up to ten feet here, but it is still a young plant and nowhere near that size. I have noticed however that its foliage (bottom) stands up much better to frost than the other Fargesia.

Hardy Palms and Bananas

Well here's where things get interesting. A banana in Canada, can you imagine. The truth is some types (Musa basjoo, Musa sikkimensis and a few others) do survive here with proper protection and although they are late to grow in spring, they more than make up for this in growth rate, reaching 10 to 15 feet by late summer under ideal conditions. So what do they need? Bananas will grow best here on a south facing wall in rich soil that is kept moist. This helps feed their growth. When winter approaches the tender roots will need protection from frost and this is easily accomplished by piling bags of leaves up around the stems. More on this later.

Palm trees in Niagara? Why not!
A google search of hardy palm trees turns up several names.
Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is thought to be the hardiest.
Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor) is a shrub palm.
Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) the hardiest of the true trunk forming palms.
Mazari Palm (Nannorrhops rtchiana) is a new arrival from Afghanistan.

I have tried all four of these in the garden and the only one that has survived more than two winters is the Sabal minor. It is now in the garden for four years and every summer it produces new growth. Mind you it's only four inches tall and will probably never be more than this. The fact is a palm tree survived in Niagara with no winter protection. I have since planted a larger Sabal (pictured above) and wrap it up nicely for winter.

The Needle palm survived two winters and I'm convinced it would have been alive still had the rabbit not chewed off the new growth.

The windmill palm lasted well into the first winter, but not beyond that. And the very expensive Mazari palm which is experiencing it's first Niagara winter is all but dead.

Stay tuned for updates.


  1. Great blog. I’m moving to the Niagara are this spring and I plan on trying a few hardy tropical’s in my yard.

  2. Hi, I just discovered your blog and I have to say that I am thrilled to find someone else in my general region (I'm in Syracuse, NY) who enjoys experimenting with subtropical plants. I just started a blog ( and I'll be writing about my experimentation with such plants. This spring I'll be planting Musa basjoo, possibly Musa sikkimensis, and 3 varieties of hardy camellia. I also have a southern magnolia in the ground (seedling). Do you have any experience with musa sikkimensis?

    1. It's unfortunate that I cannot post the picture of my backyard as it contains banana trees, Wind Mill Palm Tree and the Yucca. The palm tree has survived 2 winters outdoors. Of course with Xmas lights, straw and special cloth, it keep the tree toasty warm especially through the polar vortex temperatures. I love the tropical I now enjoy the Staycation at home by the pool.