Tropical Plant Lust


Grow tasty tropical plants

This piece first appeared on Kirkus Book Reviews gardening blog. Check out the current post featuring Michele's interview with Madhur Jaffrey.

At some point in every gardener’s life comes a longing for a conservatory.  I’m not sure what brings this on.  I’d say that it was middle age, but I think age is more a correlation than a cause.  For me, the longing for a conservatory began when I spent a night in a French countryside home that had what our hostess called “a winter room”—a glassed-in room that held citrus trees, tropical plants, tender perennials that required shelter in the winter but otherwise lived outside in a courtyard, and an aviary filled with tiny, brilliantly-colored birds. There were armchairs, and little tables where one might set one’s glass of pastis in the afternoon.

 This might have seemed pompous, or overly fussy, at one time in my life.  But at that moment, I stood in the winter room and thought, “Oh, yes. I need one of these.”

And so began my tragic journey through the world of indoor citrus.

 I’ll spare you the gory details.  Let’s just say that mistakes were made.  In spite of my best efforts, I managed to kill three of four potted citrus I purchased when I got back from France. They were beautiful in November, lush in early December, and by the cold grey dawn of the new year, they had begun their inexorable decline.   Only the calamondin survived—barely. The rest withered and died while I stood helplessly by.

 If only I had picked up Growing Tasty Tropical Plants first.  It was in this clear, useful, and beautifully-illustrated book that I learned that wet, cold roots will send a potted citrus tree to the compost pile before you can say “homemade limoncello.”  My trees were in the wrong kind of potting mix, they were too cold in my (mostly unheated) front room, I had made the mistake of fertilizing them in winter, which shocked the roots, and, in spite of my best efforts not to overwater, I had, in fact, overwatered them.  Root rot set in and never went away.

 The fact that I went out and bought two more citrus trees, and attempted to rehabilitate my barely-alive calamondin, can be credited entirely to authors Laurelynn and Byron Martin, who also own Logee’s Tropical Plants in Danielson, CT.  They make the idea of growing exotic tropical plants indoors sound so reasonable, so attainable, so very do-able.  Papaya?  Why not?  Fig?  Absolutely!  Pineapple guava?  Vanilla bean?  Black pepper?   Of course!

Because the authors are nursery owners and growers, they have seen every form of torture a neophyte gardener can inflict upon a potted tropical plants.  They give solid instructions for choosing a pot and potting soil, watering, fertilizing, pollinating (yes, sometimes you need to get in there and do that yourself) and otherwise caring for these odd and exotic plants.  There’s a troubleshooting guide that gives answers to the most commonly-asked questions about tropical plant problems.  And best of all, each plant profile includes a reassuringly honest “potential problems” to let you know what you’re in for. (Those plant profiles also include photographs and charming illustrations, along with recipes, harvesting tips, and critical information such as minimum indoor temperatures, light requirements, and pruning needs, which is important if you don’t want your indoor plants to devour the sofa.)

So here I go again with my citrus.  I’ve got a Meyer lemon and a Bearss lime in full bloom, and last year’s calamondin is struggling mightily to catch up. They are in the right soil, getting the right amount of water and fertilizer, and best of all, they won’t have to face the cold temperatures of my living room for another eight months or so.  (And when they do, I’m going to put heated seed mats under them to keep the roots warm.) 

If these survive, I might go for a myrtle-leaf chinotto, a lovely little sour orange used in Italian liqueurs and sodas.  And then I might try that crazy tree tomato on page 102.  And the black pepper plant on page 116.  Oh, and it might be interesting to grow a cinnamon tree (page 118) and a chocolate tree (p. 106).  I haven’t yet started construction on the conservatory, but it’s only a matter of time.  Someone take my passport away:  if I catch sight of one more French orangerie, I’m done for.



  1. I may get it too, so I can figure out how to grow these more appropriate plants in my yard. Currently, despite unseasonably cool weather here – I’m in a sweater! in New Orleans, in May – my hydrangea is already wilting.

  2. A winter room filled with tropical fruit trees and songbirds would be BLISS. We had a crested canary (Elvis) given to us by a neighbor who had to find him a home. While I would never want a caged bird again, learning about canaries (Germany history/Bird Man of Alcatraz/French aviary rooms) made me put a “winter room” with these amazing songbirds at the very top of my bucket list.

  3. The orangerie idea is captivating (and middle age definitely has nothing to do with it as I’m 29). 🙂 I recently toured Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown and their orangerie was beautifully filled with palms. One day…

  4. I find that in the middle of winter I daydream about owning a conservatory. I cram all my tropicals into a a makeshift temporary greenhouse that is difficult to maintain and never seems big enough. And then summer happens and I can’t imagine having to take care of a greenhouse when everyone seems so happy outdoors.

    I grow most of what that book covers. I would advise anyone wanting to grow tropical fruit outside of the tropics to use it as a starting point but talk to other gardeners in your area before you get in too deep. A lot of the fruit will never taste as good as people claim.

  5. Vanilla plant ? Cinnamon tree ? I’d never before imagined growing them myself…

    I live in a mild-winter climate, but suddenly … I need a conservatory !

  6. Oh, man, do NOT get me started on fancypants tropical edibles. I’m still of the opinion that if I can’t neglect and torture it, it’s not right for me. But a chocolate tree? I want!!!

  7. Own a conservatory? Hell, I’ve dreamed about living in one for years! I try to focus on fruit that I can’t easily get at a supermarket, so I’ve got a calamondin and a Surinam cherry, and some funky tropical herbs like Australian mint, curry leaf (murraya, not helichrysum) and broad-leafed thyme.

    I’m probably going to click the button on a dwarf starfruit and perhaps a guava this month, from Logee’s of course. Sure, I’ll never get my money’s worth out of the few fruits I grow, but is that really the point? Let our obsessions be obsessions, I say!

    P.S. Cinnamon has gorgeous red new leaves. Just sayin. ;>)

  8. Even though I live here in Florida I keep telling myself I am not going to buy any more plants that I have to keep dragging in and out all winter long its so easy to get suckered into those beautiful tropicals during the summer but come winter here we go again… in 2 weeks out 2 weeks (yes we have freezes down here) its not to bad if its just a couple of small pots but when it gets over the 40+ count and these are 10,12,14 and 16 inch pots (did I mention clay pots) a couple actually had to be moved with a dolly. 3 people 2 cats and dozens of pots shoved in every corner is not the winter tropical paradise one would imagine it to be.

  9. Oh yes, I’ve killed my share of Meyer lemon trees, the only ‘tropical’ fruit I’ve ever tried to grow. At this point in my life I am concentrating on getting artichoke plants to live through the winter out in my garden. I think I’ve done it this year. Forget tropical — give me Mediterranean. Meanwhile, maybe you can satisfy my curiosity about the proper pronunciation of Logee’s — is it a hard or soft ‘g’?

  10. I have tropical plant lust! Since we don’t have plans for a greenhouse, I have a few cold hardy plants that look tropical: a musa basjoo variety banana and a windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei). We are thinking of getting a cold hardy grapefruit or kumquat. We’re in zone 8A so we should be okay with citrus provided it gets a good layer of mulch. Thanks for letting us know about this book, will put on my TBR.

  11. I just got my Logees order — here in far-from-tropical Vermont. Crazy. Maybe I should get this book, too, so I don’t kill them.

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