Cold Hardy Tropical Plants – Effects of Cold Temperatures on Plant Growth

Question: When winter rolls around this question starts coming in.
“It got cold last night and I forgot my usually hardy tropical plant – Ficus or Dracaena – sat outside in the cold temperatures. Now the leaves have turned brown and are starting to fall off. Is the plant dead? Can it be saved?”

Answer: Plants drop leaves for a reason, it could be seasonal, protection, stress or it’s flat out dying.

Cold damage on ficus rubber plant

Hardy tropical plants like Spathiphyllum (peace lily) or spider plant may show burned leaves from the cold temperatures, depending on a number of items:

  • Temperature
  • Length of time plant was exposed to the cold
  • Wind chill
  • Overall plant health
  • Other variables all effecting the possibilities of the houseplant growing back

It may take a considerable amount of time for a usually hardy plant to recover if it does at all.

When tropical plants go through extended periods of exposure to cold temperatures many times the leaves become very dark and discolored. Some varieties such as Draceana massangeana show blackened tips and leaves.

Cell Collapse from Cold Exposure

Exactly what is happening with the leaves on these plants? Cell collapse!

Stop and think of what happens when you get sunburned – skin begins to peal, the cells have been destroyed. Plants shed their skin – their leaves.

That quickly covers the “tropical” foliage part of the plants.

What about a plant that lost all of its leaves and the only thing left are branches, canes or tips that don’t look very good. What steps do you take?

Be Realistic Of Survival

As much as you may love your plant, you must be realistic – It may be too far gone!

If you think you want to try and revive or re-grow this tropical back to a lush beauty – go ahead you’ve got nothing to lose. Pull out the clippers and start trimming.

Start by looking at the bark, is it black, shriveled or appear separated from the trunk? If so the plant is usually beyond help. Don’t focus only on the top of the plant, look down at the base.

Next… high up on the trunk, scrap the bark. If you find any brown at all, keep moving lower down the trunk, scraping the bark (in small areas about as big as a pencil eraser) until you find green, believe me, you’ll know when you find it.

When you find an area of green on the stem or branch, cut off everything above that point. When you finish going over every trunk and branch – you may have a plant that stands some chance of coming back and looking “tropical” again.

Remember, the foliage wasn’t the only part exposed to the cold temperatures, branches and stems “felt” the cold chill too and so did the roots. No matter how hardy the plant or how much effort you expend this houseplant may not survive.

Root Damage?

The root damage may be so severe you’re fighting an uphill battle. Once you’ve performed this plant surgery, DO NOT start pouring water and fertilizer on the plant.

Maintain regular plant care. You will most likely need to reduce the quantity and frequency of watering.

I know many people become attached to their plants, they want to try and do everything they can to recover their treasure.

After extreme exposure to cold temperatures most tropical plants have a very difficult time in re-growing to their old shape and stature – even under optimal growing conditions.

The quantity of effort you put into saving plants that suffer extreme cold temperature damage may be better suited to replacing and caring for a new one (just my thoughts).

The best remedy is to keep your eyes on the weather and bring your plants in before and cold hits, or better yet, keep your plants indoors all year round.


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