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The plant world is filled with anachronisms – plants that cling to forms better
suited to another time: fruits meant for seed dispersers long extinct, and odd
flowers that pine for pollinators once plentiful. Perhaps this is a function of a
plants existence. After all, a plant inserts its roots into the soil, or into the
bark of a host, and is likely to remain in that location for the rest of its life
(although the intrepid tumbleweed is certainly an exception to that rule!).
Connie Barlow popularized the idea of anachronistic plant fruits in her book,
The Ghosts of Evolution. Its pages are haunted by stories of plants that
seem ill-suited to their current environment. Barlow imagines that pawpaws
were meant for mammoths, that avocados were intended for extinct giant
sloths, and that the foul-smelling ginkgo fruits are still trying to attract
scavenging dinosaurs. Her hypothesis seems highly plausible, as no clear
alternate explanations for the odd characteristics she describes have been
put forth. So, if a fruit can persist in form and structure for hundreds or even
thousands of years or longer, can cold hardiness also lay dormant in
bananas, palms, and other tropical herbaceous plants, a memory of colder

In fact, there are populations of plants that seem to have maintained an

ability to withstand far harsher climates than they typically endure today.
How could such a thing happen? There are several possibilities, including
ancient meteor impacts, spreading and retreating ice caps brought on by
cooling temperatures, the movement of the earth's crustal plates, and the
crust upheavals which have resulted in some of the earth's mountain

Today there are still over 300 species of cycads, which was one of the
earliest plants to develop tough-shelled seeds in order to propagate
themselves, rather than reproduce from spores. These ancient plants have
existed for almost 300 million years, and were a predominant land plant
before and during the age of dinosaurs. One can see how ancient they are
simply by noting that cycads look like a cross between a fern and a palm
tree. In fact, many cycads have fronds which unfurl in much the same way
that a fern fiddlehead unfurls from its crown. For the most part, cycads
occur in tropical rain forests, or desert savannah. The distribution of modern
cycads matches the geologic record of plate tectonics, spanning continents
today that were once part of a larger unified continent called Gondwana.
Climatologists and geologists have shown that the earth has experienced
many changes since these plants evolved, including a climate altering
meteor impact which apparently wiped out the dinosaurs, as well as
numerous ice ages. So at the very least, cycads have very tough seeds, but
equally likely is the possibility that some cycad species have evolved
hardiness strategies to help them cope with climate changes. In fact, many
species of cycads exhibit a peculiar growth habit where they produce a new
flush of fronds after which they essentially go dormant. Give a cycad a few
sunny months on your patio in the summer, and you can put it in a dark
corner in your house for the rest of the year!

The expansion and retreat of glaciers no doubt applied evolutionary pressure

on some plants. Even today one can find isolated populations of plants
whose close relatives are hundreds or thousands of miles away. Yet there
seems to be no geographic or climatological explanation for the lack of these
plants in the areas between populations. However, when you look for
evidence of retreating glaciers, you often find that in fact the areas where
these plant species are missing were in fact scoured by ice sheets at some
point in the past. Furthermore, the isolated population, probably because of
the cool island on which they found themselves trapped, exhibit greater
hardiness than their cousins which may have been closer to a sea coast, or
to the equator. There is a species of american pitcher plant that occurs far
inland, in the mountains of George, entirely cut off from other species in the
same genus, which usually grow in low swamps through the south. It is
certainly possible that the mountain population was once part of a much
larger population of pitcher plants which extended from the coasts of the
southeastern United States well into the foothills of the various mountain
ranges that make up Appalachia. If that's the case, then possibly this
population became separated by the encroachment of glaciers during one of
the many ice ages the earth has endured.

In a similar fashion, crust upheavals have resulted in some plant populations

being isolated on mountains. This slow process gives some plant species an
opportunity to simply migrate downward as the land rises, but others have
evolved into forms which can endure cooler temperatures and higher
amounts of solar radiation at higher elevations. Some plants become dwarf,
while others evolve bluish gray scales or fine coatings of hair which serve as
both insulation and as shielding from ultraviolet light. For example, the
distribution of tropical pitcher plant species in the genus Nepenthes are
roughly grouped into two categories - lowland and highland forms. The
lowland forms are climbing tropical vines that grow in steamy equatorial
swamps, trapping insects or collecting detritus from the forest canopy in
order to acquire the nutrients they need. Highland forms tend to be short,
brittle, clamoring shrubs which are sometimes covered in fine hairs to help
insulate them on high tropical mountains where the temperature can drop to
near freezing on some of the tallest peaks. Superficially lowland and
highland plants look quite similar, but in reality, they have diverged

For many of us, imagination fans our enthusiasm for whatever hobby we
pursue, and gardening is no exception. A geranium can certainly liven a
balcony or porch with color, but it has a mass-produced ordinariness that
repels many gardeners. I started gardening in a moderate climate (zone 6),
but I always envied those who could grow tropical plants out in their yard. I
remember how excited I was at their first glimpse of spiky palm fronds on a
Florida road trip. I remember being amazed at the large camellia shrubs near
Savannah George in full bloom at Christmas, and at swaying banana leaves,
green and vibrant in February in courtyard gardens in New Orleans. And
when I moved west, I was no less excited to see the streets of Phoenix and
Las Vegas lined with palms. Many of us do not live in tropical or subtropical
regions, and instead must cope with the stern, graying effects of long chilly
winters. We and our tropical plants experience an all-too-brief warm summer
on the patio, followed by a long spell trapped in an interior desert where the
humidity is low enough to wreak havoc on sinuses and stomata alike. And
we watch helplessly as our garden browns and withers from the cell busting
cold of the first hard frosts. Fall colors don't always make up for the losses!

We can all think of a plant or two that looks tropical but has a surprising level
of hardiness in cold, harsh weather. Some live in environments where the
climate can go from one extreme to another in a very short period of time, in
any season of the year. There are numerous trees and shrubs from New
Zealand and South Africa that have adapted to sudden weather changes or
prolonged seasonal variations, including callas, cycads, flax, and Eucalyptus.
Others may retain a latent ability to endure severe cold as a result of past
climates – an anachronistic legacy hardiness serving no purpose in the
environment in which the plant currently grows, but resulting from prolonged
extreme growing conditions it may have experienced in the distant past.

The DNA of plants can be thought of as a collective memory of the

environment and climates their ancestors had to endure in order to survive
to the present day. But plants, like all living organisms, are more complex
and adaptable than their genes would suggest. Every living thing is
challenged during its lifespan, and our hard coded DNA software is not
sufficient to enable us to endure all those challenges. The processes that
occur within our cells, you can think of it as the execution of the DNA
software, are complex networks of interactions of proteins and enzymes,
which are resilient to disruption, because they are so old, and they are native
to this volatile planet. It's as though life has reacted to the disorder and
randomness that it occasionally has to cope with, with an appropriate degree
of disorder and randomness. We might grab an umbrella on a sunny day
because past experience has taught us that at certain times of year, there
might be torrential downpours on a day that starts out sunny and bright.
Plants can't reach for an umbrella or an overcoat, so instead, they have their
own strategies for coping with jarring shifts in climate and conditions,
whether its a tough seed or a whole suite of physical traits that are obvious
or unseen. And therein lies the challenge - ferreting out the stealthy plant
that's successfully endured bitter cold even though it looks like any other
tropical plant.
The Adventure Begins...

Years ago, when I bought my first house, I began experimenting with plants
that were hardy in zones south of where I lived (I live in USDA Zone 6b). I
began by laying to rest a pair of fading dogwoods and two sickly lopsided
contractor-grade maples. They made better mulch than shade. I replaced the
maples with Blue Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica), an evergreen true cedar
with blue-gray foliage from northern Africa. Advertised as hardy to Zone 7, it
had no problems surviving cold and windy Zone 6 winters. Obviously the
north African mountain range they heralded from was cooler than most
thought, either now or in the past! While I attempted some semblance of
design in the front yard, the backyard was strictly botanical garden style;
since I like variety, I promptly decided I would grow one of everything. That’s
the advantage of loving plants and eschewing design: unlike Noah, you don’t
have to find a mate for each new acquisition

Soon I started eyeing plants that normally grew farther south. This wasn’t
the first time I’d drifted into what some call “zone denial.” Years ago, I lived
in a first floor apartment with a front garden. There, I discovered that callas
come back every year with just a modest covering of mulch. I also found that
the blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea) is root hardy here, and that sago
palms are not. Much to the dismay of the rental office, I also discovered that
wisteria roots have a fondness for cracked sewage lines.

Another evergreen that I had a surprising amount of success with was the
monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), which is found in mountainous
regions of Chile and Argentina. I bought the largest specimen I could find, a
potted plant that stood about eight inches tall. Monkey- puzzle trees in
profile are as alien and exotic looking as flattened, wind-swept acacia trees
on the plains of Africa. Adult trees have a pale trunk topped with an
umbrella-like crown of dark branches. The short, broad, triangular leaflets
cover nearly every inch of juvenile plants. Hollywood has a fondness for
portraying dinosaurs wandering along the edge of monkey-puzzle forests, no
doubt looking for something more suitable to eat. Each leaflet bears an
extremely sharp pointed tip, so planting, pruning, or even walking near one
can be a painful experience. I found that their dark spiny whorls are
completely impervious to the cold.

That same year, I planted a pair of Omeo gums which is a eucalyptus with
vivid blue leaves from New Zealand (Eucalyptus neglecta), a hardy banana
from Japan (Musa basjoo), and a hardy palm (Rhaphidophyllum hystrix)
native to North Carolina. The palm turned out to be a sturdy, slow-growing
evergreen. Numerous snows blanketed all but the tips of the fronds, yet
when I bothered to brush the snow back once or twice out of concern, I found
the palm unharmed. The eucalyptus grew rapidly the first year. I did it more
harm than good when I covered them with cardboard boxes during a bitterly
cold week, because I left them covered too long and heat built up causing
them to dry out and die back. Yet the roots managed to survive, and the
shrubs survived a second winter, even managing to grow in chilly February,
during a warm spell. The banana was a gamble. I read it was hardy to Zone 7
(like the Blue Atlas cedar). It grew into a five foot shrub its first summer, then
turned to a gelatinous pile of mush after a few frosts. I made a mound of the
remains over where I thought the roots might be, and come May, it was
putting up its first leaves.

Before I moved out of my first house, I had a well-established menagerie of

exotics. Over the gate to my backyard grew a vigorous maypop vine
(Passiflora incarnata) that faithfully returned from its roots every year, and
had begun to sucker in other parts of the yard. A large bed of callas of every
available form and color grew in a large bed next to the house, partly shaded
by a large stand of bamboo. The banana had returned after two winters,
larger each year. The eucalyptus survived subsequent winters with only tip
burn, which I sometimes find even in hardier over-eager late growers. The
monkey puzzle nonchalantly endured wind, sleet, and snow, seemingly
impervious to harsh weather, but in no rush to grow larger. Likewise the
needle palm was completely oblivious to the harshest weather, producing
two or three new fronds each summer, and even seeming to grow a bit
during unseasonably warm weeks in November and March. Other performers
were false dracaena (Cordyline australis), which held its own until January
when the cold would finally knock it down to its roots, and the elegant broad-
leafed China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata), which turned a beautiful bronze
in late fall.

Extending your zone requires many of the same tools as regular gardening.
You need good soil, mulch, a sheltering wall or fence, burlap, a good general-
purpose water-soluble fertilizer with a 15-30-15 ratio of nutrients, and a plant
vitamin and hormone formula to encourage rapid root growth, such as
“Superthrive”. Good soil, regular applications of fertilizer during optimal
growing conditions and growth stimulants help a plant establish a strong root
system. Give your new plant every opportunity to become well established
by planting in early spring if possible. Mulch can protect the roots both from
summer heat and winter cold. A protected area such as a fence or wall
provides a microclimate that can prevent temperatures from reaching the
extremes experienced elsewhere in a garden, and can extend growing time.
Burlap is essential both to protect from the winter cold and the drying winds
which can be especially damaging to a fragile plant stressed by other
environmental factors. And most of all, be patient and persistent. Not all
failures are due to temperature extremes. Plants that normally grow in
warmer climates often take advantage of warm spells while the plants we
are more familiar with remain dormant. Maybe you’ll be the first to discover
a secretly hardy tropical at your local nursery.

Looking for a place to start? The palm-like cycads have been around for 300
million years, and some species, including Dioon edule, Cycas
panzhihuaensis, and Ceratozamia hildae have been reported to demonstrate
considerable tolerance for cold weather, although cycads (save for the
ubiquitous sago palm) are generally slow growers and hard to come by, so I
have to confess that I have yet to work up the nerve to subject them to a
harsh winter. I have also recently begun experimenting with Agave species,
including A. parryi, A. bracteosa, and the massive A. americana, and all seem
to be holding up well. But agave hate wet winters, so they require well
drained soil and a sunny location, preferably on a mound with a southern

Gardening can, and should be an adventure, an opportunity to explore the

past, like the great 17th and 18th century plant hunters who dispersed
across the globe from Europe. Every success, and every failure, tells you
something about the world. Exploring this treasure map requires time and
patience, but there's a world of plants out there, and many secrets yet to be

A selection of hardy exotics:

Saw Palmetto (Sabal minor – native of South Carolina) Somewhat less

hardy than the needle palm, saw palmetto’s large deep green fan-shaped
fronds emerge from the ground in late spring and well into fall. But unless
the plant is wrapped and protected, these leaves will turn to straw-colored
ghosts by January; new leaves will return in the spring. Other fan palms
worth trying are the tall growing Trachycarpus species (T. fortunei – China, T.
takil – north central India), which are also reported to survive under the same
conditions once established.

Hardiness: 7, 6b with protection

Culture details:If wrapped in burlap and planted near a building, this plant
can maintain its leaves year round. Otherwise, all exposed fronds die back to
the ground. It benefits from heavy mulch and lots of water. It is a slow
grower and will tend to fade away after a few years of heavy winters without

Needle Palm (Rhaphidophyllum hystrix – native of North Carolina) What

northern gardener wouldn’t get excited at the prospect of growing a palm in
their yard? Well, the needle palm is perhaps the world’s hardiest palm. This
trunkless fan palm is reported to survive temperatures well below zero
degrees Fahrenheit with no damage, which I can attest to myself.

Hardiness: 6b with no protection, probably much colder

Culture details: The needle palm is extremely hardy, but slow growing. Mulch
around the base helps preserve moisture, which speeds the plants’ growth.
An established plant can survive bitterly cold winters where night
temperatures occasionally drop into the single digits, with no frond damage.
Plant it near a wall or fence to encourage early spring growth, and to provide
it with the partial shade that it prefers.

Omeo Gum (Eucalyptus neglecta – native of New Zealand) Even if you don’t
have a pet koala, you will want to give this fragrant blue-gray beauty a try in
your temperate garden. This eucalyptus can grow into a large evergreen
shrub if the winters aren’t too severe. It maintains its round bluish-silver
leaves as an adult, unlike some other eucalyptus varieties. It is fast growing
and continues to grow well into December unless there’s an early hard

Hardiness: 7, 6b with protection

Culture details: In warm climates, this eucalyptus can quickly become a

medium sized tree. It usually manages to stay evergreen in Zone 6, with the
leaves and stems turning a deep purple. Heavy mulch can protect the lower
stem and provide studier and faster growth in the spring. Late season growth
often gets burned if it hasn’t hardened before the first frost. It is very
vulnerable to the drying effects of winter wind, so it is happiest as a
foundation planting out of the path of prevailing winter winds.

Monkey-Puzzle Tree (Araucaria araucana – native of South America)

Monkey-puzzle is a name used to refer to several species of Araucaria, a
tropical conifer family that includes the Norfolk Island pine. This native of the
mountains of Chile has reportedly been grown as far north as British
Columbia. It endures snowfalls in its native habitat, and seems to do quite
well during cold Zone 6 winters. This tree resembles nothing you’ve ever
seen growing in Zone 6 before, but is no more cuddly than a cactus or a
porcupine, so it pays to plant it in an out of the way section of your garden
where it can be enjoyed...from a distance.

Hardiness: at least 6b, possibly colder

Culture details: This plant likes to stay on the moist side when young, and
likes its roots to stay cool. It can tolerate cold wet winters and snow with no
visible damage. It benefits from being placed near a wall or fence, and from
mulch around the base, mainly to avoid drying out. Another somewhat less
hardy species in this genus (Araucaria bidwillii – northern Australia) has more
of a Norfolk Island pine look with long narrow leaves covering the branches.
But this plant needs a good deal of protection or it will die back to its roots in
Zone 6, weakening and eventually perishing after a couple of winters.

China Fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata – native of South China) The china fir is
remarkably similar in appearance to A. bidwillii, but is much hardier. It has
slightly longer leaflets that curl down a bit at the tips. It is also less prickly
than the Auracaria. The leaves turn an attractive bronze in winter, then
revert to a vivid green in the spring. Theunderside of the leaves is almost
white. It is a moderately fast growing tree that branches often. It can
ultimately reach 30 feet, or taller.

Hardiness: 7, 6b with protection

Culture details: It doesn’t appear to require any special protection from the
elements in Zone 6. Mulching helps to keep the plant from drying out during
long, cold, dry winters and rich, well-drained soil ensures rapid growth from
spring through mid-summer. The occasional dead branch is an unfortunately
common characteristic of this tree as it gets larger, but they can be removed
without harming the tree, and this tends to give the tree a rugged
picturesque appearance.

Calla (Zantedeschia sp. – native of South Africa) Callas have been getting
more interesting in the last 20 years. Once upon a time, there were three
basic colors: pink, white and yellow. Today there are variants ranging from
green to almost black. After the plants bloom, they continue to put on a
show with their compact, upright, sometimes variegated foliage. In Zone 6,
callas return year after year with almost as much reliability as hostas and
other more traditional fare. Like many aroids, they experience a dormancy
period in their native South Africa, so a Zone 6 winter is simply a variation on
a theme for them. As long as the bulbs don’t freeze in the ground, they will
return and gradually spread to form large masses of tropical leaves and
exotic blossoms year after year.

Hardiness: 7, 6b with protection

Culture details: Mulch is essential, and a location close to a sidewalk, wall or

fence will help avoid damage during exceptionally cold winters where the
first inch or so of the ground freezes briefly. Since they experience a dry cool
period in nature where they die back to the roots, Zone 6 winters are
compatible, if more severe with their natural cycles. Pile 4-6” of additional
mulch over the bulbs in late fall for added protection and larger plants the
next spring.

Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra – native of Japan) Tropical and

temperate regions throughout Asia are filled with great many varieties of
bamboos of varying shapes, sizes and colors. Until recently, I was sure that I
could grow any bamboo as long as it was green and dull. But the black
bamboo has proven to survive Zone 6 winters. It grows more slowly than its
hardier cousins, and tends to dislike cold drying winds, but with just a little
protection and a little extra water in the winter, it can form dense stands
filled with beautiful purplish-black canes and deep green leaves that can add
a tropical air to a dull, unattractive garden corner. Some varieties are
actually grown for timber in Japan.

Hardiness: 7, 6b with protection

Culture details: Black bamboo is less hardy than some of its cousins but the
deep purple canes are well worth the effort. Good mulch and constant
moisture is essential and this plant suffers in an exposed windy location. For
good results, it must be planted against a wall or fence, which provides
protection from the prevailing winter winds. If you must try it in a windy
location, wrap the canes with burlap in late November and leave them
wrapped until early March. It may take a couple of years to become fully

False Dracaena (Cordyline australis – native of New Zealand) A houseplant

has escaped into the temperate garden! When I first heard that this
dracaena-like plant would return from its roots in the spring, I was highly
suspicious. When I planted mine in an out of the way but not at all protected
spot in my garden, I wrote it off in the fall. But late in December it was still
growing and green, despite numerous frosts and cold nights. Finally, a hard
freeze in January caused the plant to topple over and die. I was sure it was
gone then. But in May, not one, not two, but three new growth tips appeared
around the fibrous stump of the previous year.

Hardiness: 7, 6b with protection

Culture details: This plant is increasingly common at garden centers of home

improvement shops because of its exotic growth habit and appeal as both a
houseplant and as a point of interest in a bed of annuals. It turns out that it
is also modestly hardy and will return from the roots in late May, if mulched
sufficiently. Oddly enough, it tends to stay green and even continues to grow
until the coldest days in January, when it abruptly gives up and dies back to
the ground. One plant often produces multiple growth points in subsequent

Beaked Blue Yucca (Yucca rostrata – native of Mexico) Few if any yuccas
save the ground hugging thorn-tipped varieties seem to grow in cool Zone 6
climes. But this silvery blue upright variety can withstand the harsh winters
of colder areas, and will eventually grow into a small trunked shrub 6-8 feet
tall. Its ability to survive colder weather is due in part to its thick generous
root structure, and to its narrow thin leaves. It is a strikingly beautiful plant
that happily endures hot dry summers as well. Plus it is more approachable
than its hardier though duller cousins.
Hardiness: at least 6b, possibly colder

Culture details: Blue yucca will grow in any sunny location, once established.
It requires no special protection in Zone 6. Its thick roots penetrate deep into
the soil so there’s little chance an especially cold winter would kill off this
desert beauty.

Tree cholla (Opuntia imbricata – native of the southwestern United States)

Many species of Opuntia will grow in colder climates, but only a couple of
varieties of prickly pear cactus are commonly cultivated. However, some
chollas will also survive Zone 6 (and even Zone 5) winters. The tree cholla is
a many-branched upright grower that bears little resemblance to its cousins.
The glossy green cylindrical stems are covered in spines, and turn purplish in

Hardiness: at least 6b, probably colder

Culture details: Like all cacti, it prefers sandy, well-drained soil, especially if
you experience wet winters. It makes a good companion to the variety of
hardy prickly pear or rabbit ear cactus to which it is related.

Maypop Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata – native of the southeastern

United States) What plant is as tenacious as poison ivy, as vigorous as crab
grass, as fragrant as honeysuckle, and as blue as the sky on a fall day? Well,
a maypop, what else? This plant can climb 20 feet or more, bear dozens of
exotic blue flowers, and form numerous pithy but sweet lime sized fruits all
in a single summer. Its only flaw is that it spreads rapidly underground, so
the following year you might find it tumbling over your other perennials and
winding its way up nearby trees. Still, it is easy to control since the stems
remain narrow and pliant, and if all else fails, you can let the first few frosts
take care of the problem for you.

Hardiness: 7, 6b with protection

Culture details: One of the hardiest members of the passionflower family,

this vigorous vine dies back to the ground in late fall, but returns with
multiple shoots from its spreading underground roots in late spring. The
beautiful fragrant blue flowers appear from July until frost, and it will
occasionally produce an edible tasty, if pithy greenish fruit the size and
shape of a small lime.

Japanese or Hardy Banana (Musa basjoo – native of Japan) Okay, so

you’ve made it this far and said, yes I can see this or that plant might survive
one of my long cold winters, but a banana? No way! Well, think again. This
banana has all the classic features of its cousins, which fill the produce
shelves with over (or under) ripe fruit throughout the year. But it doesn’t
provide edible fruits, just tropical comfort. While it does promptly turn to
mush after the first hard frost, the roots happily bide their time underground
until the ground warms sufficiently in the spring. Then, multiple trunks
emerge rapidly forming a small tree 4-8 feet tall in a single summer. In a
sunnier location, the midrib of the leaves will turn red.

Hardiness: 7, 6b with protection

Culture details: The hardy banana should be planted near a wall and in a less
windy location to avoid tattered leaves and additional stress. A thick layer of
mulch is a requirement. It also likes plenty of water. Regular watering will
provide more vigorous growth in the summer, and ensure a greater
likelihood of survival in a severe winter. The plant is sort of self-mulching, as
it dies back to the ground each winter. You can leave the dead trunk and
leaves where they fall as extra protection during the winter.

Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta - Japan) This is one of the more cold-hardy cycad
species, and is readily available at most garden centers. There are some
south African Encephalartos species which are probably hardier, as they live
in the mountains where they often experience snow, but these are very hard
to obtain, slow growing, and expensive (which makes experimentation a
scary proposition!). They have a thick trunk that is often enshrouded in the
bases of dead fronds, which provides an additional layer of insulation. Their
tough, dark, waxy leaflets are more durable than most cycad fronds.

Hardiness: 8, maybe 7 with protection

Culture details: Sago palms like full sun, or their new growth can be spindly
and tender. A south facing brick or rock wall is likely an ideal place to
experiment with them, as the wall will absorb heat during the day and
radiate it through the night, though I'd recommend you also cover them in a
thick layer of mulch, including the fronds and crown, to provide extra
protection in a colder climate.