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Featured Plants 2007

January 2007

Bougainvillea vines are in their glory right now, cascading over containers, fences, walls and roofs and climbing into the trees. This popular woody vine or sprawling shurb has arching branches, bright green or varietaged heart-shaped leaves, and wicked thorns. It can grow 8 to 20 feet tall or wide if it has full sun and frost free winters. But even in our iffy frost area, it makes a magnificent show most years and when nipped, almost always grows back. Plants can become a thorny tangle, but bloom best when trimmed back often, for flowers form on new growth.

There are many cultivars with showy, long-lasting bracts of purple, red, pink, white, yellow, orange or lavender in flushes all years. Color varies with the amount of sun. Those with white and yellow flowers need light shade in the hottest climates. The plants are highly drought and salt tolerant and they will start from cuttings.

Cut flowers for bouquets when the bracts are in full color. Split the woody stem bases, remove most of the foliage, and submerge both stems and flowers in cold waters until all parts are crisp, about an hour. Keep stems in cold water until arranged, and they will last up to 8 days.

Strawflowers, paper or everlasting daisies, Helichrysum bracteatum
Strawflowers bloom on hardy annual plants that are under-appreciated in Florida. Few gardeners know that, due to their Australian heritage, they tolerate both hot and cold weather and adapt to sudden changes in temperature. Flower seed specialists offer them in separate or mixed colors in several sizes. I've grown them from seeds, but now you can buy them as started plants in full bloom with flowers looking like double daisies fashioned of colored straw. They come in glossy orange, yellow, pink, magenta, rust, peach, or white and seem almost unreal, especially before the flowers have been dried. Plants can be from 1 to 4 feet tall and blooms are to 3 inches in across, depending on the variety. Kerby's had these in yellow. They are showy in the border. Plant them in sun any time of years here. They grow in well-drained, average soil, like our sandy soil and are drought tolerant once established. For fresh or dried bouquets, cut while centers are still covered by inner petals. You can hang them upside down to dry or let them dry in the vase. The more you pick them, the more the plant will produce. If you leave on all the flowers, they will go to seed and the plant will die, so if you buy plants, start picking at least some of the flowers right away.

February 2007

Horseradish tree, Moringa oleifera
Grows up to a foot a month in central and southern Florida if it has full sun and will eventually reach 25 feet and give light shade. It does well in our poor soil and is drought resistant. Start it easily from seeds or cuttings or buy small plants at the Herb Fest and at the USF Spring Plant Sale from Brandon neem tree grower Vicki Parsons. Moringa trees begin to bloom with fragrant white flowers in loose clusters as early as 8 months after planting and bloom year round.

All parts of edible: the root has a strong horseradish flavor. The tender young leaves and stem ends can be used like spinach, including raw in salads. Indias's tradition of ayurveda says the leaves prevent 300 diseases. Ounce for ounce, they have 7 times the vitamin C in oranges, 7 times the vitamin A in carrots, 3 times the potassium in bananas, 4 times the calcium and 2 times the protein in milk. Older leaves can be fed to livestock. In theory, moringa leaves could practically wipe out malnutrition on our planet.

The pods are said to taste much like asparagus. The largest pods can still be tender at 12 to 15 inches in length. The seeds within can be shelled out and cooked like green peas. Seeds can be purchased from ECHO Farms in North Ft. Myers: www.echonet.org or you can purchase plants from Neem Tree Farms.

March 2007

Episcia species and hybrids
Sometimes called "Flame Violets" or "Chocolate Soldiers" Among the most popular and well known of the Gesneraiads after the African violets. They have long been grown for their colorful and patterned foliage. For many years these colors were mainly green or brown, occasionally with silvery or reddish veining. Another group have lately become very popular for their unusual pink, white and green foliage. Most notable of these is Episcia 'Cleopatra'. These are more difficult to grow, probably because of the reduced vigor that follows from reduced chlorophyll in the leaves. Some are best grown in a protected environment, such as a terrarium. When the flowers clash with the leaf colors, growers take off the buds before they open. Episcias are good indoor plants because they like warm temperatures and high humitidy, both of which are good for people as well.

Mexican sage, Salvia leucantha
An excellent shrublike perennial that forms a clump of many square (sages are in the mint family) white stems which bear long, narrow, textured gray-green leaves. The plants can grow as tall as four feet. Soon each stems starts opening manhy showy long spires of white flowers surrounded by suzzy lanender calyces. These last indefinitely and can be hung to dry. Tall stems ten to arch over, but before you finish cutting them a new bunch is coming up from the crown. New plants root easily from softwood cuttings. This does best in full sun and enriched soil, and looks good in combination with pentas. It grows in my garden between these pink leaved snowbush and the cherry periwinkles. It is carefree, but needs water occasionally.

April 2007

Jade plant or Crassula argentea
One of the trophies of a successful houseplant grower up north, and the bigger the plant the better. They grow slowly. Here we can grow it outdoors. It is a succulent, a no-fuss plant with high drought tolerance. In fact, if anything kills it, it could be our rainy summers, so you might want to keep it in a pot to move indoors during our rainy season. A freeze could also do it in, but we're safe from that until next winter. It does like full sunlight, but tolerates a bright spot indoors.

Always water succulents from the top, never sink the pot in water. And be sure there is good drainage. This one you can water every two or three weeks and it will love this dry season. If you let the plant rest with minimal water and no fertilizing through the winter, you are more likely to have these blooms that are fragrant and delicately pink or white in the spring and/or fall.

You can prune this to the shape of a tree if you want. To root cuttings, cut just below a node and let the cutting rest a week or so in a warm, shady spot to form a callus. Then stick it in sand and water only enough so it won't shrivel.

The Harris Nursery raises seven different kinds of pummelo or pommelo with fruit that is flatly round or bell-shaped and red, pink, or white in color. This is the ancestor of the grapefruit with fruit that is much larger and more abundant on the tree than grapefruit, also sweeter, drier, and less acid. People who cannot eat grapefruit because of medication can eat these. They are a great favorite in our family and among most people who have tasted them. But I noticed that fruit cut for samples took on a sour taste after a few hours. Ruth Nowland says that is because of the metal in the knife reacting with the fruit. It is best to just score the membranes and then section it by hand. I might even try a plastic picnic knife. All seven varieties can be picked from November until May and the fruit will keep on the shelf for at least three weeks and only get sweeter. The tree and its leaves and flowers grow only a little larger than other citrus and it proves very strong in that it seldom drops a fruit. It is the most amazing tree in my yard.

May 2007

Goldfish plant, a Columnea species
The goldfish plant is in the Gesneriad family, a cousin of the African violet. It makes a great hanging basket plant and can trail 24 to 48 inches. The leaves are opposite and close together and look almost succulent. Depending on the variety, they can be small to 3 inches long. The flowers are tubular, single or in small clusters, in leaf axils; 5 lobed, 2 upper petals joined to form a hood, stamens and style sometimes extending beyond the hood, in colorful reds, oranges, yellows, and resembling a goldfish. It needs bright to moderate light. Darlene Caple has this one in dappled shade outside. It can also be grown as a houseplant and should be brought inside in cold weather.

It is native to the moist rainforests of the American tropics. Indoors the stems remain unbranched but they often are branched in native habitats. It roots easily at the nodes where it touches the soil surface or from stem or tip cuttings. Many are vines or epiphytes in the wild. Avoid wetting the foliage when it is not in active growth. It sometimes drops leaves and goes into a period of rest for 6 to 8 weeks. Less water during this time will stimulate better flowering.

There is also another "Goldfish Plant" (Nematanthus), another gesneriad with flowers more accurately resembling a goldfish

Zinnias or Zinnia elegans
These were planted from seed and insist on coming up again from self sown seed. Zinnias have been hybridized into so many colors and forms that the choice is amazing. You can plant seeds any time after frost, from February until September in our area. They like the hot summers, full sun, and need only occasional watering.

When plants are a few inches tall, pinch the center stem once for bushiness. Or for really big blooms, pinch off side buds and develop just one superior flower per plant. After plants begin to bloom cut them on long stems while centers are still tight. Put them into water immediately or they will wilt and have trouble recuperating. Indoors, remove most of the leaves, run hot water over the stem ends, and stand the flowers in deep water to condition. The more you cut these annuals, the more they will grow and bloom. If you don't pick them all, cut off (deadhead) any dead flowers to keep them blooming longer. Let just a few go to seed to give you plenty of seeds for your next crop.

June 2007

Cat's claw, Macfadyena unguis-cati
The evergreen vine with yellow flowers that you see draping the tree tops now and through the early summer. For the most part it stays so high in the trees that you never get a close look, but this one was hanging low in a red bougainvillea. It is beautiful in flower but beauty is as beauty does, and this is an invasive plant that should not be sold, bought, planted, propagated, or encouraged in any way. It can be a skin irritant and is thorny. It is drought tolerant, cold hardy to10 degrees, grows in almost any soil from Zones 8 to 11 and is a major problem from Texas and New Orleans to the Florida Keys. It grows 30 feet a year, produces many seeds and develops large tuberous roots that even Roundup can't kill. It is on the Category 1 list of invasive plant in Florida.

It can lift shingles off a roof, and grow into walls. One man pulled out 20 feet, white from lack of sun but still growing from within the walls of his house. It can ruin a garden and crowd out or shade out other plants.

(There is a native Cat's Claw, Pithecellobium species, called Cat's claw or Blackbead, that is also an irritant but is an evergreen tree or small shrub that gets 18 ft tall and is spiny but not invasive or otherwise a problem. It has green-yellow flowers in summer that are not nearly as showy and the leaves are rounded at the end.] )

Peace lily, Spathiphyllum species
These are slow growers for me, so when I see a clump like this one in the Harris garden I am filled with admiration. Harris says he just gives it plenty of water and fertilizer. He also doesn't crowd it or divide it too often. These are clump growing herbaceous perennials in the Aroid family with showy white flowers that bloom mostly during spring and summer. There are several species, hybrids and cultivars, some smaller varieties with narrow leaves, some quite dwarf, and these largest ones that grow 2 to 3 feet tall. They have low drought and salt tolerance and do best in low to medium light, so they are another good plant for the shade. They can be started from seeds or division and are good for accents in low light condition, as houseplants, and for use in mixed containers. They are native to the American tropics.

July 2007

Mulberry, Morus species
The mulberry is so easy that it grows wild over much of the world. It is related to the fig, breadfruit, and rubber trees. Many of us know the joy of standing under one and eating the delicious berries that never make it to market because they are too tender for shelf life. They taste much like blackberries but you don't have to stoop to pick them or contend with thorns. Named varieties are sometimes as long as two or three inches. There is also a white variety. The tree is deciduous and the leaves of some are rather coarse looking, so you might want to put this at the back of the property and not where dropped fruit will make a mess. Mine was doing well between orange trees, but it is getting shaded out and I might have to start over. These are so easy to propagate that just sticking a yard of stem into the ground will most often result in a new tree. They take a good bit of pruning if space is limited or if you only want the berries you can reach. Some people have told me that by constant pruning they get fruit for several months of the year instead of just in the late winter or early spring. Mulberries keep well in the freezer for fruit slurpies. They can be baked into pies or cakes, cooked into jam or jelly or fermented into a good and easy wine.

Gloriosa lily, Gloriosa rothschildiana
A fast growing perennial vine that blooms from spring through fall. Hot pink buds open and recurve to form upside down flowers with yellow centers and petal edges that almost resemble flames. The leaves are also very distinctive, silky in texture and each with a recurved tendril at the tip. These can sometimes be found growing wild along the Florida roadsides. I took many cuttings that never rooted before I learned they must be propagated by division of the tubers or by seeds that ripen to a bright red from a brown seedpod. They do well in full sun to light shade, have medium drought tolerance, and no environmental problems. All parts are poisonous, but nothing on them even looks edible so they aren't very tempting to children. My first boss had one in a pot in his greenhouse in Ohio and it was his most treasured plant. I was all ready to buy a bulb but Kerby's usually only has them in the spring. Then, to my great surprise, I found one growing in my garden, a gift from a bird, no doubt. The vines only grow 5 feet a year, so they won't take over like some vines do.

August 2007

Mahoe, Hibiscus tiliaceus
The Mahoe, also called Sea Hibiscus and botanically Hibiscus tiliaceus, can be a large shrub or tree that can grow to 35 feet. There are only a few in our area because it does best a bit farther south. It is native to the Caribbean and tolerates the lightest sand and seaside salt conditions. The rounded, heart-shaped leaves are evergreen. As a rule the leaves are a dark glossy green, but this one in Dr. Brown's garden is variegated with much white in the leaves. Flowers are hibiscus shaped but not quite as large, yellow with maroon eyes in the morning, pink to red by evening. It blooms year round in warm climates, during the warm months here. The tree needs full sun, can be started from seeds or cuttings, and can be weak wooded, even invasive. It requires shaping to be tree-like.

Yellow alder, buttercup, Tunera ulmifolia
Blooms with these bright yellow flowers constantly all year round. It is another is another of Eva Vass's favorites and she has several of the handsome evergreen shrubs in her garden. The yellow flowers only stay open for the morning, so sometimes she combines them with four o'clock's for evening bloom and fragrance. Perhaps her prettiest buttercup is the one that grows among the rocks and decorates the white picket fence that hides the trash cans. They like full sun to partial shade, and have mediums drought tolerance and high salt tolerance. Three to four feet is their usual height. They can be straggly if not pruned. There is also a similar white alder that actually has cream colored flowers with dark centers and stays a bit lower. These were very popular a few years ago at the USF sales, but mine have since died out and I have not seen any for sale lately. But the yellow flowered ones are longer lasting and easy to start from cuttings. They are native to the Carribean area.

September 2007

Spider lily, Hymenocallis latifolia
A native perennial that is easy to grow, has foliage useful as a ground cover, and these lovely white flowers in summer. The grasslike leaves get 2 to 3 feet tall and plants will do well in wet places but also will tolerate drought and salt and prefer alkaline soil. Give them light shade to full sun and propagate them by seeds, bulbs or division. Clumps gradually spread with a medium growth rate and bulbs may need dividing every few years. They combine will with ferns for a contrasting texture or with dwarf chenille plant or purple queen. They are poisonous, but there is not much here to tempt a child.

Red spiral ginger, Costus barbatus
Red spiral ginger grows just outside the sliding glass doors of the Rogers' living room. "I call it red velvet plant from the feel of the underside of the leaves," says Rogers. "It blooms constantly from April until at least November." His blooms were about three times larger than the ones most often seen, some of them at the ends of the spiraling stems, some on the stems coming up from the base. The red part are long lasting bracts, the yellow the true flowers. This grows in light shade to full sun. His is in shade. These can be multiplied by division or by cuttings. They need plenty of room, 8 ft up and wide, and have medium drought and salt tolerance.

October 2007

Parrot leaf or Joseph's coat, Alternanthera ficoidea
Comes in several varieties The people at Kerbys said give it some shade although the books I checked say full sun. I gave it some shade since that is what I have most and it has been doing very well and spreading all summer. The colors are said to be brighter in full sun. It only grows about 12 inches tall.

I had it once before and something else crowded it out This spreading, low ground cover has alternate, oval linear leaves, 1 to 2 inches long marked in this case with bright pink. Other cultivars are mottled with red, pink, orange, bronze, yellow or chartreuse. 'Purpurea' is burgundy. They can be clipped back often to make tight, bushy plants. Use the clippings as cuttings. They root easily. There are at least two other closely related plants that also go by the name of Joseph's coat.

With their fine texture, these look great at the feet of gingers and bananas and some kinds will also cascade over the edge of a container.

Voodoo lily, Amorphophallus
Last spring I had two nice size flowers on my Voodoo lily. These perennials grow from bulbs or corms. Mind had two of these fantastic blooms come up and open in early May. Then they faded and spears of foliage came up that look like giant celery leaves, as much as 6 feet tall. These will be fading and falling over perhaps by the first time people come and could be even gone by the second Saturday. Then I mark the spot and wait for spring. They are very easy to grow once started and will take sun to light shade. I moved one bulb to rather deep shade in the back two years ago and it came up and bloomed the next spring, but never sent up any foliage. So I assumed I'd killed another one. But this spring, a year later, one giant spear of foliage appeared. Plants keep surprising me.

November 2007

Devil's backbone or redbird flower, Pedilanthes tithymaloides
One of my favorite succulents because it will grow in sun or shade. It eventually grows 4 ft tall with zigzag green stems that drop milky sap when cut. The alternate leaves are evergreen and brightly variegated with white edges that sometimes turn pink in the sun. Some varieties are solid green and others are edged in a light green with no white at all. The flowers are inconspicuous, sometimes clustered near the tips of the branches with bright red bracts. This cousin of the poinsettia and the pencil tree and is native to the Caribbean region. The sap can be an irritant or poisonous to some people, but it has caused me no rash. In fact, this is one of the most reliable and easy to grow plants in my garden and it brightens the shady places. You can take cuttings when you come. They root easily even just stuck in the ground. I've had no frost damage so far, perhaps because mine are in the shade. The plant has high drought tolerance and medium salt tolerance, for it grows just behind the first dunes. It is native to tropical America, including southern Florida.

What are the plants for which I am most thankful? All but the weeds. But high on my list is the aloe because it is like a first aid kit that I can't lose and a plant that is hard to kill. The only way I've ever killed one was when I moved it from shade to sun too quickly and it boiled in its own juice. Aloe, also called burn plant is an evergreen succulent perennial with a history at least 2000 year old. Alexander the Great is said to have conquered Madagascar to acquire a good supply of it, either to treat the wounds of war or perhaps for the source of the beautiful violet dye yielded by species there. It is a good idea to keep a plant where you can get to it easily night and day. We have used the gel from the inside of the leaves from everything from itches of rashes and bites to the soreness of minor wound and the pain of burns.

The plant grows easily in full sun to partial shade. Mine has never been bothered by frost. The leaves are attractive all year and often it puts up a showy raceme of tubular red, purple, orange or yellow flowers which are striking in the garden or in bouquets.

'Vanilla Ice' Bougainvillea
Alice Lord has had this 'Vanilla Ice' bougainvillea for about four years and it is presently growing in a large container. She prunes it just to keep the shape, which she says isn't really very often. Hers blooms for about eight months from October until May or June. "I do give that plant bloom booster and I water it every day in dry weather." Since bougainvilleas are not reliably hardy here, I'm sure she also covers it when frost threatens, but that is easy since it stays relatively small and compact. They also need full sun but are fairly drought tolerant in the ground.

Maintain-A-Plant (located at 13009 Hwy 92E. ) where she bought the white bougainvillea said they would give a 10% discount on the Vanilla Ice plants to anyone who brought in this article. They come in hanging baskets and are $16.95.

December 2007

Cranberry hibiscus, Hibiscus acetosella
A decorative but invasive plant with burgundy leaves that are both ornamental and edible. We put some in every salad both for the eye appeal we can see and for the nutrients we cannot. The flowers are like small hibiscus or hollyhocks and mine are a dark maroon. The Symingtons have one that is slightly different in that the leaves are more deeply toothed so that they called it a maple leaf hibiscus. Their flowers are also a bright, slightly dark red, very pretty for Christmas decorations. The color could be because they have more sun, but I suspect it is genetic.

These can take over, but while you are pruning back or weeding out, you might as well eat the leaves and flowers. They could die back in a hard freeze, but they always come back from seedlings. Cuttings root easily. I've seldom seen these for sale because anyone who has them will be glad to give you some. Ask at your favorite nursery and probably someone there has some in their yard.

Ornamental peppers (Capsicum species)
Ornamental peppers are often sold as Christmas gift plants because of their bright red fruits. The are actually an edible type of chili pepper and most are extremely hot. The fruit usually starts out green, then turns yellow, then purple, and finally red or bright orange. If you are buying one, check under the leaves for any trace of white fly and pick a plant with fruit in various stages if you can. The fruit can last six weeks if the plant is has good care. It needs 4 hours of direct sunlight daily in front of a bright window, water when the soil feels dry, and fertilizer monthly. In theory, most are treated as annuals and discarded after the fruits fall, but in Florida you can plant them outdoors, protect them from frost, and very often they will bear fruit in flushes for years. Here they are often sold as bedding plants at other times of the year as well. You can save the seeds and start more.

Other uses of the peppers:

  • Mix cayenne pepper in your bird seed to deter squirrels. It won't hurt the birds. Some people put out some with and some without to feed both. Use 1 to 2 tablespoons for every quart or so of birdseed and mix it well with two spoons. Use at once or store in an airtight container.
  • Put a few hot peppers, 2 cups of water, 1 tablespoon of vegetables oil, and a few drops of dishwashing soap in a blender and liquify. Transfer all but the dregs to a spray bottle and spritz it on leaves and flowers to deter a multitude of insects and also rabbits, squirrels, cats, dogs, and, hopefully, even deer. Repeat every 5 to 7 days as needed. You can string up some fruits and let them dry for future use.