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Featured Plants 2008

January 2008

Vanda Orchids
Sharon Summerall bought this lovely vanda orchid 'Blue Magic' in bloom three years ago, put it on her porch, and was disappointed that it did not bloom again. So this year she hung it on a tree in the newer part of the garden, left it on its own, and it is currently recently blooming again. Vanda's are among the most beautiful of the orchids. In their native habitat in the Himalayas and Australia, they are epiphytic, growing on the trunks and branches of trees where their aerial roots take in any moisture in the atmosphere. This one is growing in a basket with roots both hanging down and attaching to the tree trunk, so Sharon couldn't bring it in but had to cover it there. Vandas can get up to 3 or 4' tall and bloom two or three times a year with up to 3 or 4 spikes of 10 3 to 5 inches flower which can last for over a month.

They will take full sun but prefer intense but dispersed light. They need plenty of water and should be kept evenly moist except for the two to three weeks after they bloom when they can be allowed to dry out between waterings to give them a rest. They do best if fed a balance fertilizer at half strength every two weeks from June through September, given a formula high in potash from September to mid November to toughen them, and then fed only quarter strength until the next June. They should be repotted very seldom for the most bloom.

Gotu kola
Good for memory and brain function, can be added to salads.

February 2008

Fiddleleaf fig, Ficus lyarata
The fiddleleaf fig is also supposedly hardy in only in Zones 10B and 11, but the one in shade in my yard has had no frost damage for several years. It is one of the best figs for landscaping in warm areas and can grow 40 feet tall in its native habitat in Africa, but the this one on the Martiny patio is about as tall as I've seen in this area. The large leaves are shaped like a fiddle and the plant is easy to grow outdoors, a little fussy for me as a houseplant. It can be rooted from cuttings or air layers but both Lynne Martiny and I have had infrequent success with cuttings. It supposedly prefers high to medium light, which may explain why mine grows slowly. It does have high drought tolerance: I almost never water mine. In the container watering is necessary but less frequently than for many plants. Larry changes out the low plants in his containers often but the taller ones hardly ever. Here he has a variegated creeping fig cascading around the pot. The Ficus family is quite diverse.

Starfish flower, Cryptanthus
Cryptanthus (kirp-TAN-thus) species, earth stars or starfish flowers are tender tropical perennials in the Bromeliad family. The compact rosettes of foliage, for which the plant is grown, stay small, under 6 inches, but multiply and I've seen plants 4 feet in height with dozens of rosettes. They come in many colors from green to green-and-white striped, to a range of pinks and pink, white, and green striped. They need strong light for the best color, but can fade in full sun. In too much shade they stay an uninteresting green. They are reliably hardy to in Zones 10A to 11, but with a little protection do well in our Zone 9. The leaves have sharp edges, so use extreme caution when handling. The plant also has a cluster of white flowers in spring to early summer but the flowers are not showy. This makes a good houseplant as well as an outdoor plant. It requires moist soil (but not soggy) at all times to thrive. To divide it, Brandon gardener James Roush flips his fingers at the growing centers and small pieces come off that will grow into new plants. If these or divisions do not root readily, give them some bottom heat. One man who grows this as a houseplants says he sprays it with a mister once a day. Our Florida humidity should take care of that outdoors. Otherwise Cryptahnthus is easy to grow and looks great in a group or as a focal point in a floral arrangement or even in a terrarium.

March 2008

Stevia, Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni
Stevia, a genus of about 150 species of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), is native to subtropical and tropical South America and Central America. The species Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni is a remarkable plant with the common names include sugarleaf and sweetleaf. For me it is a short lived plant, but one I keep on trying. All of the stevia products come from this plant, but even with my growing failures, I seem to keep a supply of dried leaves to sweeten my fruit shakes. It can also be used in baked goods, desserts, preserves, and such, but amounts vary with each plant, so use very little and sweeten to taste. Stevia is also noncaloric and safer than chemical sweeteners. The plant may be hard to find, but check at the USF Botanical Gardens spring sale or call around. If you can't find it, you can get it from Richters Herb Catalog, a Canadian business, that offers plants in 2 1/2" pots. For information and prices, you can call (905) 640-6677 or fax them at (905) 640-6641 or write them at 357 Highway 47, Goodwood, Ontario L0C-1A0 or go through their website: www.Richters.com.

I have one thriving in full sun at the moment, but more successful growers have suggested partial shade, especially in the summer. The one in the photo is in full sun in a raised bed in the Discovery Garden at the Extension Office.

They can easily be killed by overwatering, and mine seem to go down mostly during the summer rains, so this is another plant to keep in pots in a place out of direct summer rainfall and in rich, loamy, well drained soil. They also need to protected or brought inside when frost threatens. Because their roots are shallow, mulch helps keep the soil from drying too quickly. Feed with a fertilizer with a lower nitrogen number such as or with an organic fertilizer with slow releasing nitrogen. Because the leaves are so sweet, many insects, including aphids and grasshoppers seem to pass them by.

ZZ plant, Zamioculcas zamiifolia
Lynne Martiny has a houseplant that I had never seen before: the ZZ plant, Zamioculcas zamiifolia (zam-ee-oh-KUL-kass zam-ee-FOH-lee-uh). It does indeed look like Zamia species, especially the cardboard palm at first glance, but the green of the foliage is deeper and more glossy and the stems are smooth round and succulent. This is actually a member of the aroid family and Lynne and others report it is very easy to grow. It takes little water and light, grows slowly to perhaps 3 feet or more, has tubers and can be multiplied by stem or leaf cutting or division of the tubers. The flowers are typical of the aroid family, more like a little ear of corn in a spathe.

April 2008

Mustard, Brassica
Mustard not only provides a tasty vegetable in some gardens these days, but it is also blooming in the wild, in some case filling whole fields with golden yellow flowers. In pastures and hay fields these are considered weeds. These Brassica species are part of the cabbage family and there are both wide leaved and narrow leaved kinds in the wild. They thrive throughout Florida winters and are minor but important plants for the bees. For this and because they are used for our common condiment and for medical purposes, they are considered herbs. There are white, yellow, black and brown mustards that make the stuff we put on our hot dogs. There are also both green and maroon wide leaved kinds that are excellent cooked as greens, made into noodles, stir-fried, or chopped in salads. Plants can be from 2 to 6 feet tall. Long slender pods begin to form on the lower stems while flowers still bloom above. Mustard plasters were a time-honored treatment for congested chests, rheumatism, toothache, and soreness or stiffness. And infusion of mustard seeds as a foot bath relieves sore and aching feet.

Mustard grows easily from seed sown directly outdoors from September through spring. Plants will flower in spring if you don't keep them cut back. If you don't grow any, enjoy the ones you see on the roadsides.

White Bird of Paradise, Stretlizia nicolai
Stretlizia nicolai is one of the most reliable and drought tolerant of the big leaved tropical plants. While the flowers, white on top and bluish white underneath, are interesting, this is grown mostly for the foliage and for its flat habit that allows it to be grown in narrow places or against walls or fences. It can get messy in maturity but can be controlled by cutting off any dead leaves and flowers as needed and dividing the plants or cutting the unwanted trunks down to the ground as needed. It can grow to 15 feet tall and wide but can be kept to 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide. In large containers plants can sometimes look good for up to seven years. This needs medium shade to full sun and infrequent watering once established. It does have low wind tolerance. It is hardy down to 25 degrees.

May 2008

Bishop's flower, Ammi majus
Seeds of Ammi majus or Bishop's flower were first sent to me as a replacement when I ordered seeds of Queen Anne's lace. I was disappointed at first, but once I saw how they bloom, sometimes with clouds of white flowers, 50 or more to a single plant, it became one of my favorite hardy annuals. Now and then one will self seed, but to be sure, you must plant seeds in the fall and watch for the celery-like foliage. You can thin and transplant with care while plants are small.

Once they start to shoot up, at about 10 inches, pinch off the tops to encourage branching. In early spring they grow quickly to 3 to 6 feet and may need staking. The blooming period is too short, about five or six weeks, but still well worth the planting. The blooms last well as cut flowers and may also be dried if picked as they just begin to open.
There is also an Ammi visagna 'Green Mist' whose flowers have a gentle green tinge. Seeds are available from Thompson & Morgan, J.L. Hudson, and Park's.

Cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus
Cosmos is a graceful, old fashioned annual that is fast and easy from seed. Plants bloom for may weeks with long stemmed flower 2 to 5 inches in diameter. The gold centers are framed by ray-like petals. Many new cultivars have recently been introduced but there is nothing wrong with the old ones. Cosmos bipinnatus, 2 to 5 feet tall, is the main type for bouquets and comes in so ft tones of violet , rose pink to burgundy and white Separate or mixed colors are available. These are long lasting when cut. Shorter types need no staking. 'Gazebo' has huge and abundant flowers on 4-foot plants. For something different, try chocolate colored C atrosanguineus.

My own favorites for the garden are these Cosmos sulphureus that grow 1 to 3 feet tall and come in gold, orange, and fiery red. The blossoms are smaller but make a mass of color. You can plants seeds of any species in full sun to light shade almost any time of year except when frost is expected. They prefer rich, moist soil but will tolerate less than ideal conditions.

Thin seedlings to stand 10 or more inches apart and pinch them back once for bushiness when they are about 8 inches tall. Plants can get seedy rather quickly, but they often self sow. Constant harvesting of fresh flowers and deadheading will prolong bloom. Remove and discard plant when they become unattractive. Ernestine Stevens started her patch from two pots of seedlings and has had them re-seeding and coming back ever since. You can also save seeds from your best plants to be doubly sure.

June 2008

Rose mallow or swamp mallow, Hibiscus moscheutos
Grows as an upright branched shurb-like perennial with dark green leaves and big, billowy, blousy flowers up to 9 inches in diameter in a varie;ty of colors from white to pink to deep red and in a variety of pattens and combinations of color. This can be grown as an annual up north, as a perennial in the warmer states, and as a shrub here where one of mine is quite woody. They need full sun to partial shade and do best in acid soil. They grow in nature in wet, boggy soil, so we need to water them copiously in drought times and until established. They also respond to more fertilizer with more growth and flower production. I started one from this beauty in Corolyn Wildes garden several years ago and it is finally growing to good size even if it is planted too far from the water source for ideal watering. I just bought another with white flowers and pink centers. Like all hibiscus, they only last a day or so in the garden or in the house, but they sure make an impression while they last. Eventually they will grow 3 to 5' in height, 3 to 4' in width. Other than the watering and pinching off dead flowers, these are easy to grow. Start with seeds, cuttings, or plants.

Persian Shield, Strobilanthes dyeranus
One of our most colorful foliage plants for shade. In Pennsylvania they are using this as a bedding plant. It will wilt every midday in the summer if it is in too much sun so give it ample shade. It grows 3' tall and wide with beautiful opposite silvery/purple metallic colored leaves. Mine has been nipped back by frost, often to the ground, but it has come back from the roots for years. If it doesn't frost, it is still a good idea to prune it back severely in the spring to encourage the bright colored new leaves. The old leaves are not nearly as rich looking. The blooms are a deeper purple in the summer and fall and interesting but not showy. Persian shield make a striking background for white flowers such as impatiens or with pink foliage such as cordyline. It has low drought tolerance and also low salt tolerance, so put it in your oasis or frequent watering zone. It is also sensitive to nematodes, so mulch it well with ankle-deep organic matter. Take cuttings often. It roots easily. It is native to Burma and member of the acanthus family.

July 2008

Trumpet vine, Campsis radicans
Sometimes called trumpet creeper though it spreads much quicker than that, is a native plant with showy orange flowers and pinnately compound leaves. There are also named varieties with red or yellow flowers. It needs sun to partial shade and has high drought tolerance. Nancy Moore finds it ideal for the corner of her garden and can still reach to pull off the bean like seed pods to encourage more blooms. It climbs by holdfast roots which means it will climb a solid wood fence or a telephone pole. It does well from Zones 4 to 9, grows in any soil and the trumpet shaped flowers attract hummingbirds. The leaves turn yellow before they fall in the autumn. It needs frequent pruning to keep it in bounds and it can be propagated by seeds, cuttings or root suckers.

Prickly pears, Opuntia
Whether you call them prickly pears, cactus pears or Indian figs, Opuntia species are easy to grow, dramatically ornamental, especially with Spanish architecture, and edible. Most kinds are also very thorny, though some places such as ECHO farms in North Ft. Myers sometimes have thornless varieties. If you have a friend with a plant, you can take a section, let the cut portion heal for a few days, ant then put it right side up in slight damp sand. They can also be propagated from seeds but germination can take up to six months. The plants need excellent drainage and full sun, but not much else. They can grow 3 to 15 feet tall with green or gray-green pads or leaves. In the spring they bloom along the edges with flowers that look like large portulacas and the fruit follows.
To harvest the pads in spring or the fruits in fall, wear leather gloves. Rub with rough canvas to remove the bristles and then wash to remove the residue. Cut up and boil the pads and serve them with salt, pepper, and butter. The taste is unique but most closely resembles green beans. The fruits have lush red, orange or yellow flesh that is sweet but very seedy. It can be eaten fresh, canned, or made into jelly. You might find them as canned napoles in Mexican markets.
Most are cold hardy even much father north. They can be grown in containers where they will stay smaller. They are excellent as barrier plants.

Night Blooming Cereus
One of the most amazing plants that we can grow outdoors here and that people in other places cherish in conservatories or greenhouses, is the night blooming cereus. There are several different kinds that are included in this name. A lovely hanging basket with night blooming cereus hangs just beyond the pool in the Norris and was sporting a dozen buds the day these photos were taken. Theirs is a succulent, others are cacti with small but sharp spines. I have some of each that are not doing much since we have so much shade, but this ones was gorgeous even with only its full rosette of reddish leaves, let alone the many long, red buds that promise to open with gorgeous white flowers, usually very fragrant. It was the kind of plant that wins blue ribbons at the State Fair. Some people in the area, especially in the warmer pockets, have huge plants of these climbing up trees and blooming by the dozens or even hundreds.

August 2008

Patchouli, Pogostemon patchouli
A member of the mint family and used for a fixative in potpourri, ink, perfume and cosmetics. . The leaves of this have a subtle musky fragrance and antiseptic, antidepressant and sedative properties. The fragrance was one I did not care for at first but have come to like very much. Scent is often a matter of association. Maryon Marash tells of the Cuban girls who cherished their shawls until someone tried to sell them some that didn't smell of patchouli. They wouldn't buy them. From Cuba shawls were shipped with a stem of patchouli in the box.

It grows very well in all parts of Florida, but frost can nip it back, so take cuttings in the winter. Don't let plants dry out and give them ample room in full sun in winter to partial shade in summer. Patchouli is a heavy feeder, so if leaves are mottled, it is hungry. It can grow four feet tall but usually stays lower.

Ylang Ylang Tree, Cananga odorata
Ylang Ylang Tree, sometimes spelled Ilang Ilang, botanically Cananga odorata was one I remembered from my last trip. It grows to 35 feet in Southeast Asia where it is native, but at Mounts it was only about 20 feet tall. It is reliably hardy on in Zones 10B-11 and we are in Zone 9, so it is iffy here, but I have seen a fine specimen, about 10 feet tall, growing in a fairly open yard in St. Pete, and I have had one in a large pot for several years. I'm debating about moving it in ground so it can grow to the next level, but I haven't yet found a spot both sunny and protected, such as the south side of a building. I also want it close enough to sniff when the flowers bloom, because they have a fragrance that seems to me even better than the Chanel # 5 that is made from them. Fragrance increases when the flowers turn from green to yellow and in the evening and early morning. The flowers are yellow and not especially showy, though certainly not insignificant. Once the plant starts to bloom, it blooms repeatedly all year This was the first time I've seen this dark fruit. This might not be one you'd want to plant here, but you surely want to sniff and enjoy it anyplace you see it. The plant is also attractive to bees, butterflies and birds and is widely grown in Hawaii for the perfume industry.

September 2008

Coreopsis has at least 11 species native to Florida with daisy-like usually golden flowers on straight stems . They can be easily grown and do not take long to bloom. The C. grandiflora has swordlike leaves and is easier to grow from seed, but it is not long-lived. C. verticillata has threadlike leaves, is long-lived, and comes in lighter and deeper shade of yellow. Thompson & Morgan's catalog has C. grandiflora in a double 'Early Sunrise' that gets 18 inches tall, a 'Presto' that says 10 inches and has not quite-so-double golden flowers, good for containers. They also have a C. tinctoria 'Mahogany Midget' that gets 25 to 30 inches high and 'Quills and Thrills Mixed' with fluted flower heads in various combinations of red and yellow that get 24-36 inches tall.

You can plant these natives from fall through spring in sun in any well-drained soil. They need little water once started. Thin seedlings or divide plants as needed. They may self sow if they get ample water at the right time.

White Gossamer, Tradescantia sillamontana
White Gossamer grows in a huge pot on the Fry's patio and she will take it in before frost. With its silvery, velvety foliage and lavender pink flowers, it is a very interesting cousin of the wandering Jew, not nearly so rampant but almost as easy to grow. I had never seen one before. It roots easily, grows quickly and does best in full sun to partial shade. Do not overwater it. It is only promised to be hardy in Zones 10-11, but one grower has kept it in a hanging basket outdoors in Jacksonville, FL, and reports that it does well summer and winter. Other grower in other climates have had it die back but resprout in the spring. I hope my cuttings root. I have not seen this for sale except on the web but keep your eyes open. At least one Florida wholesaler grows it.

October 2008

Candy corn plant, Cuphea micropetala
One of my favorite evergreen flowering shrubs. I got mine from Crowley's nursery in Myakka years ago when we visited there and it has grown with very little care and bloomed throughout the fall and winter every since. The dark green leaves are two inches or more long and only about half an inch wide and stems are a deep maroon, so it is attractive even when not in bloom. For months it has spires of small narrow flowers colored much like the candy. The shrub only grows 3 to 4 feet so it would be good under a window, though it is better a little farther out so you can see it from inside. It is hardy from Zones 8b to 11, so we don't have to worry about winter cold.

Give it full sun to partial shade. Water very little after it is established. Expect bees, butterflies, and birds to enjoy it as well. My only problem is that I've not been able to root it easily. One grower says it comes easily from seeds found inside the flower heads once they dry enough to stick to your clothing like velcro. Mine had spread, so I did finally dig up some sections and will have potted ones for sale when you come.

Firespike, cardinal's guard, or Odotonema strictum
A fabulous evergreen shrub that can grow to 6' but can easily be maintained at 4'. It's glossy waxen red spires grow 4 to 8 inches long and bloom continously from June until February, all year if the winter is warm. The many florets on a spike do not open at the same time or even in order: each stalk lasts for several weeks. Firespike is native to tropical America and grows equally well in medium shade to full sun. I almost never water mine. It roots easily from cuttings and I'll have plenty to share. You can cut it back, even as far as the ground when it stops flowering, but I seldom prune mine at all since most of it is growing in what was a sandbox when we first moved here. I have seen it used in dramatic bouquets, especially for Christmas, but it only lasts a few days for me in a vase.

November 2008

Bananas are easy to grow in our area. They are heavy feeders and do best in full sun with knee-high mulch around them. Each bunch takes a up to five months, depending on the time of year, to ripen. If there is a bunch of decent size when a freeze threatens, you can bring it in and it will ripen indoors. On rare occasions plants may get frozen back, in which case it is best to wait until frost is past and leave the dead leaves as protection. For this reason, it is wise to plant them out of the spotlight. Even if there is no frost, they look weather-beaten in winter.

If they are damaged by frost, cut them as high as you can reach and check for green in the center. If you see none, cut a bit lower. Those thick looking trunks cut easily since they are herbaceous, not woody. I've never had the roots die from frost, and we've have enjoyed homegrown bananas almost every year, often in great quantities though for short times. You can freeze any you don't eat: just peel them and drop them in freezer bags. But they are much more delicious than the ones from the store and most of ours get eaten up quickly.

Bananas come in many varieties. I loved the flavor of the most common kind with small fruits and thought they were unsurpassable until the plants got a disease and died. Now I have a variety of more disease resistant kinds and also some tall and some dwarf.

December 2008

Cape honeysuckle, Tecomaria capensis
An evergreen shrub or vine that is not related at all to true honeysuckle but is in the same family as trumpet vine. It grows in full sun all over Florida and needs frequent pruning to keep it from sprawling too far. Trim it right after it stops blooming in the spring and again two months later, but not again before it reblooms or it won't. The bright orange tubular flowers grow in dangling clusters, bloom from early fall to spring, and attract hummingbirds. There is also a cultivar with yellow flowers and one with peach. It will do well in a wide range of soil but not roots may rot if drainage is poor. Shown here at the Discovery Garden it shines with plumbago. It is native to South Africa, has, as a rule, few pest problems, and can be started from cuttings. It has moderate drought tolerance.