Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa)

Almost everyone, whether a plant lover or not, knows the Lady Palm — if not by name, at least by sight — for it is one of the most successful indoor palms in use. Because of its easy adaptability to low light and dry air, it graces interior landscapes in containers of all sizes at malls, offices, hotels and airports. And yet, as recently as the 1960s it was hardly seen in the U.S.A.

This palm, botanically known as Rhapis excelsa, is no longer found in the wild, but is considered to have been native to southern China, Taiwan and perhaps northern Vietnam. The genus name is the Greek word for needle, and a form of it is repeated in the name of the Needle Palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix. In the 17th century, Rhapis was taken to Japan for use in the palaces of the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal military government. Later it was introduced to Europe, and by the end of the 18th century, the Lady Palm was a prized possession of conservatories in northern Europe. The U.S. was thus a Johnny-come-lately to the appreciation of this species.

R. excelsa is a palmate species belonging to the wide-ranging subfamily Coryphoideae, which includes in its membership Corypha, Licuala, Coccothrinax and Washingtonia, as well as pinnate genera Phoenix and Caryota! Its glossy blade, or leaf, about 8-12 in. wide, is deeply cut into segments. It grows 12-13 ft. high and produces multiple thin stems. Each stem is wrapped in dark fibers which may fall off as they age, revealing a smooth, ringed, bamboo-like cane. No part of the species bears spines.

As an outdoor plant, The Lady Palm is very undemanding and grows well in a variety of soils, so long as poor drainage and salt are avoided. Cold is never a problem for it in southern Florida, since it seems to be hardy down to 22°. For best appearance, it should be grown in filtered light. Exposure to full sun will turn leaves yellow-green, especially if good soil moisture is not maintained, and the tips of leaf segments will turn brown in the hottest months.

R. excelsa spreads via underground rhizomes which produce new shoots. The shoots sometimes emerge from the drainage holes of containerized plants and can simply be clipped off and discarded.  However, if the owner wants to propagate the new plant instead and the container is not valuable, the pot can be sacrificed so that a longer piece of the runner can be obtained to preserve some roots. New plants on the rhizomes of in-ground specimens can be similarly removed. (A fungicide application to the cut end is also recommended.) The important thing to remember is to pot up the offset immediately. If potting is delayed and the rhizome cutting dries out, it will be virtually impossible to save. The Lady Palm can, of course, also be propagated from seed, but until recent years the species seldom produced fruit in southern Florida. But it now seems that a pollinator has come on the scene in our region, for mature white fruit has been appearing more and more frequently.

R. excelsa can be grown in containers for a long time, although occasional repotting is necessary once stems fill the capacity of the pot. However, one of the most valued traits of the species as an indoor plant is its slow growth rate, and a specimen may well be kept in the same container for a number of years. Outdoors as a specimen plant, the Lady Palm is not only striking by day, in or out of the ground, but it can also be shown off well at night with underlighting. In addition, it can serve as a very attractive, dense screening element in the landscape. R. excelsa has a history of being fairly free of pests and diseases, although indoor specimens should be inspected for red spider mites and mealy bugs from time to time.

This popular, dependable palm is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 7-gal. and 15-gal. containers.

Rhapis excelsa (Lady Palm)

Rhapis excelsa (Lady Palm)

Rhapis excelsa (Lady Palm)

African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata)

One of the most striking of winter-flowering trees found in southern Florida is the African Tulip Tree, Spathodea campanulata. This fast-grower is monotypic, i.e., the sole species in its genus. It is native to tropical areas of western and central Africa, where it can reach about 80 ft. in height, but in our part of the world, it settles into the 25-40 ft. range. A member of the Bignoniaceae, Spathodea is related to Jacaranda, Tabebuia, and Radermachera.

The African Tulip Tree should be grown in full sun. Its 3-4 in. flowers, generally produced near the top of the crown, are usually in the red-scarlet-orange range, but a nice yellow form occurs less commonly. The plant’s species name is a reference to the bell-like shape of the blooms. What makes them particularly showy is their habit of clustering, which at a distance creates the impression of a very large flower. Because of their configuration, the flowers hold dew and rain, and accordingly attract birds. The seeds are small, winged structures, easily distributed by wind. The pinnate leaves of S. campanulata mature to a glossy dark green and make the tree attractive even when not in bloom.

The African Tulip Tree is capable of flowering at just a few years of age when grown with ample irrigation. In fact, even though the species is quite tolerant of drought once acclimated to its planting site, it thrives in moist soils. It is therefore an excellent candidate for planting in areas that might flood from time to time. While S. campanulata tolerates only a bit of frost, it does handle cool weather well enough to be found occasionally in coastal California.

The wood of this tree is not particularly valuable commercially, though it is used to make drums, paper and bellows. However, it has one particularly noteworthy quality — resistance to fire — that helps make it a nice addition to residential landscaping.

Both the red- and yellow-flowering forms of Spathodea are available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3- and 15-gallon containers. The yellow cultivar sold here is a grafted tree to ensure that you are purchasing a true yellow flower, since trees grown from seed are variable in color.

Spathodea campanulata ‘Aurea’ (Yellow African Tulip Tree) Grafted

Spathodea campanulata (Orange African Tulip Tree Foreground, Yellow Cultivar in Background)

Spathodea campanulata (Orange African Tulip Tree)

Spathodea campanulata (Orange African Tulip Tree)

Spathodea campanulata (Orange and Yellow Flowers of African Tulip Tree)

Spathodea campanulata (Orange African Tulip Tree)

Bougainvillea

Maybe you’ve noticed lately that knowing what is true has become rather elusive. For instance, can both of the following statements be true? (1) Bougainvillea is one of the most colorful vines in the world. (2) The flowers of Bougainvillea are small and inconspicuous. The answer is yes. That’s because the features that produce the spectacular colors found in this genus are actually bracts, modified leaves located at the point from which flowers develop. Thus bracts are an integral part of the flowering process, though they are not flowers themselves.
Did you know that the first woman to circumnavigate the earth was also possibly the first European to discover Bougainvillea? It is reported in some accounts that in 1766 Jeanne Baré (or Baret) was snuck aboard a ship of exploration by her botanist boyfriend, Philibert Commerçon. In order to flout ship rules, she was disguised as a man. We at Richard Lyons’ Nursery try to maintain a high degree of dignity and civility, so we shall not comment further about this aspect of the three-year expedition except to say that advances were made . . . in the name of science.
The spiny woody vine discovered not long after reaching Rio de Janeiro in 1767 was not described botanically until 1789, when it was named for Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the French admiral and explorer who had commanded the voyage. The genus Bougainvillea is native to Peru, Brazil and southern Argentina. There is still some uncertainty about the total number of species; depending on the source consulted, there are somewhere between four and 18. What is certain is that the 1930s ushered in an active period of natural and intentional hybridization, and we are now flush with a whole panoply of bright colors. There are over 300 cultivars (cultivated varieties) of Bougainvillea!
Bougainvillea produces sprawling, arching branches, but can be trained to grow as a standard. Often used in the ground as an impenetrable screening material, it can also be grown in containers or hanging baskets, where pruning following bloom will keep the plant compact and encourage side-branching. And as a container specimen, Bougainvillea is particularly amenable to thriving on high-rise balconies, because it is very resistant to winds. Although not extremely cold-hardy, the genus can stand enough frost to be widely grown as an ornamental in southern Switzerland near the foot of the Alps.
The best color production occurs in full sun. The genus is highly salt-tolerant, so coastal exposures are no problem. Bougainvillea is also quite drought-tolerant, and once a plant installed in the ground becomes acclimated, it will require little supplemental watering. In fact, the very rainy and hot summers of southern Florida inhibit color displays, so in our region Bougainvillea flourishes best during the dry season. It responds well to light applications of fertilizers, but use of a high-nitrogen formula will produce rampant vegetative growth without much color. A balanced formula is a better bet, and some experts recommend fertilizers formulated for roses or other flowering plants.
The cultivar ‘Pixie’ deserves special mention. Not only is it almost thornless, but it also produces color later into the summer than many other cultivars.
Richard Lyons’ Nursery offers Bougainvillea in shrub form in 3- and 15-gal. containers and as standards in 7- and 15-gal. sizes.

Bougainvillea ‘Pixie’ bonsai

Bougainvillea ‘Pixie’ standard

Bougainvillea ‘Pixie’ close-up of flowers

Bougainvillea ‘Pink and White Surprise’

Red Bougainvillea

Orange Bougainvillea

Purple Bougainvillea

Yellow-Orange Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea in 3-gal. pots

Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)

When Dr. Edwin Menninger bemoaned the “solid green” of Florida’s native flora, he must have forgotten about Salvia coccinea. If you want to add brilliant color to your home landscape, please consider this striking native shrub. Commonly known as Scarlet Sage, this herbaceous perennial from the family of lamiaceae is native to a huge range from South Carolina to Texas, then south into Central America and southeast into the Caribbean Basin. It attains a height of 2-4 ft. and produces triangular leaves on long leafstems. Bright red flowers roughly an inch long are borne in loose whorls on upright stems. Over time cultivars have been developed to produce pink, white and bicolored flowers. In southern Florida the plant blooms most of the year, but in the mid-south, flowering lasts until first frost. Seeds overwinter in the ground and germinate when warm weather returns.

Scarlet Sage is not a very demanding plant, occurring naturally in dry soils. However, during sustained rainless spells, flowering is not as prolific. It performs best in sunny positions, but can tolerate intermittent shade. S. coccinea makes a good, durable bedding plant and is particularly desirable as a butterfly and hummingbird attractant. This plant is grown at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 1-gal. containers.

Salvia coccinea (Scarlet Sage)

Salvia coccinea (Scarlet Sage)

Salvia coccinea (Red and Pink Sage)

Neem Tree (Azadirachta indica)

Does the name ‘azadirachtan’ ring a bell? It probably should, because it is a hugely versatile chemical compound that has made the neem tree legendary in India and surrounding lands for some 2,000 years. And chances are that its full medicinal and insecticidal potential has yet to be tapped.

The neem tree (Azadirachta indica), a relative of mahogany and Chinaberry, has a lot going for it. It is a very attractive, fast-growing, long-lived ornamental plant which — in decent soils — matures in the 50-65 ft. range. In southern Florida, the tree rarely reaches 30 ft. It has a rather dense, rounded crown capable over time of growing almost as broad as the tree is tall. It bears fragrant white flowers in a somewhat drooping, compound inflorescence; in fact, there may be as many as 250 flowers in a single inflorescence! This species is also quite drought-tolerant and amenable to a variety of soils. Despite its rapid growth rate, neem trees produce construction-grade timber, thanks to chemical properties that make it resistant to termites.

The fruit of A. indica is, like that of peaches and plums, a drupe, or stonefruit. It may vary in shape from nearly round to elongate, and in size from ½-1 in. However, the neem pulp is very fibrous and bitter-sweet. What this species lacks in fruit value it makes up for in its chemical properties, particu- larly neem oil. Azadirachtan, the best-known constituent of neem oil, is concentrated in the seeds of this remarkable tree. Neem oil can be burned in lamps, used as a spermicide, and employed in the manufacture of toothpaste, soap and skin care products. And after the oil is extracted from the seeds, the residue, called neem cake, is both fed to livestock and used as a fertilizer.

But neem’s past applications and future potential are probably most widely known in the realm of its potency as an insecticide; by some accounts, neem oil is effective against some 200 insect species. It does not work as an instant knock-down killer, though. Instead, it causes hormonal disruption that leads to the eventual collapse of populations of chewing and sucking insects. And the mere presence of neem oil — without actual contact — is reputed to repel certain insects, not the least of which is mosquitoes. The oil has some efficacy when mixed with coconut oil and applied to the skin, as well as when burned in a lamp or candle.

The neem tree is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 1-gal. and 3-gal. containers.

Azadirachta indica (Neem Tree)

Azadirachta indica (Neem Tree)

Azadirachta indica (Neem Tree)

Azadirachta indica (Neem Tree)

Azadirachta indica (Neem Tree)

Azadirachta indica (Neem Tree)