The Colorful Copperleaf Shrubs

In many parts of the United States, the copperleaf is a popular summertime landscaping element, a heat-loving annual bedding plant that disintegrates with the onset of winter conditions. But it’s really a perennial evergreen shrub, and we in southern Florida are fortunate to be able to grow it inground or in containers year-round, allowing it to achieve dimensions unknown north of the subtropics. Copperleaf is certainly an apt name for most members of the genus Acalypha. When grown in full sun, leaves of those cultivars achieve various hues of red, as if they are sheets of copper beginning to oxidize.

Acalypha wilkesiana is probably the variety most people first think of when the genus is mentioned. The leaves are 5-8 in. long, with serrated margins. The plant, if left to its own devices, can reach 10 ft. high by 10 ft. broad. That makes it useful as a screening material. But this variety is also amenable to being pruned hard if greater compactness is a goal. Richard Lyons’ Nursery carries one of the more unusual A. wilkesiana cultivars, ‘Java White.’ Instead of the standard red coloration, it has multiple hues—white, light yellow, chartreuse, and green.

Another cultivar, A wilkesiana ‘Fire Dragon’, is also recommended. It differs from the original form in a couple of ways: The overall size is smaller, and the leaves are narrower, with a pronounced pink accent around the margins. Some say the foliage reminds them of that of Japanese Maple.

A. wilkesiana ‘Inferno’ and ‘Firestorm’ are similar to one another in that they both feature shorter stature and narrower leaves than the standard A. wilkesiana. However, ‘Inferno’ hues are in the orange-yellow-red range, while those of ‘Firestorm’ lean more toward oranges and browns.

While all the copperleaf varieties attain their best color when planted in full sun, they can also tolerate some filtered light. They like ample soil moisture, but also good drainage. These popular Acalyphas are available at the nursery in 1-gal. and 3-gal. containers.

We Finally Approach the Dry Season!

Not that you can feel it, but we’ve actually been on the downside of summer heat for several weeks. According to statistics published in the Miami Herald, as of mid-September the average daily temperature should be 83°, a drop of two degrees from the summertime high in parts of July and August. With a little bit of imagination, it’s possible to sense the pleasant changes that come with the end of the rainy season.

Those changes—however subtle they might be—dictate different behavior toward our plants. Richard Lyons’ Nursery is happy to offer a few observations for dealing with the approaching onset of autumn weather.

1) Do not root prune any trees that require a lengthy root-pruning process. The palm Copernicia macroglossa is one example, but that advice holds true for large specimens of other trees, many of which may require gradual root-pruning over a 12-month period. If they’re not transplanted during the hottest, wettest time of the year, they tend to have great difficulty recovering.

2) This is the time to start planting winter vegetables and herbs. The plants that grow well in the summer around the rest of the country are generally successful in the winter in southern Florida. The list includes onions, sugar peas, dikon, dill, basil, carrots, beans, collards, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage. You can also continue to plant vegetables that survive year-round in our region; they include parsley, rosemary, mint, thyme, chives and Cuban oregano. In addition, there has been some success in having Thai basil survive our summers.

3) Start making adjustments in your watering regimen when the humidity begins to drop. Lower relative humidity means noticeably lower minimum temperatures by mid-October. You can consider the rainy season over when dewpoints regularly drop below 70°. At that point, some plants, particularly those in containers, start to experience problems with hydration. You should monitor your plants closely to see if you need to increase irrigation through the fall months.

The Versatile Crotons

While Richard Lyons’ Nursery is known for its tremendous variety of flowering trees and shrubs, blossoms aren’t the only way to color up a landscape. Leaves can also be used to great advantage, and tropical plants ‘leave’ temperate species in the dust when it comes to colorful foliage.

Among the most successful and popular plants grown for their chromatic leaves are crotons (Codiaeum variegatum). The genus is native to Malaysia, Indonesia, western Pacific islands and, according to some authorities, southern India, Sri Lanka and northern Australia. But they have become ubiquitous around the humid tropics for their ornamental appeal. They grow well in a wide range of soil types, so long as good drainage is provided.

Crotons have been featured in this space before (“Looking for Shady Friends,” July 12, 1913), but that was with respect to one of the few cultivars, Mrs. Iceton, that does well in low light. Most crotons produce their best coloration in much sunnier exposures. Over the years, zealous growers have developed hundreds of cultivars with endless mixes of shades and hues. Even on a single plant, upper leaves and lower leaves may exhibit differing colorations.

But crotons’ diversity doesn’t end there. Leaf shapes also vary over a wide range, from broad to narrow, long to short, linear to ovate—and even lobed like maple leaves! The combinations are seemingly inexhaustible.

Finally, crotons are versatile in their applications in the landscape. Taller cultivars may be showcased as stand-alone specimens, while shorter-growing types lend themselves well to use as hedges or mass plantings. As hedges, they’re probably best-exhibited when trimmed into informal, rather than boxy, shapes. (Take care when pruning not to have prolonged contact with the plants’ irritating milky latex.) And don’t overlook crotons’ ability to thrive in containers.

There is a nice selection of crotons at the nursery. Stop by to determine the ones that will work for you.

Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part XIII

We continue our survey of interesting edible tropical plants that can be grown in southern Florida.

Allspice (Pimenta dioica):

The genus Pimenta comprises 14 flowering species, among which are some of the most interesting and desirable aromatic trees in the world. But it’s all a mistake . . . a big mistake. Spanish explorers poking around Mexico in the 16th century found an attractive medium-sized tree whose berry-like fruits resembled black pepper, so they called it pimienta, the Spanish word for pepper. That error has become preserved in the genus name. We concentrate below on one of the most significant representatives of Pimenta.

Pimenta dioica, the specific plant mistaken for a new source of black pepper, is better-known to most people as the allspice tree or, in another long-perpetuated error, the Jamaican pepper, the name bestowed on it by the English around 1621 because they considered its complex taste a combination of clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. The first recorded instance of the importation of the spice into Europe came in 1601.

This beautiful tree reaches 30-40 ft. high and features aromatic, leathery, glossy, oblong 4-8 in. leaves. The bark, whitish-gray in color, peels away in thin sheets. The tree produces clusters of white flowers which are followed by berry-shaped fruits that mature purple-black. However, in the commercial production of allspice, the fruit is picked green and dried in the sun. The major volatile oil responsible for this species’ fame is eugenol.

The allspice tree is native to the Greater Antilles (Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba), southern Mexico and Central America. However, it is now cultivated in many tropical areas of the world.

Once P. dioica is established in the ground, it withstands drought and even has some cold tolerance—26-28°. It can also be grown nicely as a container specimen. In either case, it performs best in full sun. While the allspice tree may not flower and fruit dependably outside native areas, it is still quite desirable; even the bark is aromatic!

Most folks know that the spice is used in a variety of condiments, and also in pies, cakes and candies. But eugenol is also an important constituent of cosmetics and perfumes. And it may surprise some to learn that allspice is even found in the liqueurs Benedictine and Chartreuse, as well as in Northern European food staples such as pickled fish and sausages. Eugenol also has medicinal applications as an aid to digestion and an anesthetic for toothaches. This would appear to suggest that the pies, cakes and candies which contain allspice must also cure toothaches. Could there be a more perfect food?


Curry Leaf (Murraya koenigii):

For a modest-sized tree, Murraya koenigii has had an outsized influence on the cuisine of India and Sri Lanka and, by extension, wherever in the world the cuisines of those countries have spread. It belongs to a very interesting family, the Rutaceae, which includes many aromatic plants, as well as species possessed of both ornamental and commercial value. Its most important economic genus is citrus.

M. koenigii matures to a mature height of 6-15 ft. The trunk is of a dark green to brownish color, with numerous dots. Beneath the exfoliating bark is white wood. The tree produces small, fragrant white flowers and glossy black fruit. The edible fruit is sweet and contains Vitamin C, as well as minerals and other micronutrients. However, it also imparts a somewhat medicinal taste that does not appeal to everyone.

Although most parts of M. koenigii are aromatic, it’s the foliage of the plant that catapulted it into culinary popularity. The best flavor is obtained from cooking fresh leaves, although dried leaves are also widely used. Ironically, curry powder, a British creation dating to colonial times, is a blend of Indian spices that doesn’t necessarily include curry.

The Curry Leaf tree has also been employed in folk medicine, where it is reputed, without scientific proof, to be anti-diabetic. Leaves, roots and bark have been used to treat stomach aches; and branches, to clean teeth. The roots and bark are used to cure bites from poisonous animals.

Because M. koenigii can be found natively at altitudes as high as 5,000 ft., it has little trouble being grown in subtropical and warmer temperate climates. Not only is it unthreatened by virtually any cold front that invades southern Florida, it is also generally pest-free. The Curry Leaf tree grows best in full sun, and in moist, well-drained soils.

These two desirable spice-producing trees can be found at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in a variety of container sizes.

Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part XII

We continue our survey of interesting edible tropical plants that can be grown in southern Florida.

Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus):

Though commonly known as West Indian Lemon Grass, this popular herb is native to maritime Southeast Asia. It grows in dense clumps capable of reaching 6 ft. high and about 4 ft. wide. Its blue-green strappy leaves, which droop gracefully at the tips, emit a citrusy aroma when crushed. The leaves are also used widely—either fresh or dried and powdered—to flavor curries, teas and soups, as well as meat and seafood dishes.

Lemon Grass oil contains a number of useful compounds, including the mosquito repellent, citronella. In folk medicine, the oil is said to possess a panoply of benefits.

Plant this year-round herb in bright light. It can tolerate dry sites, but develops a better appearance when given ample water. It is amenable to a variety of soil types, though it might need a little extra care when planted in sand.

Peanut Butter Fruit (Bunchosia glandulifera):

This very interesting species is native to northern South America and possibly the West Indies, and it really does have a taste and texture close to that of peanut butter. Actually, it has a somewhat more complex flavor that includes a hint of berries.

Bunchosia glandulifera apparently came into the U.S. as B. argentea, but the current consensus of opinion is that the true B. argentea is a different species, and is not cultivated even in its native area. B. glandulifera is a shrub that matures in the 10-15 ft. range. In contrast to its cousin, it has wavy leaf margins, and the undersides of its leaves are less fuzzy, and thus less silvery in color.

From seed, it takes B. glandulifera only 2-3 years to produce fruit. The fruit is round to oblong, maturing to an inch or so in length. As it develops, its color goes from green to yellow-orange to red-orange. Despite its pleasant taste, don’t expect Peanut Butter Fruit to appear in your grocery; its fragile skin will keep it from becoming a commercial crop. However, if picked from the tree upon ripening, the fruit will keep in the refrigerator for several days. It can be eaten out of hand or in a milkshake.

Bunchosia should be planted in full sun or light shade. It grows best in moist, fertile soil that is well-drained.

Cuban Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus): We end this installment with an herb that’s become so popular, for so many centuries, that it has multiple—and even conflicting—names. For instance, in India it’s known as Indian borage. In Cuba it’s called French thyme. In parts of the U.S., it’s known as Spanish thyme.

Well, the species is not thyme, and it’s not from India, Cuba, or France! P. amboinicus is most likely native to eastern and southern Africa. What is certain is that it is an oregano-like member of the Lamiaceae (or mint) family. It produces a fleshy stem and fleshy, fuzzy oval leaves about 2½ in. long. It matures to just over 3 ft. tall.

In addition to its use as a spice, Cuban Oregano is reputed to have medicinal properties capable of remediating respiratory, arthritic, and digestive problems. Chewing a leaf of this plant is said to ease the burning sensation of highly-spiced foods.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery carries these species in various sizes.