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.

Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part XI

Cabbage Tree (Moringa stenopetala)

To say that Moringa stenopetala is a multi-purpose tree is to underestimate its importance. This species is not only a source of food, income and shade, but also a constituent of traditional medicinal products and—through its seeds—a means to purify water. As an ornamental plant, it features fragrant flowers in shades of pink, white and yellow.

M. stenopetala is native to Ethiopia, where it is now extirpated in the wild, and Kenya. It reaches about 35-40 ft. at maturity, so should not overwhelm most homesites in our region. It can be either single- or multi-trunked. As a species that holds up well in Ethiopia’s frequent droughts, the Cabbage Tree in Florida gardens requires no supplemental watering once established in the ground.

Many parts of the tree are edible, including leaves, flower buds and blossoms, seed pods, seeds, and fruits. In addition, the bark is made into a condiment. When the seeds of M. stenopetala are ground into a powder, they can be used to purify water by causing suspended particles to coagulate. The Cabbage Tree is also used for live fencing material or as a windbreak, and it is interplanted with other food crops both for its own food value and to provide shade. The edible parts of the plant are a source of protein, vitamins A and C, phosphorus, calcium and iron.

M. stenopetala is sometimes referred to as the Horseradish Tree, a name more often associated with its relative, M. oleifera. Many consumers regard the former as a better food source than the latter. More importantly for homeowners in southern Florida, M. stenopetala holds up much better in high winds than its brittle cousin.

Malabar Spinach (Basella alba)

Native to Asia in a long swath from India to New Guinea, this versatile soft-stemmed vine is both ornamental and edible, and it is even touted as a libido builder. Basella alba is a fast-growing species that has attained popularity in both the Old World and New World Tropics as a leafy vegetable.
Malabar Spinach produces a heart-shaped, fleshy leaf. It has a mucilaginous texture and mild taste. Accordingly, one of its uses is as a thickener in stews, soups and other dishes. It is also popular when consumed raw or incorporated into curries. Leaves and stems are used with both meats and other vegetables. B. alba is rich in calcium, iron and vitamins A and C, and it also possesses anti-oxidant properties.

This species thrives in heat and is tolerant of a variety of soils, so long as they are well-drained. As a native of low tropical elevations, B. alba can be expected to grow more slowly during winter months, particularly when nighttime temperatures drop below 60°. On the other hand, under hot, rainy conditions, it is a superior grower to true spinach. Plant this species in sunny to lightly-shaded exposures. Many of those who grow Malabar Spinach for food find it useful to train the vine on a trellis.  As for its ornamental role, B. alba is a desirable ground cover. Because it is a climbing vine, for best results it should be grown in an area where there are no vertical features, such as fences or posts.

Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia spp.)

This beautiful plant is being placed in this article to warn against its consumption in any form. The seven species in this genus produce showy, pendant, trumpet-shaped flowers, but all plant parts contain toxic levels of tropane alkaloids—also found in the beladonna plant—which are capable of causing fatal reactions upon ingestion. At the very least, humans and pets who swallow the leaves, seeds or flowers of Brugmansias can experience blurred vision, dilated pupils, constipation, high blood pressure, and muscle weakness. As an example of the plant’s toxicity, the practice of making a cocktail from the leaves of Brugmansia can result in hallucinations.

The plants featured in this column are available in various sizes at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.

Tropical Fruit – A Tasty Survey, Part X

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

Katuk Sweetleaf (Sauropus androgynus)

Surely something named Sauropus androgynus has to be a newly-discovered dinosaur species, but, in fact, it is a very tasty edible shrub. In southern and southeastern Asia it is among the most popular of leafy vegetables. Also known as star gooseberry among English-speakers, this plant produces multiple upright stems and matures to a height of 6-12 ft., although when grown commercially it is kept pruned back.

Katuk is yet another plant whose widespread use has obscured its original home; some authorities say Borneo, and others say India. What makes it so desirable is that practically all of the plant can be eaten, either raw or cooked. Shoot tips are sold as tropical asparagus. In some areas, S.androgynus is incorporated into soups along with various kinds of meat. It is also commonly used raw in salads and stir-fried with other vegetable.

androgynus is a farmer’s favorite because it is a high-yield crop. For consumers it has excellent nutritional value. It contains significant levels of Vitamins A (via carotenoids), B, and C. It is also rich in nutrients and protein, and it is said to possess medicinal qualities.

Katuk is also an attractive ornamental. It features blue-green oblong leaves, and its clumping habit makes it useful as a screening material. The species’ small white-and-magenta flowers form along leafstems and give way to white-to-pinkish fruits about the size of marbles. S. androgynus appreciates ample moisture, but also has some drought tolerance once established in the ground. It should be planted in well-drained soil. In a hot, humid climate like that of southern Florida, it performs best when grown in light shade. It grows very rapidly during the summer, but slows down significantly in cool, dry weather. It has low frost and salt air tolerance, but is not known to have significant pest or disease problems.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery is currently propagating this excellent food source.

 Soursop (Annona muricata)

The soursop is yet another plant whose place of origin within the New World tropics cannot be pinpointed because its use has spread greatly over the centuries. It is known in Spanish-speaking countries as guanábana and in Portuguese-speaking countries as graviola, but a host of other common names has been attached to it as it has spread around the tropics. It was among the earliest fruit trees to be taken to the Old World tropics. It has probably been grown in Florida for more than a hundred years.  Muricata stands out from the 60 or so other species of Annona by producing the largest fruit in the genus. The tree matures in the 25-30 ft. range, with a low-branching growth habit. This species has an unusual flowering habit: Blooms occur singly, but can appear anywhere on the tree. They are a pale yellow color at the throat, but become yellow-green in the outer petals.

The warty-skinned fruit is not very regular in form, but is generally heart-shaped or oval, maturing to somewhere between 4 and 12 in. long. Depending on the cultivar, as well as growing conditions, they can weigh 2-15 lbs. Dark green while developing, the fruit turns somewhat yellow at maturity, at which point the ‘warts’ can be broken off easily. Ideally, fruit should be picked from the tree just as it begins to soften, because it can be bruised or otherwise damaged upon falling to the ground. Soursop pulp smells a bit like pineapple, but it has a very specific acid to subacid taste. In addition to being eaten out of hand, guanábana is also processed for juice, and in some places unripe fruit is cooked, fried or roasted as a vegetable.

Because of its moderate size, A. muricata is a good fit for most home gardens. It performs well in our limestone soils. A steady source of moisture, as well as good drainage, is important. Young trees should be given some protection from outbursts of cold weather.

Soursop has long had a role in folk medicine. Some aficionados believe that a tea brewed from the leaves plays a role in treating cancer. At least one study has shown that the soursop tea can successfully treat drug-resistant cancer cells in laboratory media, but this claim appears not to have been replicated in humans.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery carries A. muricata is 3- and 7-gal. containers.