Lipstick Tree (Bixa orellana)

Bixa orellana, the Lipstick Tree, has to be one of the most fascinating plants found anywhere.  It has been valuable, versatile and popular for so long that no one knows exactly where in the New World Tropics it originated.

The species name honors Francisco de Orellana, a Spanish conquistador of the 16th century, who, according to one commentator, accidentally discovered the Amazon.  But, honestly, isn’t any discovery accidental?  That’s really a metaphysical question, worthy of separate debate, perhaps at the next Richard Lyons Philosophy Week and Chutney Festival.  At any rate, Mr. Orellana was the first European known to have navigated the entire Amazon River, and that’s worthy of some recognition.  We hope he reveled in the feat, because, regrettably, his ship capsized at the mouth of the Amazon a few years later, and he ended up swimming with the fishes.

Also known as the annatto dye plant, achiote, bijol or urucu, B. orellana grows into a shrub or small tree 6-20 ft. tall.  Its pinkish-white flowers are followed by a bright red heart-shaped, very bristly and inedible fruit capsule. When ripe, the capsule turns brown, hardens and splits open, revealing a large quantity of seeds embedded in orange-red pulp.  An individual plant can produce lots of fruit: up to 270 kg. (nearly 600 lb.).

But the Lipstick Tree is not just another pretty face.  In addition to having great ornamental value, Bixa possesses many other desirable properties.  Historically, the Aztecs and Maya had a high regard for B. orellana, and not just as an aphrodisiac.  The crushed seeds contain a reddish dye — the so-called annatto juice — whose main constituents, bixin and norbixin, are carotenoids.  Practically all Mayan scriptures were written in annatto juice.  It should come as no surprise, then, that research is being conducted on the potential for incorporating annatto in printer inks.  The dye has also long been used by indigenous peoples as body paint, on textiles and, of course, for lipstick.

Annatto is also employed as a color additive in foods all the way from Latin America to the Philippines.  The dye is used as a less expensive alternative to saffron in coloring and flavoring rice.  In addition it is arguably a much less costly substitute for beta carotene, though it appears to lack a concerted marketing push toward that end. 

Take a look at grocery product labels, and you will discover that annatto is among the most popular of food dyes in the United States.  The Food and Drug Administration places it in the category of colorings known as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe), and domestic products containing annatto include butter, cheeses, custards, candies and spreads.  Elsewhere, the dye appears in popcorn, breads, chicken and pork.  Seeds are separated from the pulp and used as a mild spice.  (While some individuals report an allergic reaction to annatto, what they actually may be sensitive to is chemicals involved in the commercial extraction of the dye.)

Aside from foods, annatto dye appears as a coloring agent in fingernail polish, shoe polish, floor wax, hair oil, lacquer, varnish, soap, cosmetics, furniture, ointments and leather.  The pulp is also used to repel insects.

From ancient times, medicinal uses for annatto have been well known, and they have covered an impressive range of maladies:  dermatological problems, high cholesterol, heartburn, malaria, fevers, liver disorders, burns, dysentery, digestive ailments, snakebites, coughs, prostate disorders, hypertension, obesity, vaginitis, eye infections, and epilepsy.  While historically roots, shoots, bark, leaves and seeds of B. orellana have all proven to possess medicinal properties, concentration today is only on those derived from seeds and seed paste.  The high anti-oxidant properties of bixin and norbixin appear to be receiving a lot of attention, and the same two carotenoids have been found to lower blood sugar levels.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery sells these exceptional trees in 3-gal. pots approximately 6′ tall.  Heads-up:  If you intend to leave the plant in the container for a while, separate it from the soil on which it rests, because it roots out readily.


Bixa orellana (Lipstick Tree)

Bixa orellana (Lipstick Tree)

Bixa orellana (Lipstick Tree)

Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)

The term ‘Bamboo Palm’ has been applied to several palm species because of their resemblance to genuine bamboo.  What each of the ersatz bamboos features in common is multiple smooth stems interrupted by horizontal rings.  Over time Chamaedorea seifrizii probably has been the most frequently-cited and dependable of the so-called Bamboo Palms.

Chamaedorea is a New World genus of over 100 species, and many have found significant niches in the landscape of southern Florida.  More than a few have demonstrated the invaluable capacity to adapt from native rainforest habitats to successful roles as indoor ornamental plants.  C. seifrizii perhaps fulfills that function better than any others.

C. seifrizii is a clustering species whose thin, cane-like stems grow to variable heights, roughly 7-12 ft.  It features semi-glossy pinnate leaves which are distributed along each stem, rather than just at the top.  (Leaflet shape is quite variable in this species, and over time some forms have been erroneously marketed under different names.  For example, the wider-leaflet form is often sold as C. erumpens.)  Once a specimen matures, it produces orange infructescences that bear pea-sized fruit which ripens black.  The combination of colors is very striking and attractive.

The species is native from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico into Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.  In part of its range, it thrives in swampy settings, but elsewhere it occurs under seasonally arid conditions.  That versatility likely explains why this palm is among the most drought-tolerant of Chamaedoreas.  Cold tolerance in southern Florida is generally not a worry in the populated regions; C. seifrizii withstands temperatures down to 28° and can usually overcome the damage that occurs at 26°.

C. seifrizii’s versatility extends to light demands as well.  It is tolerant of both very bright outdoor positions and low indoor lighting. However, like Rhapis excelsa, its color bleaches out in full sun, particularly in a climate — such as that of southern Florida — where summer temperatures commonly exceed 90°.

The adaptability of this species to indoor lighting conditions has made it very popular for interior landscaping, although for best results it should not be placed unrealistically distant from a window or a source of good artificial lighting.  If a regular watering schedule is observed, maintenance of this Bamboo Palm is rather undemanding.  About the only problem to watch for when growing C. seifrizii indoors is, as with many other plants, occasional infestations of red spider mite.

C. seifrizii is available at the nursery in 7- and 15-gal. containers.

Chamaedorea seifrizii (Bamboo Palm)

Chamaedorea seifrizii (Bamboo Palm Fruit)

Chamaedorea seifrizii (Bamboo Palm)

Diseases of Citrus and Avocado Trees

As just about everyone knows, southern Florida’s climate permits homeowners to grow
a vast and impressive array of fruit trees.  But the lower end of the peninsula is also a
sitting duck for the introduction of diseases and detrimental insects.  Lamentably,
Richard Lyons’ Nursery must now recommend that you no longer plant citrus and
avocado trees here.

What has led to this sad conclusion?  With citrus, it took a double whammy to make us
throw in the towel.  First came citrus canker, a disease that causes lesions, or wounds,
on the fruit, stems and leaves of many citrus species.  The responsible bacterium does
not carry a risk to human health, but it makes the fruit unsightly and weakens trees.
Dade County first experienced citrus canker a century ago, and it took many years to
eradicate it throughout the southeastern states.  The disease again popped up on the
western side of Florida in the mid-1980s, but was overcome in less than a decade.
Unfortunately, citrus canker made another serious incursion into Miami-Dade County in
1995.  After initial delay, the state took some controversial steps toward thwarting the
disease, but in the wake of the hurricanes of 2005 that spread the bacterium into many
new areas, the federal government ended support for the eradication program.

The second attack on citrus has been infinitely more ominous.  Citrus greening, or
Huanglongbing, also a bacterial disease, is spread primarily by a couple of species of
psyllids (so-called jumping plant lice).  An Asian strain of the bacterium was discovered
in southern Florida in August 2005 and has proved to be a formidable threat.  Leaves of
infected trees become chlorotic, or yellow; the visible symptoms of this chlorosis are
typically referred to as “blotchy mottle.”  In fact, that is probably the most reliable
diagnostic symptom of citrus greening disease.  The yellowing may show up in a single
branch, particularly in a younger tree, and then spread throughout the plant in a year’s time.

Developing fruits are misshapen and remain green instead of ripening, and their taste is
rendered bitter.  The disease, which, like citrus canker, is not harmful to humans, is
incurable in plants, and most affected trees die within several years.  Florida’s Institute
of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) advises that the psyllids can be treated by
insectides, but warns that “elimination of the disease from an area has never been
successful.”  And, finally, the agency adds that “[b]ecause of the highly infectious
nature of these citrus diseases fruit crops other than citrus should be considered for
planting in the home landscape.”

When it comes to avocados, the origin of the problem is unique:  It is the only plant
disease or insect pest to invade from north of Florida instead of from the tropics.  It
is known as laurel wilt disease, and it is a fungus that hones in on members of the
lauraceae, or laurel family, which include redbay, swamp bay and, alas, avocado.  It
works by destroying the vascular system which transports water throughout the plant.
The fungus is spread from tree to tree by the redbay ambrosia beetle, an Asian native.
(The beetle itself would likely not kill trees without the disease-causing fungus it
carries.)  Unfortunately, the beetle is commonly found residing in firewood, so it can
be introduced to an area by simply transporting cut wood of laurel family species.

The redbay ambrosia beetle was first detected in the U.S. at Savannah, GA in 2002, where it
probably arrived in solid wood packing materials, and it was found in Miami-Dade
County in swamp bay trees in February 2011.  The bad news outweighs the good news
about laurel wilt disease.  The good news is that avocados are not the preferred host
species for the beetle.  The bad news is that, nevertheless, the beetle has been found in
the commercial avocado grove area of southern Miami-Dade County, and there is as yet
no known effective biological or synthetic chemical treatment for laurel wilt disease.

Spring Has Sprung

The calendar said spring arrived weeks ago.  However, it remained on the cool side until this week.  We have had some rain the last few days which has resulted in a flush of new growth.  The plants which were experiencing the winter malaise have livened up.  There is new growth and the plants are much greener and healthier.  If we continue with these spring thunderstorms, it will definitely mark an early beginning to the rainy season.
This is a great time to plant.  However, I would hold off for another 6 weeks before moving any in ground plants.  If you intend to move plants which are in the ground, start the root pruning process now, and wait 6 to 8 weeks before you actually move them.  Finally, if you haven’t applied your spring fertilizer, now is the time to do it.
Please feel free to drop by the nursery to check out what’s blooming and get ideas to landscape your yard.  We are open every day except Thursdays from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm.

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, until 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.  However, if the owner wants to propagate the new plant 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 the species seldom produces fruit in southern Florida.  For poorly-understood reasons, 2013 seems to be one of the rare instances in which mature white fruit has been observed on some established plants.

R. excelsa can be grown in containers for a long time, although occasional repotting is necessary once stems fill the capacity of the pot.  But 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 also serve as a very attractive, dense screening element in the landscape.  It has a history of being fairly free of pests and diseases, although indoor specimens should be inspected for red spider mites 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)