Firebush (Hamelia patens)

No less a publication than Southern Living magazine has long recommended our native Firebush, Hamelia patens, to its readership.  And it’s no wonder.  The species has many endearing qualities.

First, if not foremost, it’s rather cold-tolerant.  The Florida Native Plant Society regards it as suitable for planting through Zone 9a, whose northern limit is along a line from the Georgia border at the Atlantic coast to roughly Panama City at the Gulf Coast.  However, Firebush can survive in the ground well north of there. It will freeze back in the winter, but regrow from the roots in the spring, particularly if mulched with fallen leaves.  North of Zone 9a, the species is quite popular as a fast-growing, colorful annual.

H. patens is also remarkably amenable to various soil types, from the alkaline rockland of southern Florida to the deep acidic soils of the temperate South.  It flowers best in full sun, but performs well even in some shade.  The species is reasonably drought-tolerant, but can handle plenty of water, so long as good drainage is guaranteed.  Once established, maintenance is quite easy; cutting it back periodically will promote compactness and encourage blooming.  And it doesn’t even require much fertilizer!

Firebush has a huge native range, from north central Florida and Bermuda in the north through the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and into Paraguay in the south. In southern Florida it is a semi-woody evergreen shrub or small tree that reaches about 12 ft. high.  Its leaves are oval to elliptical, up to 6 in. long, featuring reddish veins and leafstems.  It produces clusters of ¾-in. red-orange or scarlet tubular flowers throughout the year.  Its berries are also attractive, developing through a range of colors from green to yellow to red to glossy black.

In the ground, Hamelia can be used as a solid hedge or can be mixed with other materials, but it can also be featured to great advantage as a stand-alone specimen. It is quite popular in hummingbird and butterfly gardens.  In colder locations that experience a distinct winter, Firebush makes an outstanding container plant that can be brought indoors and kept in a bright location until the return of warm weather.

H. patens also possesses some medicinal qualities.  Indigenous peoples found that stem and leaf extracts could be used to ameliorate dermatological problems, including sores, rashes and fungus. Those ethnobotanical applications have been bolstered by modern studies that isolated chemicals possessing antibacterial and antifungal properties. Other Firebush extracts have been shown in animal studies to contain hypothermic, analgesic and diuretic qualities.

H. patens is available at the nursery in 3-gal. containers.

Hamelia patens (Firebush)

Hamelia patens (Firebush)

Hamelia patens (Firebush)

Phoebis sennae on Hamelia patens (Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly on Firebush)

Hamelia patens (Firebush)

Heliconius charitonius on Hamelia patens (Zebra Longwing Butterfly on Firebush)

 

Verawood (Bulnesia arborea)

Verawood is a tree with a spreading, rounded growth habit, which creates dense shade under its canopy.  Over time the canopy becomes wider than the overall height of the tree which can obtain a height of 20-30 feet.  It has shiny dark green pinnately compound leaves composed of 7-14 pairs of leaflets.  It produces brilliant yellow flowers 2-4 times per year from April-October.  It is in the same family, Zygophyllaceae, as our native Lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum), and has a very similar overall shape, but grows much faster than Lignum vitae.  Verawood grows in USDA planting zone 10a-12b.  It is salt tolerant, drought tolerant, and grows very well in South Florida’s high pH soils.

Verawood is native to the coastal forests of Venezuala and Colombia.  It was first introduced into the US by Dr. David Fairchild.  The Genus is named after General D. Manuel Bulnes, a president of Chile in the 19th century.

This tree is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 7gal. containers 6-8′ tall.

Bulnesia arborea (Verawood)

Bulnesia arborea (Verawood)

Bulnesia arborea (Verawood)

Bulnesia arborea (Verawood)

Bulnesia arborea (Verawood)

Bulnesia arborea (Verawood)

Golden Dewdrops (Duranta erecta f/k/a Duranta repens)

If you’re not already familiar with Duranta erecta, now is a good time to get acquainted with this very attractive New World flowering species.  Like a lot of plants, it comes with its own little bag of mysteries:  Its current specific epithet, erecta, means upright.  Yet an older epithet, repens, means creeping.  That sounds like an oxymoron, but the explanation lies in the variability of the species: Individuals can sprawl and droop, with trailing branches, giving the impression of creeping.  The other mystery concerns the native range of D. erecta.  Some observers have argued that the species occurs naturally as far north as the imaginary line — minus a few gaps — from Florida to California.  But more likely its historical native range extends from Brazil northward to the Caribbean and northwestward to Mexico; any presence across the Rio Grande is the result of introduction.

What practically everyone can agree on is that this species lives up to its common name — Golden Dewdrops.  The plant produces profuse numbers of small round yellow or yellow-orange berries that look for all the world like a viscous dew.  But there is an additional bonus with D. erecta.  Not only does the species bear mildly fragrant, long-lasting tight clusters of tubular pale blue to lavender flowers, but new flowers often appear as fruit ripens, and the combination of colors is quite striking.

As a further benefit, D. erecta flowers also attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  The fruits of this species are a food source for birds, but are toxic to humans, so the Golden Dewdrops should not be planted where small children play.

Native mostly to dry coastal areas, the Golden Dewdrops is not particularly demanding about soil or moisture conditions when planted out, so long as drainage is good.  However, a richer, deeper soil will yield a more vigorous plant.  It does best in full sun, but can tolerate light shade.  The species usually matures under 10 ft. high, and perhaps just as broad, but occasionally a specimen may become a small tree up to 20 ft. tall.  Leaves are light green, and the crown contains many fine branches which may bear thorns.  Springtime pruning is appropriate to remove dead wood and manage shape.

D. erecta has multiple applications.  It can be planted as a specimen shrub/tree or as a low screen or even as a mixed hedge with other butterfly or hummingbird attractants.  It can also be espaliered against a wall or grown in a decorative container on a patio or other paved surface.

The Golden Dewdrops is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3-gal. containers.

Duranta erecta (Golden Dewdrops)

Duranta erecta (Golden Dewdrops)

Duranta erecta (Golden Dewdrops)

Duranta erecta (Golden Dewdrops)

Duranta erecta (Golden Dewdrops)

Duranta erecta (Golden Dewdrops)

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)