Firespike (Odontonema strictum)

Firespike can really fool you.  You might think that a plant native to Central America would perform poorly in cold weather, but this species is capable of doing quite well along a huge swath of the U.S. running almost uninterrupted from southern South Carolina to southern Washington.  And it’s beautiful to boot!

This evergreen shrub, known botanically as Odontonema strictum, bears stiff, mostly upright, sparse branches that reach about 6 ft. in height.  Its dark, shiny, oblong leaves are pinnate, measuring 4-6 in. in length.  Its native habitat is semi-forested, and so it comes as no great surprise that Firespike has become naturalized in disturbed hammocks around peninsular Florida.  In the coldest places where it is found in the U.S., it dies back to the ground in the winter, but in southern Florida, it grows as an evergreen semi-woody shrub.  This species thrives in moist soils, but they should be well-drained. It can tolerate considerable drought, and in residential settings, watering can be reduced during the winter.  It is not particularly salt-tolerant.

As presentable as it is out of flower, Firespike is really impressive in bloom.  Starting in late summer and extending through the winter, it produces numerous upright 9-12 in. panicles featuring inch-long, tubular, waxy, brilliant red/scarlet, purple, or lavender flowers.  It should be noted that many botanists consider the purple variety to be a seperate species, O. callistachyum.    Although it is at its best in full sun, O. strictum can still put on quite a show in filtered light.  The combination of bright flowers and glossy leaves is eye-catching, especially at the time of year when blooming peaks.  It is particularly effective in mass plantings.

Firespike is not only good-looking, but it also attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.  The plant spreads underground, but can also be propagated easily from softwood cuttings that flower in their first year.  O. strictum is also very amenable to pruning.  You can either cut it back hard or prune it lightly several times during the year to maintain the look that you prefer.  This desirable shrub is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3 gal. containers.

Odontonema callistachyum (Purple Firespike)

Odontonema callistachyum (Purple Firespike)

Odontonema callistachyum (Purple Firespike)

Odontonema strictum    (Red Firespike)

Odontonema strictum (Lavender Firespike)


Chad Husby and other news from The Gifford Arboretum

I wanted to share this guest post from Stephen D. Pearson, Director of the John C. Gifford Arboretum.

I hope you are planning to come to our meeting and hear Dr. Chad Husby this Thursday at 7 PM in Room 166 of Cox Science Center. Also at the Arboretum this month, we will have a performance by the Stamps String Quartet in the Arboretum at 6 PM on March 21.

Other events in March that may be of interest to you:

March 8, 9 and 10 from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM – International Orchid Festival at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Road ($25 – Free to FTBG members)

March 9 and 10 from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM – Palm Show and Sale at Montgomery Botanical Center. Parking and entrance for this event is at Gulliver School, 12595 SW 57 Avenue (Red Rd.) ($5 – Free to Palm Society members)

March 16 from 10 AM to 3 PM – Community Day at USDA Agricultural Research Services Station at Chapman Field, 13601 Old Cutler Road. This event is a great chance to learn about the important research done at Chapman Field and this year’s event will feature flowering trees and shrubs (Free)

March 23 from 8 AM to 4 PM – Native Plant Day at Bill Sadowski Park, 17555 SW 79 Avenue (Enter off of Old Cutler Rd.) (Free)

With best wishes,


Stephen D. Pearson
Director, John C. Gifford Arboretum
Department of Biology
University of Miami
1301 Memorial Drive, Room 231
Coral Gables, FL 33143

The Stoppers (Myrtaceae)

This week we take a look at a very interesting group of Florida native plants known collectively as stoppers.  All stoppers are members of the Myrtaceae, an enormous family that also includes the genus Eucalyptus.  Some grow as shrubs and some as trees.  Each of the five described below not only has ornamental value, but also has proven to be pretty irresistible to wildlife.

The Redberry Stopper (Eugenia confusa) is a rare, very slow-growing small to medium-sized tree that seldom reaches much more than 25 ft.  In Florida, it occurs in Martin, Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties.  In the islands, it is native to the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, including Puerto Rico, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Trinidad.  The crown is fairly narrow and bears small, stiff, glossy evergreen leaves about 1-2 in. long with pointed tips.  The tree produces clusters of white flowers year-round, but more heavily during spring and summer.  Not surprisingly, the fruit is a red berry, and it attracts birds.  The tree also provides food and cover to other wildlife.

E. confusa prefers most, well-drained soils, whether limestone or sand, but can tolerate brief periods of drought once established.  While not demanding of rich soils where native, this species responds well to good nutrition in cultivation.  Although the tree is found in coastal hammocks, it will not tolerate constant exposure to salt breeze or long-lasting inundation by salty or brackish water.  This species should be grown in full sun to light shade.

The Redberry Stopper is considered by the State of Florida to be endangered.

Red Stopper (Eugenia rhombea), like the Redberry Stopper, has a narrow, rounded crown, but is of a smaller stature, generally maturing in the 8-12 ft. range, but occasionally reaching 15 ft.  This species works well in buffer plantings or as a stand-alone small tree or accent shrub.  Leaves of the Red Stopper are dark green and 1-2 in. long.  The ‘red’ in the common name refers to the color of new foliage.

Historically, E. rhombea ranges from Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties in Florida into Mexico, Central America and northern South America.  However, it is no longer found natively in mainland Miami-Dade County and only rarely encountered in Monroe County.  The Institute for Regional Conservation considers the species critically imperiled in southern Florida.

Red Stopper bears white flowers year-round, peaking during the hot months.  The fruit of this species is orange-black, maturing to black, and is eaten by birds.  The plant also provides food and cover to other wildlife.  Soil, water and nutritional needs, as well as salt tolerance, match those of E. confusa.  E. rhombea is best grown in light shade.

The White Stopper (Eugenia axillaris), perhaps because of its large range, is fortunately still common in the wild.  It is  found natively from Volusia and Levy Counties, far upstate, skipping northeast to Bermuda, extending south through the Florida Keys and into the West Indies, Mexico and Central America.  Maturing to 8-15 ft. in the northerly end of its range, but 25+ ft. in southern Florida, it has long been popular for ornamental use as a large shrub or small tree.

New leaves of E. axillaris are a pinkish-red color before maturing to a dull, dark green on the upper surface and pale on the lower surface, with many tiny black dots.  Some observers say that the leaves emit an unpleasant odor, while others do not.  This species produces white flowers all year long, but most heavily during the spring and summer; they are followed by reddish or black fruit that provides a significant food source for wildlife.

This species is probably more demanding of good nutrition than the other stoppers.  Like them, however, it should not regularly be exposed to salt breezes or salty or brackish water.  It can tolerate short periods of drought once established.  The White Stopper is best grown in full sun to light shade.

Simpson’s Stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans) commemorates Charles Torrey Simpson, botanist, conservationist and Sage of Biscayne Bay, for whom Simpson Park just south of downtown Miami is also named.  Its species name refers to the sweet aroma of the flowers, but the leaves also produce an aromatic smell when crushed.  This stopper grows as a large shrub or small to medium-sized tree with reddish peeling bark.  It usually matures in the 10-20 ft. range, but 50 ft. is not unheard of in southern Florida.  The growth rate is slow to moderate.

M. fragrans is native from Lee, Okeechobee and St. Johns Counties southward through the Keys and into the West Indies, Mexico, Central America and South America.  Leaves are 1-2 1/2 in. long and semi-glossy on the upper surface.  Dots on the leaf surfaces contain the aromatic substances which are released when the leaves are crushed.  Simpson’s Stopper produces clusters of white flowers year-round, but most heavily during the spring and summer.  The flowers are followed by orange to red globose berries that provide a food source to a variety of wildlife.

This species is native to moist, well-drained limestone or sandy soils.  Like the other stoppers, it does not like long exposures to salt air or salty or brackish water.  Drought tolerance is moderate once a plant is established in a new site.  For best results, grow Simpson’s Stopper in full sun to light shade.

The State of Florida lists this species as threated.

Spanish Stopper (Eugenia foetida) differs from the species discussed above in that it regularly produces multiple thin, erect stems.  The bark of those reddish-brown stems is smooth when young, then develops concentric rings as it ages.  Atop the stems is a dense, rounded crown bearing leathery leaves 3/4 to 1 1/2 in. long.  The species name is derived from the fact that crushed leaves may emit an unpleasant scent.  As a tall shrub or small to medium-size tree, E. foetida generally matures to 8-15 ft.  It makes an excellent buffer or accent planting.

Spanish Stopper ranges from Brevard and Manatee Counties down along the east coast of Florida through the Keys and into the West Indies, Mexico and Central America.  Fortunately, it is still fairly common throughout its range.

Like E. axillaris, the Spanish Stopper is more demanding nutritionally than most stoppers.  However, its soil and water requirements are similar to those of the other species reviewed here.  While its saltwater tolerance is low, it can endure salt breezes remarkably well.  The growth rate of this species is slow to moderate.

This species produces clusters of white flowers throughout the year, but particularly during the summer.  They are followed by brown to black berries which attract a variety of animals.  Spanish Stopper also provides a significant source of cover for wildlife.

In summary, all five of the Florida stoppers make wonderful additions to the residential landscape, and as slow to moderate growers, they will never become out of scale to even the smallest of yards.  They are available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3 gal. containers.

By the way, were you wondering why these species are called stoppers?  Stories have come and gone over the years, but the most accurate appears to be that tribes made a tea out of the leaves of these species, particularly White Stopper, to stop diarrhea.  Suffice it to say that nowadays you probably just want to concentrate on the ornamental appeal of these plants.

3 Gallon Jaboticaba $45

Myrciaria caulifera (Jaboticaba9)

An interesting feature of Myrciaria caulifera (Jaboticaba) is how the fruit forms directly on the trunk and branches of the tree.

We are featuring Jaboticaba again this week in 3 gallon containers.  Regularly $45, you can buy one this week for the special price of $25 each. You have to buy it at My Nursery in Miami and you have to ask for “Richard’s Special.”

Have you been to the Nursery recently? Did you like what you saw? Leave a review of our Nursery on your favorite social media platform, like Yelp! Google+ and Facebook. I love customer feedback as much as our customers. Have a great week.

Baobab Tree (Adansonia digitata)

As you know, we are surrounded by weird things.  In your case, at this very moment the closest weird thing is probably your neighbor’s teenage son, who thinks he is the next Justin Bieber, but more closely resembles an offkey cyclops.

In the plant world, one of the weirder things is the Baobab tree, but, unlike your neighbor’s kid, the Baobab has a future, quite possibly in your yard.

The scientific name for Baobab is Adansonia.  It is named for Michel Adanson, a French explorer and naturalist who as a 21-year-old in 1749 was distracted by a very striking tree on an island in Senegal while on a hunt for antelope.  The tree, now known as Adansonia digitata, had an enormous swollen trunk and seemed to have been turned on end.  In fact, one of its common names is the Upside Down Tree, a reflection on the fact that its crown, when bare, resembles a gnarly collection of roots.   David Livingstone — that David Livingstone, we presume — called it a “carrot planted upside down.”

Following centuries of confusion and debate, there is now general agreement among botanists that the genus Adansonia comprises eight species which range over some 10,000 miles from western Africa to Madagascar to the Arabian Peninsula to northwestern Australia (where they are known as Boabs).  Continental drift following the breakup of Gondwana used to be credited for the broad range of Adansonia, but a more recent theory holds that the buoyant seedpods distributed Baobabs to western Australia and eastern Africa by sea from Madagascar.  What is common to all the species is their trunk girth, an adaptation to arid environments that allows the plant to store large quantities of water.  Baobabs have long served as living reservoirs for humans, particularly nomadic tribes.

Revered across their range, Baobabs have a number of valuable uses aside from their role as a source of water.  Their leaves are used to make soup or are eaten as a spinach-like or asparagus-like vegetable or dry condiment.  The white pulp found inside seed pods makes a pleasant drink when mixed with water, and the same pulp is used to treat malaria.  The seeds themselves are edible in several forms.  The bark of the tree can be pounded into fiber to make clothing, fishing nets and rope.  And in addition to their utilitarian assets, the Adansonia species produce small to large, sweet-smelling flowers.

The trees have no growth rings, but at least by reputation they are extremely long-lived. One of the qualities that aids longevity is the ability to regrow bark when it is damaged, either through accidental injury or by being intentionally stripped for the fiber. Some older specimens have developed such large, hollow trunks that they have been used as prisons, or, more accurately, lockups, for criminals being transported to more traditional accommodations.

The Baobab is not a succulent.  Young plants in particular do not respond well to drought.  Rather, the genus is simply highly adapted to areas of low rainfall.  That fact helps explain why Adansonia is quite capable of handling the moist climate of southern Florida if planted on a well-drained site.

On reflection, ‘weird’ is not the fairest descriptor for the noble Baobab.  ‘Remarkable’ might be the best term.  In fact, one admirer has incorporated that very view into an entire book about the genus.  You might want to take a look at Thomas Pakenham’s “The Remarkable Baobab.”

Adansonia digitata is a proven quality performer in the landscape of southern Florida, and its slow growth rate will not put this interesting tree out of scale to residential properties.  Richard Lyons’ Nursery has it available in 15-gal. containers, at about 12 ft. in height.  And it might well help you forget about the kid next door.

Adansonia digitata (Baobab Tree)

Adansonia digitata (Baobab Tree)

Adansonia digitata (Baobab Tree)

Adansonia digitata (Baobab Tree)

Adansonia digitata (Baobab Tree)