Allspice (Pimenta dioica) and Bay Rum (Pimenta racemosa)

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 two 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 allspice was 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. While the tree is now cultivated in many tropical areas of the world, it is apparently the only spice processed commercially solely in the New World, particularly Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad and Cuba. Jamaica was the leading exporter of allspice, at least until the 1990s, but there is now some indication that Mexico has superseded it, and Honduras and Guatemala are becoming major exporters.

Once P. dioica is established, it withstands drought and even has some cold tolerance — 26-28°.  It can be grown nicely as a container specimen, as well as in the ground, and 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?

The second tree, Pimenta racemosa, better-known as Bay Rum or West Indian Bay Tree, is variable in height, maturing in the 12-40 ft. range, but generally shorter than P. dioica. It is native to the West Indies and possibly northern South America. The tree bears attractive, small white flowers which give way to black ovoid fruits. This species has about the same cultural requirements as the allspice tree, but is several degrees less cold-hardy.

Bay rum is distilled from the berry-like fruits of P. racemosa, but this essential oil is not used in beverages because in that concentration ingestion is toxic. Instead, it is used as a constituent of colognes, perfumes and soaps. On the other hand, the leaves of this species are fine for consumption as a syrup or herbal tea, or in cooking. Leaves are sold fresh or dried. Medicinally, bay rum has long been employed to treat sore muscles and various strains and sprains. Scientists later discovered that the essential bay oil contains a constituent possessing anti-bacterial properties. And even more recently, at least one study has characterized bay oil as a potent antioxidant.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery sells both species of these desirable Pimentas in 3-gal. and 15-gal. containers.

Pimenta dioica (Allspice Fruit)

Pimenta dioica (Allspice Tree with fruit forming)

Pimenta dioica (Mature Allspice Tree)

Pimenta dioica (Allspice Tree beginning to flower)

Pimenta racemosa (Bay Rum Tree)

Pimenta racemosa (Young Bay Rum Tree)

Blue Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis)

Names are so confusing sometimes. I mean, we seem to have trouble with directions. How did Cleveland, Ohio end up in the midwest? Probably not from continental drift. And we certainly can’t tell verbs from adjectives from nouns, so in football we play contain defense instead of containment defense, and in Congress we lock in the sequester instead of sequestration. Perhaps the explanation is simple: Our political leaders probably played football without helmets a few too many times.

Alas, even plant names have been afflicted with the language malaise. Take the blue porterweed, a beautiful small shrub native to Florida. Naturally, it is known as . . . Jamaican Porterweed, Stachytarpheta jamaicensis. And to make matters worse, over the years several exotic species have mistakenly been identified, photographed and sold as Blue Porterweed. True S. jamaicensis has a decumbent, i.e., sprawling, growth habit, and reaches a height of just a foot or so. The lowermost parts of the plant are lignified, or woody, and only the newer growth is flexible. There may be some mounding in Blue Porterweed, particularly in cultivated specimens.

The horizontally-spreading branches of this species bear dull leaves that are generally gray-green or light green in color, although a purple blush appears on some plants. The upper surface of the leaves is usually smooth, and the leaf margin is strongly serrated. Green flower spikes up to a foot long produce small blue flowers, starting at the bottom and working their way to the top each day. Each flower stays open for just a day, and there are usually 3-4 flowers open at the same time on each spike.

Among the other species of Stachytarpheta that have made their way into Florida are an upright, trunking representative from Asia and a large, pink-flowering shrub from South America. Neither is remotely like S. jamaicensis, but that hasn’t stopped confusion from reigning. Moreover, some hybrids have developed, and that has only deepened the morass. We’re afraid that misapplication of the name may persist long after the sequester stumbles over the fiscal cliff. However, we know for certain that Richard Lyons’ Nursery carries the true Blue Porterweed in 1-gal. containers.

Stachytarpheta jamaicensis (Native Blue Porterweed)

Stachytarpheta jamaicensis (Native Blue Porterweed)

Stachytarpheta jamaicensis (Native Blue Porterweed)

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, as recently as 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 and discarded.  However, if the owner wants to propagate the new plant instead 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 until recent years the species seldom produced fruit in southern Florida. But it now seems that a pollinator has come on the scene in our region, for mature white fruit has been appearing more and more frequently.

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

African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata)

One of the most striking of winter-flowering trees found in southern Florida is the African Tulip Tree, Spathodea campanulata. This fast-grower is monotypic, i.e., the sole species in its genus. It is native to tropical areas of western and central Africa, where it can reach about 80 ft. in height, but in our part of the world, it settles into the 25-40 ft. range. A member of the Bignoniaceae, Spathodea is related to Jacaranda, Tabebuia, and Radermachera.

The African Tulip Tree should be grown in full sun. Its 3-4 in. flowers, generally produced near the top of the crown, are usually in the red-scarlet-orange range, but a nice yellow form occurs less commonly. The plant’s species name is a reference to the bell-like shape of the blooms. What makes them particularly showy is their habit of clustering, which at a distance creates the impression of a very large flower. Because of their configuration, the flowers hold dew and rain, and accordingly attract birds. The seeds are small, winged structures, easily distributed by wind. The pinnate leaves of S. campanulata mature to a glossy dark green and make the tree attractive even when not in bloom.

The African Tulip Tree is capable of flowering at just a few years of age when grown with ample irrigation. In fact, even though the species is quite tolerant of drought once acclimated to its planting site, it thrives in moist soils. It is therefore an excellent candidate for planting in areas that might flood from time to time. While S. campanulata tolerates only a bit of frost, it does handle cool weather well enough to be found occasionally in coastal California.

The wood of this tree is not particularly valuable commercially, though it is used to make drums, paper and bellows. However, it has one particularly noteworthy quality — resistance to fire — that helps make it a nice addition to residential landscaping.

Both the red- and yellow-flowering forms of Spathodea are available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 3- and 15-gallon containers. The yellow cultivar sold here is a grafted tree to ensure that you are purchasing a true yellow flower, since trees grown from seed are variable in color.

Spathodea campanulata ‘Aurea’ (Yellow African Tulip Tree) Grafted

Spathodea campanulata (Orange African Tulip Tree Foreground, Yellow Cultivar in Background)

Spathodea campanulata (Orange African Tulip Tree)

Spathodea campanulata (Orange African Tulip Tree)

Spathodea campanulata (Orange and Yellow Flowers of African Tulip Tree)

Spathodea campanulata (Orange African Tulip Tree)

Bougainvillea

Maybe you’ve noticed lately that knowing what is true has become rather elusive. For instance, can both of the following statements be true? (1) Bougainvillea is one of the most colorful vines in the world. (2) The flowers of Bougainvillea are small and inconspicuous. The answer is yes. That’s because the features that produce the spectacular colors found in this genus are actually bracts, modified leaves located at the point from which flowers develop. Thus bracts are an integral part of the flowering process, though they are not flowers themselves.
Did you know that the first woman to circumnavigate the earth was also possibly the first European to discover Bougainvillea? It is reported in some accounts that in 1766 Jeanne Baré (or Baret) was snuck aboard a ship of exploration by her botanist boyfriend, Philibert Commerçon. In order to flout ship rules, she was disguised as a man. We at Richard Lyons’ Nursery try to maintain a high degree of dignity and civility, so we shall not comment further about this aspect of the three-year expedition except to say that advances were made . . . in the name of science.
The spiny woody vine discovered not long after reaching Rio de Janeiro in 1767 was not described botanically until 1789, when it was named for Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the French admiral and explorer who had commanded the voyage. The genus Bougainvillea is native to Peru, Brazil and southern Argentina. There is still some uncertainty about the total number of species; depending on the source consulted, there are somewhere between four and 18. What is certain is that the 1930s ushered in an active period of natural and intentional hybridization, and we are now flush with a whole panoply of bright colors. There are over 300 cultivars (cultivated varieties) of Bougainvillea!
Bougainvillea produces sprawling, arching branches, but can be trained to grow as a standard. Often used in the ground as an impenetrable screening material, it can also be grown in containers or hanging baskets, where pruning following bloom will keep the plant compact and encourage side-branching. And as a container specimen, Bougainvillea is particularly amenable to thriving on high-rise balconies, because it is very resistant to winds. Although not extremely cold-hardy, the genus can stand enough frost to be widely grown as an ornamental in southern Switzerland near the foot of the Alps.
The best color production occurs in full sun. The genus is highly salt-tolerant, so coastal exposures are no problem. Bougainvillea is also quite drought-tolerant, and once a plant installed in the ground becomes acclimated, it will require little supplemental watering. In fact, the very rainy and hot summers of southern Florida inhibit color displays, so in our region Bougainvillea flourishes best during the dry season. It responds well to light applications of fertilizers, but use of a high-nitrogen formula will produce rampant vegetative growth without much color. A balanced formula is a better bet, and some experts recommend fertilizers formulated for roses or other flowering plants.
The cultivar ‘Pixie’ deserves special mention. Not only is it almost thornless, but it also produces color later into the summer than many other cultivars.
Richard Lyons’ Nursery offers Bougainvillea in shrub form in 3- and 15-gal. containers and as standards in 7- and 15-gal. sizes.

Bougainvillea ‘Pixie’ bonsai

Bougainvillea ‘Pixie’ standard

Bougainvillea ‘Pixie’ close-up of flowers

Bougainvillea ‘Pink and White Surprise’

Red Bougainvillea

Orange Bougainvillea

Purple Bougainvillea

Yellow-Orange Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea in 3-gal. pots