By Norman Winter
(MCT)—If you find yourself looking for some exotic, colorful plants for the summer shade garden, look no further than the Brazilian plume flower. It is so wonderful that it was once known botanically as Jacobinia magnifica.
Magnificent it still is though the new name Justicia carnea simply doesn’t do it justice. The common names should also tell you it is worthwhile. Besides Brazilian plume flower, they include flamingo plant, paradise plant and king’s crown.
If your climate is like mine, spring seems to be having a hard time staking its claim. But when it does, and if your garden center offers these tropicals from South America, know you are getting an outstanding plant.
The Brazilian plume flower is a member of the Acanthus family, which means it is related to other outstanding tropical plants like the yellow shrimp plant, red shrimp plant, Mexican petunia, firespike, Persian shield and Philippine violet.
The Brazilian plume flower is really almost indescribable. There are red-flowered forms, and even a showy yellow, but it is the pink one that is absolutely mesmerizing. The bright pink, twin-lipped flowers are produced on large, fat spikes and hang downward in all directions — but I struggle to full describe its beauty and form.
Amazingly, these spectacular blooms are borne on a plant that likes very little sun — it is a shade lover. In warm climates it is an evergreen shrub that keeps regenerating growth and more blooms. Not only are the flowers exotic, but the foliage is a very-striking, glossy dark-green. In zone 8 it will freeze to the ground and return with spring growth provided you have well drained soil. It is even more-cold hardy in zones 9 and higher.
If you live in zones 7 and lower, grow it as an annual as you do impatiens or most begonias. We have a choice of growing it as an annual or growing it in a medium-sized container. As is typical of this family, the Brazilian plume flower easily roots from cuttings. So make a few cuttings to over-winter.
Since it does require very good drainage, if planting in the landscape, work in 3 to 4 inches of organic matter to a depth of about 8 inches. If you choose to grow them in containers, then spend the dollars to get good potting soil.
The Brazilian plume flower combines well with ferns, hostas or other blooming plants like impatiens. It would look exceptionally striking combined with its cousin, the Persian shield.
To keep your plant blooming means to keep it growing. I like to deadhead old flower spikes immediately when the blooms decline. Once deadheaded, it will start sending out new leaves followed by more blooms. This is a nice plant in that each week it gets bigger, which means you get more and more flowers with each new flush.
Since you want to encourage this growth, fertilizer needs to be a regular part of your gardening regimen. In containers, feed every other week with a diluted, water-soluble 20-20-20 or something similar. Those grown in the landscape can the landscape can be side-dressed monthly with controlled-released granules.
So far I have only seen them at independent garden centers this year, but I expect that as warm weather settles in they will become more widely available. If you have shade make sure you buy some when they arrive at your garden center.
Norman Winter is executive director of the Columbus Botanical Garden, Columbus, Ga., and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services