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Splashy oasis amid the dusty drought

The bright, saucy Jatropha shrugs off dry weather and defies unrelenting parching with fountains of color.

By JOHN A. STARNES JR., Special to the Times
Published May 12, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
A Jatropha at the Bette S. Walker Discovery Garden in Seffiner tempts the eye, and butterfiles too.

Back in 1968, when I grew my first garden here in Tampa, summers were reliably wet. The monsoons were called the "May rains" because that is often when they began. But for years we have been lucky if they've commenced in July.

With drought becoming the norm in Florida, many of us have replaced vast swaths of thirsty St. Augustine grass with low-care, water-wise landscape gardens. But all too often those beds lack the pizazz of fiery reds.

Enter the woody perennial Jatropha hastata. Once rarely sold here because of propagation difficulties, it is now widely available in 1-gallon pots for about $4 each. I have used it in clients' landscapes since the early 1980s because it is utterly reliable, free-flowering and very pest- and disease-free; it bounces back after a rare freeze, and most of all, thrives in dry soil once established. Oddly, it also thrives during the wet summer season as long as the soil is well drained.

Left to itself, it will make a small "tree" composed of one to a few trunks, much like a crape myrtle, easily 8 to 10 feet high. But if pruned hard each spring, it forms a hip-high dense shrub covered in those bright ruby blooms. It flourishes in improved soil, but this Jatropha species does well even in our impoverished sand. Its toughness makes it a great choice to grow in a large pot on a sunny deck or condo patio where it can be a beacon of sorely needed color. Got enough red? Look for the charming pink variant.

If you're weary of boring ligustrum and pittosporum hedges, space one Jatropha every 3 feet along a fence or property line, and in a few years you will have an eye-popping, butterfly-attracting hedge that will be the envy of your neighbors.

Like all members of the Euphorbia family, it has a slightly toxic, milky-white sap similar to that of the closely related Christmas poinsettia.

I've observed just two flaws: It often dies in chronically wet soil, and the blooms are short-lived when cut for bouquets. But I can easily forgive both shortcomings.

Invite this towering gem to sparkle in your landscape: Droughts may be with us for a long time.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.

 

FAST FACTS

Fiery red

Name: Jatropha hastata pronounced JAT-ro-fuh

Color: Red or pink

Common name: Peregrina, spicy jatropha

Grows: 8 to 10 feet tall

Native to: Cuba. In Florida it is found mainly south of Orlando.

What it likes: Full sun to light shade. Blooms repeatedly year-round. Drought-tolerant.

What likes it: Hummingbirds and butterflies.

Good to know: Male and female flowers bloom on the same plant, though not at the same time.

Careful: All parts of the plant are considered extremely toxic, particularly the seeds. The milky sap can be highly irritating to skin and eyes.

Sources: floridafriendlyplants.com, intox.org

 

[Last modified May 11, 2007, 13:33:27]


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