Half a century ago when I first visited Florida with my parents, my mother was quite taken by a shrimp plant she spotted in a restaurant. Papa was more taken that she had given it a name. How did she know it was a shrimp plant? he asked.
“It looks just like a shrimp,” Mama replied. And that was good enough for her.
The waitress settled the question. Sure enough the plant had flowers that looked like shrimp, and that was its name, as well.
I can’t remember where I got my first shrimp plants when I came here to live, but I know I’ve had them for a few decades. They’re easy to grow, easy to root and one of my favorite, top 10 flowers for bouquets, because they’re always blooming through all but the coldest times of the year. And they last quite a while in a vase.
The flowers are actually showy, layered bracts, which look like shrimp. They last for months in the garden, five to seven days in the vase. Justicia brandegeana, the variety with rusty orange/brown with yellow tips, is perhaps the most common, but I’ve also had a slightly redder one and a lime green one. Recently there are additional varieties such as fruit cocktail with golden lime bracts accented with bright, rose-colored flowers. A 4-inch pot of J. betonia, aka silver shrimp, white shrimp or Irish candles, has spread well around the blue plumbago I planted with it.
There is a yellow shrimp plant – Pachtstachys lutea – with much the same shape. This one took me longer to get going, but I have a nice plant blooming now.
The green shrimp, Blechum pyramidatum, grows as a weed but it’s not invasive. I have a few clumps of it because it’s the nectar food for the malachite butterfly. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one, except in a book, but I’ll be looking. Its caterpillars are black with reds spines and the chrysalis is bright green with jewels, but a bit different in shape from the monarch and jewels in a different pattern. They’re more common further south, but we can hope.
All shrimp plants are easy to grow in sun to partial sun. One garden I visited had a plant that was 50 years old, which had lived indoors in New York for much of that time.
Shrimp plants vary in height from 2 to 6 feet, the silver being the tallest. All will spread in the clump. Again the silver spreads the most, but they’re not invasive, and they do best if cut back often. They root easily from cuttings, or the clumps can be divided. For bouquets, cut when the bud tips are showing color. Split the bases of woody stems and condition them in warm water overnight or until far enough open to be colorful.
Today’s pick is the wild Carolina ruellia, one of the five native ruellias that grow in Florida. This one grows as far north as Ohio and Pennsylvania. You can tell these for sure because of the pointed sepals below the blooms.
Someone asked me if ruellias attracted butterflies, and I said I didn’t think so. Since then I have learned that this one is a larvae plant for the malachite butterfly. It will grow in full sun to fairly deep shade. You can mow it down and it’ll come back. It has good drought tolerance and only grows 12- to 24-inches tall. The taller ones are invasive in Florida, but these are not, though they spread easily.
Now’s the time to...enjoy learning new information and getting new ideas from garden books or the Web. You’ll find easier ways to have a better garden and save money and work by having more plants thrive and fewer die. You can do this while cooling off between sessions outdoors or use it to get enough inspiration to go outdoors if the heat bothers you. Make notes of work you want to get done, and then number by importance.
The Herbal Delight Spice Fair will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Willow Herbal Delight Gardens on Ray Road in Valrico. Take Lumsden to Miller, turn south, then right onto Ray Road and go to the end of the block. There will be vendors, music, a Taste of Herbs cooking competition, talks, demonstrations, garden tours, and a Flowers Fairy Tea Party for kids of all ages. I’ll be selling and autographing books from 10 until 1 p.m. at this free event. For information, call (813) 643-7285.
Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, freelance writer and author of 12 gardening books who can be reached at [email protected] Her website is www.gardensflorida.com.