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Plectranthus - African Beauty


by Kathryn Hall

My introduction to plectranthus began with an unexpected gift from a neighbor. She knocked on my front door and presented me with a small metal pot that contained a small leafy plant—nothing particularly showy, but a nice leaf, nevertheless and I thanked her for her kindness.

She shared with me that she had taken a cutting of a plant she had been growing in a large hanging basket in front of her house. I went across to see what I might anticipate, whereupon I could better imagine how big it might get and what its potting needs were going to be. She explained to me that it was called “Zulu Wonder.” I’d neither heard of it nor seen it before.

When I returned home I took the time to google Zulu Wonder and discovered it was a form of plectranthus, more commonly known as Swedish ivy. I was unfamiliar with both but my reading led me to conclude it might do well in a larger pot than I had imagined. And, since it was described as doing well in shade and a bit of sun, I concluded that placing the pot near my clematis collection on the front porch, which receives warm morning sun and then is plunged into shade the rest of the day, as the sun moves west over the house, would most likely be a happy place for it to live. And so it had a home.

For months the gift did nothing particularly impressive except expand its foliage, but in late summer (!) spikes began to appear and upon the spikes buds, which opened up into the most extraordinary and very unexpected lavender flowering stalks! People who arrived at the front door always asked what it was, thinking most often it was a kind of lavender.

How I enjoyed those blossoms! Each time I exited into the front garden, or returned from any errand their delicate and beautiful presence was the first thing that caught my attention. And with good reason! This was a gift that gave way beyond its humble beginning.

As it happened, below the big pot was a small pot that housed a strawberry which had lived there for years, frankly. And imagine my surprise when one morning I discovered a second plant emerging from the soil. A second plectranthus. Knowing it is propagated via cuttings, I will never quite know how this one got started, but I love a good garden mystery, don’t you? Sometimes living in the question is more fun than finding the answer, I say.

I had not found a single friend or any gardening bloggers writing about plectranthus until some months later East Coast gardening writer, Tovah Martin, whom I follow on Facebook, posted a couple of pictures of what appeared to be my Zulu Wonder, asking if anyone could please ID it. She was as enchanted as I’d been, apparently, but whoever sold it to her had not provided adequate information, and while it looked a bit like the better known and more popular plectranthus, Mona Lavender, it was, in fact, she realized, something else. But what? I excitedly compared the flowers and recognized it was most likely, in fact, Zulu Wonder and left her a comment. She was delighted that it had been correctly ID’d!

While plectranthus is technically a perennial, developed in South Africa, it can only be grown as such in warm climates. Being in Northern California, my Zulu Wonder did survive outside last winter, but I must confess I’m awaiting warmer weather to see if that holds true this year. We have El Nino this year, and I fear the temps might prove to be a bit harsh for my African beauty. Time will tell.

I’d written about plectranthus on my own blog Plant Whatever Brings You Joy and a distant cousin of mine had mentioned her husband—now departed—had once given her a plectranthus which she keeps as a houseplant, in her office. Apparently she has had it for years!

So East Coast folks would do well to perhaps shelter their plectranthus indoors during colder weather and perhaps explore keeping it in a sheltered place in summer and fall until frost is upon you. It is remarkably easy to grow, and disease resistant, needing simply to be kept moist, well drained, and to be pinched back on occasion—a hardy beauty any garden would benefit from!

Kathryn Hall is the author of Plant Whatever Brings You Joy: Blessed Wisdom from the Garden.
Check out Kathryn's blog here.

See more about Kathryn and her book here.

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published January 20, 2016

Photos to enlarge

Plectranthus. Tovah Martin photo

Plectranthus among friends. Tovah Martin photo

Accidental companions. Kathryn Hall photo

Kathryn's African beauties. Kathryn Hall photo

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