The striking pigeon berry or Rivina humilis is suited for novice gardeners, writes Stephanie Choo
IT is seldom seen or grown but I must say that the Rivina humilis is quite stunning when it flowers and bears fruits. It’s also great for inviting flocks of birds to the garden as birds find the red berries irresistible.
Aptly called pigeon berry, R. humilis is also known as blood berry, rouge plant, baby pepper or coralito. The species originates from the tropical and sub-tropical Americas. It occurs at lower-elevations, from sea level to 1,700m, in places like thickets, forests and hammocks.
Since its introduction to the Old World tropics as an ornamental plant, R. humilis has been naturalised in many parts of the world including Indo-Malesia, Asia and Africa. In Australia, the shrubby herb is found in shady places and rainforest margins. The evergreen perennial thrives in coastal areas and along roadsides in Fiji.
The genus name Rivina honours German botanist Augustus Quirinus Rivinus (1652-1723). The specific epithet, humilis, means smaller than others of its kind in Latin, referencing to the plant’s petite stature.
The species belongs to Phytolaccaceae (generally known as the Pokeweed family) which consists of about 100 species and are flowering plants. There are eight accepted R. humilis varieties — R. humilis var. glabra, canescens, laevis, humilis, scandens, plumbaginifolia, orientalis and puberula.
R. humilis is woody at base, grows upright to about one metre high and forms a dome-shaped appearance. It is ever-blooming and so fruits continuously. The subshrub flourishes thin and light green, ovate or elliptic leaves of about 5cm to 10cm long by 4cm wide and have short fine hairs on the leaf’s upper surface. The slender inflorescences bear many tiny greenish or pinkish white flowers.
Its glossy sub-globose berries are 2.5-5mm in diameter only. They ripen to bright red or orange and consist of the pigment rivianin. Some American tribes use them as a dye.
The seeds from the berries are dispersed via ingestion by birds. Although the berries do not harm the birds, they are said to be mildly poisonous to humans.
As a folk remedy, the berries ease amenorrhoea and dysentery. The leaves are pounded and used to heal wounds and catarrh. The decoction of the plant treats various ailments like colds, diarrhoea, jaundice and chest pain and congestion.
Pigeon berry is an excellent choice for under-storey layer plantings and wildlife garden. The fabulous shrub features pretty fern-like leaves, lovely stalks of flowers and attractive berries.
Many grow this vibrant plant as a ground cover for locations in the shade. Others grow it as a container plant for decorating the patio, porch and rooms.
Birds feed on the berries and the plant produces nectar to satisfy hungry butterflies and bees.
HOW TO GROW
Pigeon berry is easy to grow. It’s a great beginner’s plant! It self-sows easily and freely. You can always find volunteer seedlings below and near the mother plant.
Grow in full shade, dappled light or light shade locations. Settle pigeon berry in well-draining fertile soil. Feed it regularly with organic fertilisers.
Pruning encourages denser growth. Use cuttings to propagate new plants. Water it daily so that soil does not dry out.
Pigeon berry can become invasive. To keep it under control, pull out young plants from the soil or remove the seeds once spotted.