With 420 varieties, the Justicia has the makings of a charmed garden filled with butterflies, writes Stephanie Choo
SOME blooming species of the genus Justicia are not only attractive to the eyes, they also have fascinating overlapping bracts that make you think of the crustaceans that you would love to have for dinner — shrimps!
Justicia is a large genus of about 420 herbaceous plant species. They are indigenous to North and South America and belong to the dicotyledonous flowering family, Acanthaceae. Those species that have shrimp-like inflorescences are generally called shrimp plants.
Justicia fulvicoma: Commonly called the Mexican shrimp plant, Justicia fulvicoma is a native of Mexico as the name implies. And due to its crimson bracts with orange and red flaring two-lipped flowers, the plant is also commonly known as orange shrimp plant or Mexican plume.
The small evergreen perennial boasts striking bracts that partially enclose its flowers that attract bees, butterflies and birds. The bright green leaves of J. fulvicoma are small, woolly and elliptic. The plant has a loose growing habit that could reach about 60cm in height. This low sprawling plant is great for filling bare gaps and covering plant legs in a mixed shrubbery border.
Justicia brandegeeana: Another Justicia species also known as Mexican shrimp plant is the Justicia brandegeeana. Originating from northeast Mexico, the weak-stemmed shrub grows to as high as 1.8m in a fountain shape or arching. The plant is also called False Hop, Fountain Plant and Brazilian a Shower Plant.
The shrub looks remarkably outstanding with its very showy red and yellow curved flora spikes that appear atop the oval green leaves covered with soft hairs. The true flowers emerge between the bracts. They are tiny, tubular and white, and have speckled maroon throat. Several cultivars are available with red, pink or yellow bracts.
Grow the plant en masse to make a wonderful hedge cum border. It is a larval host plant for the Cuban crescent butterfly. Bees and butterflies like to visit the flowers for nectar. Even the flower bases that are filled with nectar are eaten by birds.
Justicia betonica: White shrimp plant or Justica betonica has the most unusual inflorescence. The green-veined bracts look white from afar. Perhaps this is the reason why some also call the plant squirrel’s tail, ekor murai, white candle or paper plume.
The upright growing plant could reach 1.5m high and originates from tropical Asia. A good garden bed and container plant, its green ovate to elliptic finely velvety leaves are also used in traditional medicine.
Dainty white flowers that peek out from the bracts turn lavender with age. Butterflies and bees are attracted to these nectar-filled flowers.
HOW TO GROW
Shrimp plants flourish well in either a tropical or sub-tropical climate. They are good plants for a “wildlife” garden as their flowers encourage pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds to visit.
Cultivate them in a spot with partial sunlight. Otherwise, provide some protection from the scorching hot afternoon sun. Use fertile well-draining soil mix and water the plants daily.
Shrimp plants can be grown in the ground as well as in pots. Feed regularly as they are heavy feeders. They have a tendency to become leggy over time. After flowering, prune back hard to encourage bushier growth.
A stake is needed as the flower heads can be heavy, thus plant gets weighed down. The plant can be easily propagated using its softwood cuttings. Alternatively, the existing plant can also be divided to produce new plants.
The colour of the bracts will become more brilliant with more sun exposure. But too much sun can wash out the colours.
They dislike prolonged wet soil. During wet weather, soil can become compacted and waterlogged. Replant the shrub into fresh and free-draining soil.