This variety, called Party Time, has excellent foliage colour.
True Yellow makes a stunning contrast in a mixed container.
Christmas Tree is one of the smallest and most compact forms of A. ficoidea. Its tiny curly leaves emerge pair by pair, slowly but surely, and opposite one another along the stem.
White carpet planted in a hanging pot

Small plant for tight spaces

Despite its size, the Alternanthera ficoidea cultivar named Christmas Tree is a beauty, writes Stephanie Choo

CULTIVARS of the species Alternanthera ficoidea offer striking colour tones and contrast with their leaves. Popularly used as accents, edgers, borders, container plantings and ground covers, they can be planted in large groups to create masses of colours.

My current favourite is a mini-sized one with dark green curly leaves. The cute plant is an Alternanthera ficoidea cultivar named Christmas Tree, also known as Chinese Afro.

I am glad I brought one home. It is a beauty to look at, easy to care for and satisfies my penchant for tending to tiny shrubs.

Small, Slow Grower

A selection of the var. amoena, Christmas Tree is one of the smallest and most compact forms of A. ficoidea. Its tiny curly leaves emerge pair by pair, slowly but surely, and opposite one another along the stem.

This slow-growing miniature plant remains small and is unlikely to outgrow its designated spot or pot. These plants are great for gardeners like me who live in tight spaces.

Reliable Charmer

The cultivar is usually sold in teeny pots. Each pot contains numerous small plants packed tightly to form a petite rounded mound that is crowded with lots of unique crinkly leaves.

The plant thrives in sunny places and can adapt to shady nooks. It can also be acclimated to grow in an enclosed environment or indoor green spaces like a terrarium or as a houseplant.

The Genus

Alternanthera is a large genus that contains about 200 species of tropical annual and perennial herbs. They are flowering plants belonging to the amaranth family, Amaranthaceae.

The species

Alternanthera ficoidea, synonym Alternanthera tenella and Gomphrena ficoidea, is commonly known as slender joyweed, Joseph’s coat, calico plant, parrot leaf and sanguinarea. The species epithet, ficoidea means fig-like.

Native to regions stretching from Mexico to Argentina, the evergreen perennial is a mat-former that sprawls to about 45cm wide or more and about 15-30cm tall. The apetalous white flowers are inconspicuous and have mid-green elliptic to broad ovate leaves that are simple and entire. These leaves, about 2.5cm long, are edible. The seeds are reddish brown.

Other cultivars

Besides Christmas Tree (which has dark green leaves), there are Amoena Red (mid-green leaves marked with combinations of red, orange, purple, and yellow), Aurea Nana (a hybrid between A. ficoidea and A. bettzichiana which has variegated grass-like leaves), Bettzickiana (the leaves are tinted with pink, red or yellow), Brilliantissima (red, yellow and green-coloured leaves), Party Time (pink and green variegated leaves), Snow On The Mountain (young leaves are tiny and white but the green mature leaves are marked with irregular white blotches), True Yellow (chartreuse leaves) and White Carpet (silvery-green leaves with varied white margins).

These cultivars are garden-worthy due to their very attractive multi-coloured leaves. All have compact and spreading habit to form small mound-shaped plants and are usually no taller than 30cm.

How to grow

They thrive in full sun and partial sun. The more sunlight the plant receives, the more brilliant the colour of the leaves. Grow in the ground or in containers with rich well-draining soil.

Water regularly to keep soil moist. Feed lightly with any all-purpose fertilisers. They respond well to pruning, so you can trim regularly for a bushier growth and to create shape. To propagate new plants, insert tip or stem cuttings into moist soil.


Under certain condition, alternanthera plants will produce flowers but the leaves will be smaller.

Stephanie Choo can be reached via:

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