How to grow and use Iresine

I have found that pet shops can be great places to find interesting garden plants. I’m referring to the plants being sold in the aquarium section – for these plants are not necessary water plants at all, and in fact many will gradually deteriorate if grown continuously submerged. While searching through some aquariums yesterday, my score was Iresine diffusa ‘Lindenii’, a plant for which I have been searching quite some time.

Iresine diffusa 'Vershaffeltii' with mint bush and helichrysum

Iresine cuttings strike easily in a glass of water

Iresine cuttings strike easily in a glass of water

 

So easily grown from cuttings, Iresine, blood leaf, beetroot plant or chicken gizzard, are plants you are given by friends, are found at the local church fair or are simply grown from donated cuttings in a glass of water.

Tough, hardy and colourful, these showy plants with their brilliant leaves and soft stems can be a great addition to a planting. They will grow in full sun, semi-shade or shade, although the brightest colours are generally obtained in stronger light.

Iresine diffusa in flower

Iresine diffusa in flower

 

Despite their colourful leaves, the flowers themselves are disappointing and fairly insignificant – in fact they don’t appear appropriate for these plants at all. The grass-like panicles of flowers emerge in late summer or autumn, as the days get shorter. All clones in cultivation appear to be sterile, so there is no chance that this plant could ever become a weed.

The plants we grow are all cultivars of Iresine diffusa (syn Iresine herbstii), a species with a very broad distribution, being native to the south-eastern states of the USA, Mexico, and almost all countries in Central America, the Caribbean and South America. The wild plant is quite unassuming with narrow green leaves and an upright growth habit, and you would easily overlook it. The plants we grow are selected cultivars that were described in the mid 1800s from plants introduced to England and France and grown in the conservatories and stove houses (heated greenhouses) as exotic treasures.

Burle Marx Edmundo Cavanelas garden. Photo Paul Urquhart

Burle Marx designed Edmundo Cavanelas garden with Iresine parterre. Photo Paul Urquhart

 

Iresines were most popularly grown during Victorian times, when they were used for colourful summer bedding arrangements. The plant lost popularity as the rage for these installations declined. However the fashion for colourful tropical looking plants gained momentum once again in the 1950s and 60s with post war opulence. You will spot Iresine in photos of the spectacular abstract 1960s plantings of Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. In the early 21st Century, exotic colourful foliage again became popular, thanks to the likes of Christopher Lloyd and other notable gardeners and Iresine reappeared appeared in private and public gardens.

Iresine diffusa 'Brilliantissima'

Iresine diffusa ‘Brilliantissima’

 

Iresine diffusa ‘Brilliantissima’ is probably the most popular cultivar. It has heart shaped leaves and a slightly upright growth habit. The stems and petioles (leaf stems) are a brilliant pink and the leaves vary from brilliant pinky-red to a browny, beetroot colour with pink veins. Like all Iresines, leaf colouring can vary immensely depending on light, with brightest colour generally in full sun.

Iresine diffusa 'Formosana' with yellow variegation and pointed leaves

Iresine diffusa ‘Formosana’ with yellow variegation and pointed leaves

 

Iresine diffusa ‘Formosana’ is very similar in growth to ‘Brilliantissima’, but has green and yellow leaves. In full sun they may appear almost totally yellow, while in shade they are green with yellow veining. A feature of this plant is the brilliant pink stems and petioles.

Iresine diffusa 'Verschaffeltii' 11.12050

Iresine diffusa ‘Verschaffeltii’

 

Iresine diffusa ‘Verschaffeltii’ resembles ‘Brilliantissima’, but has indented, kidney shaped leaves and a slightly more rambling growth habit and open growth, which gives it a different character when seen in the garden. Illustrations of this cultivar were first published in Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l’Europe Volume 15, 1845.

Iresine diffusa 'Vershaffeltii' in streetscape plantings in Sydney

Iresine diffusa ‘Vershaffeltii’ in streetscape plantings in Sydney

Iresene diffusa 'Auro-reticulata'

Iresene diffusa ‘Auro-reticulata’

 

Iresine diffusa ‘Aureo-reticulata’ is identical to ‘Vershaffeltii’, but has yellow and green leaves, contrasting with the striking pink stems and petioles. Unlike the other yellow cultivar ‘Formosana’, it is less stable and many leaves have reddish patches or entirely red leaves. The plant frequently sports back to ‘Vershaffeltii’, which is a likely parent. Illustrations of this cultivar were first published in The Floral Magazine, 1867.

Iresine diffusa 'Auro-reticulata' has a distinctively notched leaf

Iresine diffusa ‘Auro-reticulata’ has a distinctively notched leaf

 

These four cultivars generally grow to 500mm (22 inches) to 1 metre (3 feet) high by 500mm (22 inches) to 1.5m (4 and a half feet) wide. However over time, and in good conditions, they can spread across the ground as groundcovers, rooting at the nodes and forming a mass a few metres (yards) wide. If they have a chance, the plants can also sprawl up against other shrubs and climb to almost two metres (6 feet) high, intertwining and creating a mixed arrangement of colourful leaves. However they respond well to pruning – and the soft stems are easy to prune and readily compost.

Iresine diffusa 'Lindenii' - the cultivar I found in a fish tank

Iresine diffusa ‘Lindenii’ – the cultivar I found in a fish tank

 

My recent prize – the Iresine diffusa ‘Lindenii’ – has upright growth and narrow, upright leaves. This growth habit is very similar to the wild, green-leafed ancestor. The leaves are beetroot coloured with small pinkish veins towards the centre of the leaf. I have never seen it growing outside in Australia, but this plant is mentioned in a number of early Australian books. It is an example of how readily plants can fall from fashion. The plant is still grown overseas, and a good friend of mine in Auckland, New Zealand has an impressive planting by the front door – a constant reminder to me to keep hunting for it. Now that I finally have a plant I will have to work out where I will locate it for best effect. Illustrations of this cultivar were first published in Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l’Europe Volume 17, 1845.

Iresine 'Neon Pink', a compact form from Ozbreed compared to the larger growing cultivar

Iresine ‘Neon Pink’ (right), a compact form from Ozbreed compared to the larger growing cultivar

 

Another Iresine has recently become available in Australia. I found my plant one lunch time, in the garden section of K-Mart. This small leaved cultivar is marketed as Iresine ‘Neon Pink’. It has small leaves and the typical bronze and pinkish-red colouring – a miniature version of ‘Vershaffeltii’. The plants I saw in the store were a little straggly and didn’t have much colour. At first I couldn’t decide what they were. Don’t let this put you off, should you see the plant. Now that my plant is in the garden, the leaves are gradually suffusing with colour. Iresine ‘Neon Pink’ has quickly grown into a dense bush of small colourful leaves.

Iresine diffusa 'Wallisii' in the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens

Iresine diffusa ‘Wallisii’ in the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens

 

If you visit the tropical garden in the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens or the Auckland Domain Winter Gardens, you will see plantings of yet another Iresine cultivar, Iresine diffusa ‘Wallisii’. This plant has small, twisted, kidney-shaped leaves, which are almost black above and wine in colour beneath. The plant has a sparse and very upright growth habit. If you are lucky, you may find a plant for sale at one of my favourite haunts, the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens Friends Nursery – just follow the signs (it’s tucked in behind the Cactus and Succulent garden).

Once established, Iresine cultivars are reasonably drought tolerant for herbaceous plants. However with constant moisture, plants thrive and grow more rapidly. It has been very dry for over a year in Brisbane, and my plants may not be growing vigorously, but they still look good despite limited water. It would be great to see this hardy plant being more widely used in our public landscapes. As we know, people respond positively to colour in the landscape.

Iresine diffusa 'Wallisii' provides contrast in a folige planting

Iresine diffusa ‘Wallisii’ provides contrast in a folige planting

 

Iresine is also fairly tolerant when it comes to soil. They prefer free draining, moist soils for best growth, however I have seen them growing in sand, puggy clay and in low-lying areas that flood. To get the best from your plants, prepare the soil incorporating organic matter and mulch. Avoid using high nitrogen fertilisers, which may encourage soft growth and a dilution in foliage colour.

Iresines thrive in frost-free warm temperate, subtropical and tropical climates. However, as English, European and North American gardeners found over a century ago, these are easy plants to incorporate for summer colour. As the weather cools, cuttings can be taken or plants can be lifted and brought inside or under glass during the cooler months.

They may be common and readily propagated, but don’t look past the many Iresine cultivars if you are after hardy, low maintenance plant that pack a punch with foliage colour.

Cyathula prostrata is often mislabelled as an Iresine

Cyathula prostrata is often mislabelled as an Iresine

 

Finally a postscript – a popular bronze leaved groundcover, Cyathula prostata, is being sold in Australia and the USA as Iresine ‘Purple Lady’. An Iresine it certainly is not. You just need to look at the flower spike to note the difference. It would be great if the nurseries involved could correct their labels. Many people try to locate Cyathula after seeing it used so well in the gardens of Bali, Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand. This confusion impacts on plant sales at garden centres, as customers are unable to find the plants they read about and for which they are searching.

 

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    • Thanks for bringing up the issues of snails. I have never had an issue with them in Brisbane and put it down to numerous lizards and frogs in the garden. I have since learned that cane toads may be responsible for reducing their numbers – snails being one of their favourite foods.

      Arno

    • Hello Paul

      yes Iresine names, both species and cultivars, have been confusing in cultivation. Thank goodness for the internet. I was able to clarify scientific names and track down the original publication of the cultivars. It was interesting to learn how old these cultivars were and how popular this plant was in the late 19th Century.

      Arno

  1. I grow Irseine diffusa ‘Wallisii’ in Sydney, looks fabulous during the summer but seems to struggle to get through the winter. I cut them back because they looked ugly and they never seemed to recover 🙁

    • Hello Theresa

      I would tend to put off the ‘cut back’ until mid September or so – when you see the plant surging back into growth. Cutting back plants that come from warmer climes during the cooler months of year can really set them back.

      Another thing to review is the location where you are growing the Iresine. Perhaps it is just too cold or dark for the plant to thrive during the winter months? Is there another place in the garden where you could try it?

      Alternatively, if the plant just look fantastic where you have previously planted it, you could remove them over winter and replace them each spring. You could take some cuttings during the height of summer when they are growing well and put them in a pot to overwinter in a warm, protected, sunny location. This is what gardeners in cooler climes have done for centuries.

      I hope you have success with your Iresine this winter.

      Arno

  2. Thank you for the wonderful detailed information.

    I bought some plants from a garden center and they are a little leggy. The single stem emerging from soil is about 1-1.5 inches tall before branching out. I’m concerned that there is too much pressure on the core stem–especially because it is being used in a planter on a windy terrace.

    After learning how cuttings can be propagated in water, I’m thinking I could submerge the plant in the soil up to where the first branches are, to give greater stability. This works well for Heathers. Have you ever tried doing this? Any thoughts?

    • Hello Marcle

      I have grown plants from cuttings, and as they were closely spaced in a pot, have had similar issues myself. I have planted them more deeply, just as you suggest, have also staked them to give extra stability and have had excellent results.

      However I have one note of caution. This works well all year round in subtropical and tropical climates. However in warm temperate climates it is best done during the warmer months. We are coming into winter when warm climate plants slow down a little and are less vigorous. Hence the plant may take longer to get established. I’m also not sure where you live. If you live south of Sydney and have a cold wet winter, there may be a chance of stem rot. A compromise is to plant your plant at an angle with the stem just below and then slightly above the soil. It will soon reorientate itself and this may be the safest way to proceed.

      Good luck.

      Regards

      Arno

  3. All other references that I have found seem to refer to this coloured leaf Iresine as being Iresine herbstii cultivars. The examples of Iresine diffusa seem to refer to a species commonly known as “Jubba’s Bush”.

    Is there taxonomic history to use one or the other names for the ‘Bloodleaf’ style species?

    • Hello Mike

      In preparing this and other articles, I refer to a number of taxonomic databases.

      In recent times there has been a lot of taxonomic work undertaken based on DNA analysis. Many plant names have changed in response to this work. I understand that his work has highlighted that many Iresine cultivars in cultivation are simply outstanding horticultural clones of a highly variable species.

      Another plant which I believe falls under this species is often sold as “Fluffy Duck, or Alternanthera ‘Fluffy Duck’. The flowers illustrate that it is clearly not an Alternanthera and a likely Iresine species. This is another plant which dates back to Victorian times and is widely grown in former British colonies.

      Arno

  4. My gardener has just planted Iresine Hebstii in a semi shaded area of my garden coming into Winter. A piece of root has been left on top of the soil, and I would like to salvage it. Do I simply put this into water, and if so, for how long?

    • Hi Eleanore – I doubt that anyone grows it from root pieces as it propagates so readily from stem cuttings. All you need is at least 2 buds on a small piece of stem. One will form the new roots and the other bud will make the new leaves. Put it in a glass of water for a couple of weeks until you see small whitish roots forming. But you do need to get it the right way up in the water ie what was the lower part of the stem is the part you put in the water.

    • You can simply cover it ( the apparant root ) with wet soil and manage to keep it always wet. Good luck

    • Hello Michele

      The cultivar ‘Lindenii’ is often sold as an aquarium plant, however as Catherine has noted, it doesn’t have a long life under water, particularly if the aquarium is not well lit. It is however very colourful, so I am sure many enthusiasts will enjoy this short term boost of colour to their aquarium plantings.

      Many other aquarium plants sold these days could also be regarded as temporary – a trap for beginners. Do some research before you buy.

      Arno

  5. Easy plant to grow. Just be careful to protect it from scale. Once infested it is good bye. My suggestion is to use an insecticidal soap at least once a month. One more negative is that slugs love these plants and in one night a hungry slug will destroy a small blood leaf plant. So keep them in a hanging basket or high enough off the ground.

    • I would love to get some of those blood leaves the guy at the nursery wanted to sell me an 18 flat for $144 I thought that was ridiculous so needless to say I’m still looking for them maybe you can help

        • Hi Catherine,

          I have a blood leaf and some babies that I made from the mother plant. I’ve been giving them away locally. My plant has red stems with red, white, yellow and green leaves. They are really easy to root. I would never buy a flat. Let the mother plant grow to about 8 “. You can get about 5 babies from the mother without hurting it. As the mother plant grows you can root more.
          To root one, cut a branch or stem just above the third leaflets. Place in water. After about 10 days You’ll see roots and a few days later plant it in soil. Keep moist. If you want, I’ll send you one for free. It will be small.

          Sam

    • Hello Sam

      I’ve had scale on the related plants, Altenanthera, but not on the Iresine. I think I’ve almost got rid of it by improving plant nutrition, in particular ensuring the plants calcium needs are met. We used to add garden lime to our gardens every 6 months, but stopped doing this 10 to 15 years ago. Calcium is essential. I do pH tests every 6 months and if pH drops below 6.5, I add a dusting of garden lime. Plants respond well. Apparently beneficial fungi also require high levels of Calcium.

      I’ve never had problems with slugs or snails in Queensland. I’m told the cane toads keep them under control.

      Arno

      • Hi Arno

        Thanks for the calcium and soil acidity tips. I live in the southern part of New Jersey in the US. Slugs thrive here. In my small yard there’s not the predators you have there. I keep mine in hanging baskets or pots in a raised deck.

        Sam

  6. The first plant I grew commercially is Iresine and I still grow it. Mulch , plenty of food, not too dry and a regular trim are my tips. I get light frosts and it is not damaged and I do not get pest on it. Slugs and snails can be an issue however my answer was to do nothing and in a couple of years the lizards , skinks and other beasties move in and do the job. Another feature is its longevity.

    • Hello Ray

      great to hear from you and thanks for those tips.

      A few people have commented on slugs and snails, and I must have lots of the right predators as I have never had this problem. My issues tend to be deer and wallabies which move into my garden when food is scarce during dry periods. They have thankfully shown no interest in Iresine.

      Good point about longevity. I hadn’t thought about this, but you are quite right.

      Arno

  7. Hi Arno,
    i just love the Iresine diffusa ‘Aureo-reticulata’ and want to put it in my vertical garden wall, but no nursery seems to stock it? I live in Sydney and wondered if you had any magical insight as to where I might be purchase a few specimens? Will it tolerate western sun?

    • My Irisene Brilliantissima is growing profusely right now, and I am just about to take lots of cuttings. What a pity you are in Sydney.

    • Iresine is not happy in the western sun outside. In the winter it does well in the western sun. They do well in the eastern sun. One warning is that snails or slugs really love it. I have a bunch of rooted cuttings, but I live in New Jersey USA. I would send them to you for free plus shipping, but I’m not sure if they would survive a trip.

      Regards

      Sam

        • Thanks Sam, that’s very generous of you! Aside from not surviving the journey, they would not survive Australia’s very strict customs regulations when it comes to living plant material.

    • Hello Katja

      the growing friends at the Sydney Botanic Gardens often sell Iresine, so it is worth paying a visit. If they don’t have any plants for sale they can go through their file and let you know when they are likely to have them for sale in the future.

      Arno

      • Hello Arno,
        thanks for your response. Bernard from Garden Drum (a colleague of yours perhaps?) very kindly prepared some cuttings for me last week which I have now potted and I have my fingers crossed!
        Regards,
        Katja