If you travel through the Pacific Islands or northern Queensland a plant you’ll find hard to miss in the gardens, parks and streetscapes, is the brilliantly leaved Acalypha, also known as Fijian Fire Plant, Beefsteak Plant or Salt Bush. These plants have large, medium or small leaves with flashes of red, yellow, pink and bronze. The leaves may be margined or striped with colour, and they may be rounded, narrow, triangular, rectangular, heavily toothed or quite lacy in shape. Plants also vary in size, from tall shrubs, some 3 to 4 metres (10-14 feet) high and wide to compact bushes less than 1 metre (3 feet) high and wide.
The name Acalypha comes from the Greek akalephes – a nettle. The genus includes some 450 to 460 species. Wilkesiana commemorates Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, an American Naval Officer who explored the South Pacific during the late 1830s and early 1840s.
Despite their great diversity, the plants we grow are not hybrids, but are cultivars of one species, Acalypha wilkesiana. What’s more, recent research suggests they may represent mutations of a single or limited number of clones. Cultivated acalyphas, like many other popular foliage plants from the Pacific region, seem to be quite unstable and prone to throwing up branches of differing colour or shape. Occasionally they revert back to the parent plant, giving us an idea of their origins, but more rarely they throw up something entirely new. So keep your eyes open, as you might have something very special in your own garden.
Acalyphas are intriguing to me, as many of the popular cultivars we grow in our gardens today, were being grown many centuries ago in the gardens of pre-colonial Pacific Islanders. We learn of these origins in the diaries of plant hunters William Guilfoyle, John Gould Veitch and many of the other Victorian plant hunters. The Pacific Islands were fertile hunting grounds for these explorers, who were searching for new and exotic ‘stove house plants’ to decorate the conservatories of their wealthy patrons in England and on the continent.
Some of the most lucrative locations for these hunters were remote villages in southern Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Samoa and Fiji, hence names such as Fijian Fire Plant. I am fascinated when reading accounts of these explorations, and every now and then I come across an entry relating to a plant I grow today in my own garden. Valued by the locals, Acalyphas were grown throughout the Pacific, with some clones specific to certain locations, while others were widespread. They were clearly introduced to most of these locations and traded and shared along with other familiar plants such as Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis cultivars), cordylines (Cordyline fruticosa cultivars), Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum cultivars), Aralias (Polyscias cultivars), Pseuderanthemums (Pseuderanthemum carruthersii cultivars), Caricature plants (Graptophyllum pictum cultivars) and gardenias –dominant garden plants in the Pacific to this day. These Pacific Islanders were and continue to be accomplished gardeners with sophisticated horticultural skills.
I mentioned the great explorers of last century and one of them, William Guilfoyle, better known in his latter years as the curator of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, was a great exponent of these plants. He collected plants throughout the Pacific during a voyage on the HMS Challenger in 1868. This introduction of plants (which included over 100 different cordyline cultivars) is regarded as one of the largest plant importations to Australia. His father ran the well known “Exotic Nursery’ at Double Bay and William set up a nursery at Fingel in northern New South Wales. By the 1890’s we can review the inventories of our various botanic gardens and see many Acalyphas listed. Acalyphas had arrived in Australia.
Acalyphas belong to the family Euphorbiaceae, the most well known members being the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherimma) and a range of succulents, including many that resemble large, columnar cacti. Many members of this family are very poisonous, so it might come as a surprise to hear that Acalypha wilkesiana leaves are eaten as a green vegetable.
On a recent trip to Vanuatu, and while visiting a Ni-Vanuatu village, I endeavoured to learn more about how they are traditionally cooked and served. I was told it was not the colourful cultivars that are eaten, but a specific green leaved plant, which I was taken to see. It has much softer, thinner leaves and was once grown as a vegetable. I understand that today it is not so commonly grown and generally regarded as a famine food rather than a valuable vegetable. Perhaps the plants we grow today arose from plants that were initially valued for their culinary purposes.
The Acalypha heyday
Acalypha hit their heights in Victorian era. These new, colourful, highly exotic items from the far flung colonies, were collected and showcased in gardens, conservatories, and used in colourful summer bedding.
Their ease of propagation was probably the Acalypha’s downfall. No longer the rare plant of the elite and moneyed classes, it soon became widespread. It had lost its exotic appeal and its popularity went into decline. Another surge of popularity occurred during the 1950’s following the return of servicemen from the Pacific and Asia, and gardeners once again celebrated the bold colourful leaves and the exotic Hollywood tropical garden had arrived. Popularity can be short lived affair and by the 70’s our plant was once again passe.
However Acalypha are hardy and long-lived, and established bushes are great survivors and ready to supply cuttings for a new generation. By the 90’s an interest in recreating memories of pleasurable tropical holidays inspired a surge of interest in tropical (“Balinese”) gardens and the exotic, colourful leaves of the Acalypha were back in vogue.
As gardeners soon realize, Acalyphas are extremely easy to grow from cuttings. If you live in the tropics or subtropics, cuttings can simply be poked in situ into garden beds during the wet season. You will have no problem propagating and sourcing the more common cultivars of this plant.
With their South Pacific, Island origins, where consistently warm temperatures and regular rainfall are the norm, you’d think these plants were ‘hothouse flowers’ and required similar conditions under cultivation. However will you soon discover that established plants are quite drought tolerant. In fact, plants are often grown in western Queensland to provide stock feed during drought periods, and known as ‘salt bushes’. Plants will also grow quite readily in frost free locations in warm temperate climates, and you will find Acalypha in gardens in Sydney, Auckland, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles. However they can often look a little sad during the winter months.
Warm, wet and humid conditions encourage soft, vigorous growth and the colourful, translucent leaves that simply glow in the sunlight. I have long been interested in the response of leaf colour to soil and nutrition. I have observed the best leaf colour often occurs on friable, chocolate-brown kraznozem soils. On less fertile soils, colours are less vibrant and can be ‘muddy’. I consider fertilizing is essential to obtain the richest colour in the leaves and enhance plant vigor.
Take your plants from ornamental to breathtaking. Gardeners can focus on providing the essential minor nutrients by using a high quality organic or biological fertilizer containing balanced, ground, rock minerals and humates (humic acid). Many gardeners I know complement this regime with monthly foliar applications of fish fertilizer (marine not freshwater) and seaweed. The latter is particularly valuable during dry weather or prior to colder weather. Ensure the soil pH is between 6.5 and 7 (your local garden centre will test a sample of soil for you), and apply light dressings of garden lime if the pH is lower. Finally incorporate composted organic matter into your garden soil and maintain a 50-75mm layer of organic mulch.
The many Acalypha cultivars
The sheer diversity of plants grown in gardens often amazes me. Many of these plants are available from your local garden centre, but take a walk through an established suburb in the central and northern latitudes of coastal Australia and you might spot a few more. Knock on the door and the owner is sure to share a cutting with you.
Being popular, easily propagated and shared so freely, plants often go by many names. I have tried to clarify confusion and use the original names given to these plants when they were first described. This has often relied on reviewing original plates from Victorian books.
Lets explore some of the most popular cultivars:
Acalypha cultivars with margined leaves:
Once one of the most widely grown plants, this acalypha is frequently used as an informal hedge. While not so widely grow today, this plant is striking in the garden. In the right light, the bronze leaves have wide, warm pink margins. However the colour is not so strong in the shade or when stressed, when the bronze develops slightly greenish tones.
(‘Marginata Green’, ‘White Picotee’)
One thing you soon learn is that every bronze or red acalypha has its green partner. ‘Chantrieri’ is such a plant. It resembles the plant above in all ways, however the bronze colouration is replaced by green, and the pink by cream. The plant may not be as richly coloured as ‘Marginata’, but these more subtle colours are often better suited to quieter areas in the garden so don’t overlook it.
‘Obovata’ resembles ‘Marginata’ with bronze (or bronzy green leaves depending on light) and warm pink borders. The leaf shape is what sets this plant apart, and is distinctive, with a blunt leaf tip and triangular shape adjacent to the petiole (leaf stem). This was once a widely grown and popular plant but it is rarely seen these days except in Far North Queensland and around Rockhampton. Due to its attractively layered leaves, it deserves to be more widely grown.
‘Spitfire’ has the bronze leaves and pink leaf margins of ‘Marginata’. However the leaves are slightly narrower with elongated tips. The pink area is wider and diffuses back into the leaf between the major leaf veins. This plant often arises as a sport from ‘Firestorm’.
Take ‘Spitfire’ and swap the bronze for green, and the pink for creamy white, and you have ‘Fairy Dust’. This plant is very popular in the USA but it is not so commonly grown in Australia.
Acalyphas with splashed leaves:
(‘Miltoniana’, ‘Jungle Dragon’)
This is the ‘Fijian Fire Plant’, a very popular shrub in Fiji and Vanuatu. Its a very large plant with large, broad leaves. In bright light, warm weather, and with good nutrition, the brownish leaves are heavily splashed with rich scarlet red.
This is a plant that reflects the growing conditions. If conditions are shady or soil is lacking nutrition, the leaves will be smaller and narrower, and generally dull brown with small splashes of orange. You know it’s time to look after your plants a little better!
(‘Tiki Jungle Cloak’)
A very attractive plant, ‘Camouflage’ was commercially available in the late 90’s and early 2000s. It has large leaves that resemble ‘Macrophylla’ in all aspects but leaf colour. The leaves have clear, large splashes of olive green, red and bronze. Although a well grown plant is stunning, it is prone to reversion, so needs to be worked. Possibly this is a new sport that will stabilize with time. Unfortunately it is no longer grown commercially and is seldom seen today.
‘Green and Gold’
(‘Java White’, ‘Java’, ‘Albo Variegata’, ‘Kona Gold’)
‘Green and Gold’ is a descriptive but rather banal name for a magnificent plant. The large, broad leaves are often completely yellowish green with small splashes of dark green. Other leaves may be green with streaks of cream. The richest colour is produced when grown in semi-shade, where the creamy-yellow colour predominates. In very sunny areas, where moisture is irregular, plants are less attractive, and leaves are smaller with sparse variegation of cream. Good growing conditions encourage richer leaf colouration. It resembles and will occasionally sport to ‘Macrophylla’, a likely parent.
Popular in the 1950s and 1960’s, I haven’t seen this plant myself in recent years. ‘Tricolor’ resembles ‘Macrophylla’ but has a border of cream in the red parts of the leaves and borders of green in the brownish parts of the leaves. The effect is quite beautiful. The plant still seems to be popularly grown in the USA. If you track down a plant in Australia, let me know.
(‘Macafeeana’, ‘Mosaica’, ‘Tricolor’, ‘Coral Glow’, ‘Pink’)
This is a broad-leaved, compact plant with short internodes. Leaf colour varies with light. In the shade, the brown leaves are splashed with red. In very bright light, the new leaves can be pink, fading to almost white on older leaves. This plant can look amazing when teamed with warm pink flowers or with other foliage with pink tones. The leaves have small serrations.
A popular plant in the USA , ‘Snowstorm’ seems to be a white, cream and green version of ‘Musaica’. I haven’t yet seen this plant in Australia, but I’m sure I’ll come across it.
‘Metallica’ is a large open shrub with large, smooth-edged, teardrop shaped, metallic bronze leaves. Sadly, ‘Metallica’ is seldom seen these days, except in older gardens. A few plants located in a shrub border can introduce some mystery and moodiness to the setting. This plant sometimes sports from ‘Compacta’.
Said to have originated in Australia, this is a tall upright plan with distinctive narrow, highly serrated leaves, which in form remind me of a begonia. This plant looks amazing as a background shrub, planting along a boundary or as backdrop. It’s also a great plant where space is limited and screening is needed. This is a recent release (mid 1990s), and I think many people (including me) expected it to be more compact growing than it actually is. It can be trimmed regularly to a height of 1 to 1.5m (3-5 feet), but I prefer to let it grow to its natural 2 to 3 metres (6-10 feet) high where its open structure can be appreciated. It can be used effectively to introduce textural foliage contrasts. Early selections of this plant had dark bronzy coloured leaves. More recently I have seen many plants with reddish-orange splashes and I think these selections could be worked a little more to develop a red cultivar with colours resembling ‘Macrophylla’.
(‘Brazen’, ‘Copper King’, ‘Tiki Lava Flow’)
This large growing plant has large leaves of a bright consistent coppery colour. The stems and leaves are thicker than many other cultivars. This is one of my favourite cultivars, but unfortunately seldom seen.
This is another case of the green version of a plant. I haven’t been able to find any references to it. While this plant doesn’t sound too attractive, it has a strong upright growth and large bright green leaves and can be an asset where form and texture are required in a planting.
Acalypha cultivars with curly leaves:
The curly bright green leaves have distinctive serrated edges and the tips of the serrations are a creamy yellow.
This is one of my favourite Acalyphas. The curly leaves are a distinctive dark claret colour. In the right location with suitable planting partners, this plant can look amazing.
(‘Coral Glow’, ‘Beyond Paradise’, ‘Tiki Peach Whirl’, ‘Dwarf Batic’)
The curly leaves of this plant are splashed with reds, browns and pinks. In colour it resembles ‘Musaica’. The plant is quite compact ad has become quite popular for this trait. It is promoted as a’new compact hybrid’ but dates back to the Victorian era.
The green, curly leaves of this cultivar are splashed with yellowish areas in a similar manner to ‘Green and Gold’. However some leaves are green with cream margin rather like ‘Circinnata’, particularly the first flush that emerges after cooler weather. As the weather warms, the colour intensifies.
This cultivar resembles the popular ‘Marginata’, but with attractively curled leaves.
Acalypha cultivars with small leaves:
Discovered and named by William Guilfoyle in 1868, this plant has small, bronze to brown teardrop shaped leaves, which may have greenish tints in the shade. It was once popularly grown as a hedge, for which it is very effective. This seems to be a small form of “Metallica’ and occasionally reverts back to it.
(‘Brownie Form’, ‘Moil’, ‘La Bamba’, ‘Inferno’)
Discovered by a Darwin nurseryman as a sport of ‘Compacta’, this plant has rich reddish-orange younger leaves. Bright light, warm weather along with regular fertilizer encourages the richest colour. It can revert to ‘Compacta’ so prune when the colour is at its peak so you can readily distinguish brown leaved growth.
(‘Tiki Tahitian Halo’, ‘Pink Frills’)
The small elongated leaves, are dark green with narrow cream margins. The leaf shape is variable and some leaves are ribbon like and rippled, while others are more broad and flattened. The overall effect of the variable leaves provides an interesting textural effect. This plant doesn’t look attractive as a small potted plant, but is effective in the landscape as it ages. No longer popular, the plant can be spotted in older gardens.
‘Heterophylla’ has small narrow rippled leaves rather like ‘Godseffiana’, but in this case, bronze with pinkish margins. The leaves seem to be more regular in size and shape. It can be used effectively for textural impact. Not so commonly seen today.
(‘Kilauea’, ‘Candyman’, ‘Cheryl’s Choice’, ‘Mini Marginata’)
A compact, small-leaved plant that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The leaf colour resembles ‘Marginata’, being bronze with warm pink margins in good light and with good nutrition. Very commonly planted in New Caledonia.
Similar to ‘Spitfire’ but with green leaves and cream margins.
Using acalypha in the garden
Many gardeners consider acalyphas to be old fashioned, ugly, “common”, and of general poor taste. The poor regard for these plants is very likely due to the thoughtless placement and disregard for planting composition. While not such an issue with formless, green plants that flower seasonally, brilliantly coloured foliage can shriek ‘gardener with poorly developed design skills’. Gardeners in the tropics and subtropics have access to some of the most brilliantly coloured foliage plants in the world. However these plants can be used well with consideration or used very poorly. A poor gardener blames the plants!
Many Acalypha cultivars have brilliantly coloured leaves. I like to team them with foliage and flowers of a similar intensity (chroma). Acalypha ‘Macrophylla’ (when well grown and fed) has brilliantly red splashed leaves. I have seen it teamed superbly with red bracted heliconias and Sealing Wax palms (Cyrtostachys renda). Red jumps out at the viewer, and looks best against a deep green backdrop.
Many Acalypha cultivars have brown or bronze leaves. These colours add a sense of moodiness or mystery to the garden. Don’t plant them in large masses as they can be quite depressing when over-planted. However planted rhythmically as incidents among green foliage, they can add depth. Throw in some highlights of chartreuse green foliage and you can create an amazing composition.
Then there are the Acalypha cultivars with leaves variegated with yellow, such as Acalypha ‘Green and Gold’. These plants can be used as highlights, in areas dominated by green foliage. These plants are particularly effective in bright semi-shade.
I like to see a single cultivar of Acalypha used as drifts, or the same cultivar repeatedly spotted through a backdrop of similarly sized shrubs or low groundcovers, to provide a sense of rythm. Conversely I think the worst way to plant Acalyphas is in a mixed border of varied cultivars.
Other Acalypha species
The genus Acalypha includes many other ornamental species. The Chenille Plant (Acalypha hispida), has amazing draping flowers and was another favourite ‘stove house’ plant of the Victorian era. The popular groundcover or hanging basket plant, known in Australia as Summer Love, Acalypha chamaedrifolia ‘Stephie’ (Acalypha reptans) is a native of the Caribbean and has proved to be a hardy, reliable groundcover which is seldom without flower.
There are also many ornamental native Australian Acalypha. One of my favourites is the Turkey Bush (Acalypha eremorum), which is a very hardy, small-leaved shrub which makes amazing hedges or topiaries, is drought hardy and deserves to be more widely grown. Another native acalypha I also grow is the waterfall plant (Acalypha lysonii) with its beautiful feathery growth and bright green leaves.
All these plant deserve articles of their own on another day. However, for today, Acalypha wilkesiana is our focus and deserves a place in our gardens and to be used with greater consideration to create stunning planting compositions. Lets hope it doesn’t once again fade into obscurity but is adopted by a new generation of gardeners and used in breathtaking and inspiring ways in our gardens of the future.