JANUARY is a great time for any gardener who loves tropical plants. You will find a good selection of tropical trees and shrubs in your local garden centre, including one of my favourites, the mussaenda.
These beautiful shrubs belong to the Rubiaceae family along with other favourites including gardenias, ixoras and pentas.
They are native to the tropics, from West Africa through the Indian sub-continent, South-East Asia and southern China. There are more than 200 known species, but only a few are used in landscaping.
The appeal of the mussaenda lies in its extraordinary inflorescence, the flowering part of the plant.
The flower itself is a tiny simple yellow star, only about 5mm across, but the bracts surrounding the flower are stunning - extraordinary pendulous bunches of soft, beautifully coloured "flowers'', with each "petal'' up to 10cm long.
The leaves are mid-green, deeply veined and pointed, with a soft, velvety feel.
Because the shrubs are usually deciduous here in northern NSW, the effect is dramatic as they quickly grow from bare stems, usually cut back hard in late winter, into magnificent specimens 1.5-2.5m tall, and covered in these great bunches of colour.
Once established, the shrubs look absolutely spectacular for many months, usually from about September through until May. So you will have colour for most of the year, apart for a few months in winter when they are dormant.
Dona Aurora is showy, with huge white pendant masses surrounding deep golden yellow flowers, and is the mother of most of the hybrids. Dona Luz, commonly known as the Bangkok Rose, is peachy pink, sometimes with a deep pink to red edge.
Calcutta Sunset is much brighter, with yellow to orange bracts. Paraluma is another lovely deep pink form. Look out this year for a new release, Snowfall, which is a low, spreading variety with brilliant white bracts. Bred in Queensland, it grows about .5m tall with a spread of about 1m. It's best in semi-shade.
Mussaendas prefer a sunny to partly shaded position with some protection from strong winds. Because they grow so quickly during the warmer months the branches can be a bit soft and prone to damage in exposed sites.
They are not particularly fussy about soil or position, but do appreciate a good mulching and plenty of feeding once the leaves emerge in spring. A good prune in late winter will help promote growth and result in much better flowering.
A healthy plant will be largely free from pests and diseases, although mealy bug can be a problem if conditions are hot and dry. Control this if necessary with Eco-Oil, and water a bit more frequently.
They are certainly worthy of a home in your garden, as they are hardy and will grow and flower profusely for years.
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