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Garden Club of Cape Coral | The versatile Jatropha

By CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Apr 15, 2024

Jatropha is a genus of flowering plants in the spurge family with more than 170 species of succulent plants, shrubs, and trees. Many jatropha plants are native to the Americas, and the species has been used in Central America, Mexico and the Southwestern United States for basketmaking, tanning and dye production. During the early 2000s the Jatropha curcas was even considered as an oil crop for biodiesel production.

In Southwest Florida you are probably most familiar with Jatropha as an evergreen shrub or small tree that blooms almost continuously with abundant red flowers, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden. Most Jatropha are considered Florida Friendly Landscape plants and are extremely low maintenance and drought tolerant. The constant show of blooms and easy maintenance make this flowering shrub a welcome addition to any Southwest Florida landscape. Care should be taken with the placement of the shrubs, as the sap and berries are toxic if ingested. I have observed that all forms of Jatropha in my gardens will shed leaves in cooler weather, but once temperatures begin to warm a new flush of leaves will appear.

As tropical evergreens, Jatropha need to be planted in areas where the temperature rarely goes below 40 degrees. Jatropha are not salt tolerant and require well-drained soil; they perform best in full sun to encourage optimal blooms, although they will tolerate partial shade. The shrub has slender stems and multiple trunks and will reach about 15 feet with an equal spread when left unpruned but can be pruned and trained to one central trunk to create a more tree-like appearance. The Jatropha is commonly used as a specimen plant, but if planted three feet apart and pruned to maintain growth it can serve as a privacy screen or hedge. You can even plant Jatropha in a large pot or planter for use on your patio or lanai as a beautiful blooming shrub.

The most common Jatropha that I have observed in Southwest Florida is the Jatropha integerrima. This shrub is native to Cuba and the West Indies and is also called peregrina, spicy Jatropha or firecracker. The shrub has a fascinating mix of 6-inch long leaves that take three separate forms: oval, fiddle-shaped and lobed; all three leaf shapes can be present on one plant. While the leaves provide an interesting contrast, the beautiful upright clusters of 1-inch-wide red blooms are the most notable feature of the shrub. These blooms are favorites of monarch, swallowtail, and zebra longwing butterflies, as well as hummingbirds.

Another Jatropha that can be found in Southwest Florida is the Jatropha multifida, also known as the coral plant. This plant is native to Mexico and has a distinctly tropical look, with finely divided fan shaped leaves up to 12 inches across that look like the marijuana plant. The flowers on this Jatropha are coral-pink in color and are arranged in flat-topped clusters held on long stalks above the foliage. The blooms appear throughout the year, especially in hot weather. This Jatropha is a rapidly growing shrub or small tree with a single trunk, with a spreading crown and a typical height of 6 to 10 feet.

My personal favorite Jatropha is the Jatropha podagrica, a succulent plant native to the tropical Americas. The gray-green swollen base of the plant has a bottle-like appearance, which has influenced the many names assigned to this plant, including Gout Plant, Gout Stalk, Guatemalan Rhubarb, or Buddha Belly. The plant’s lobed leaves emerge from the top of the plant and radiate around the base; flowers are bright coral (and more rarely yellow) in color and form seed pods after blooming. These seed pods change from green to a blackish hue and when ripe erupt and spread seeds up to 13 feet away; once you plant this Jatropha in your garden, you’ll have lots of ‘volunteers’ to cluster in your gardens or give away!

Jatrophas are reliable, attractive, and low-maintenance plants. Their beautiful red blooms are a welcome year-round feature in any garden and are appreciated by hummingbirds and butterflies alike. The unique “Buddha Belly” variety provides an interesting feature for the landscape, and it readily self-seeds, furnishing additional plants that can be massed in your beds or given away to fellow gardeners. Jatropha are readily available at area garden centers, and I encourage you to consider incorporating these colorful plants in your landscape plan!

Cathy Dunn, Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer Garden Club of Cape Coral Member