On Gardening: Shrimp plants a feast for the eyes, hummingbirds

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJuly 10, 2014 

Hummingbird fanatics, you must add the shrimp plant to your garden's floral menu. Your first thought might be the yellow shrimp or lollipop plant, Pachystaychus lutea. While I would say that is must have, too, the one I am touting today is known botanically as Justicia brandegeeana and is often referred to as the Mexican shrimp plant.

True to that common name, it is native to Mexico and happens to be the "feast de jour" for our hummingbirds at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens. While we grow ours in the landscape, know that it will make an exotic thriller plant in mixed containers. This means everyone can grow it, keeping the hummingbirds flying throughout the landscape while keeping well fed.

This Mexican shrimp plant is cold hardy from zones 8-11. This winter was hard in the Savannah area with temperatures reaching 18 degrees. As expected our plants retreated to ground level but incredibly are pushing 4 feet plus right now.

It comes in several colors or named selections, like Chartreuse which is yellow/green, or Gator Orange that is orange/red and the ever popular Cocktail that has red, orange and yellow. We are growing Yellow Queen which is the perfect complementary partner for its companions of Black and Blue salvia and blue plumbago.

All of those colorful varieties mentioned are really describing the exotic looking bracts that stay landscape effective for weeks. Mexican shrimp plants are prolific bloomers, flowering all summer long on new growth that develops. Even though we grow them for their brightly colored bracts, hummingbirds will find the white tubular flowers irresistible. The swift flyers will dart here and there competing for the delicious meal.

As mentioned, shrimp plants are great thriller plants for containers on patios or can be planted in the border for a sweeping splash of yellow or whichever color you choose. Try planting several in front of bananas or upright elephant ears for a really tropical look or combine with salvias like we did for a hummingbird garden. In a container try Blue Wave petunia, or Surdiva scaevola as filler plants and Goldilocks lysimachia as your spiller.

Mexican shrimp plants prefer fertile well-drained soils, so work in 3 to 4 inches of organic matter along with 2 pounds of fertilizer per 100 square feet. A slow release 12-6-6 fertilizer containing minor nutrients would be a good choice.

Side-dress plants with light applications of the fertilizer to keep them growing vigorously. In containers feed them with a dilute water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer every other week.

They are easy to protect during the winter by relocating to a frost-free location. When you bring it out for the spring, you may want to re-pot and cut back for a quick flush of growth and blooms.

Another big plus for shrimp plant is the ease of propagation. To root yours, cut an 8- to 10-inch long stem stripping off the lower set of leaves. Place in moist potting soil or sand, keeping one to two sets of leaves above the soil line. Place cuttings in the shade and they should root easily. This may be useful next fall if you planted yours in the landscape and want to over-winter some for the next spring.

Shrimp plants certainly add tropical beauty to the landscape and the fact they attract hummingbirds makes the garden an adventure. I hope you will add some at your home.

(Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru.) PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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