Weekend Plantings Pencil tree is an old Florida favorite

By Charles ReynoldsLedger correspondent

The pencil tree – sometimes called pencil cactus, though it’s unrelated to cactuses – is the world’s most common succulent Euphorbia. According to Fred Dortort, author of ”Succulent Plants of the World,” this species, thought to be native to Africa, grows across the southern half of that continent as well as in India and much of Tropical Asia and the Americas. A green-branched, largely leafless plant, it grows up to 25 feet tall in sun or shade on well-drained sites. The growth rate is slow to moderate, and plants can be kept any size through occasional pruning.

Cherished for its exotic appearance, pencil tree (Euphorbia tirucalli) has been cultivated indoors and outdoors in Florida for generations. It’s ideal for screened pool enclosures and south and east-facing porches. In the landscape, install this cold-sensitive plant in sheltered locations shielded from north and northwest winds. Among varieties of pencil tree are ‘Firesticks,’ ‘Rosea’ and ‘Sticks on Fire,’ all shrubby plants with orange or reddish branches. The species and its varieties are propagated by cuttings (pieces of stem severed at a joint). Caution: The white sap of this Euphorbia is irritating to eyes, lips and skin. An old remedy calls for washing the affected area with milk.

Native shrub hard to find

A wonderful native shrub that’s gotten the cold shoulder from Florida growers and nurseries is tarflower, a 4-to-8-foot evergreen species with erect branching and airy, pinkish-white, fragrant flowers much of the year. Tarflower plants, generally 2 to 5 feet wide, have an open growth habit and thrive in sun or light shade. They perform well on poor, sandy sites as well as on sites moderately enriched with organic matter.

Once established, tarflower (Bejaria racemosa), native from Southern Georgia to extreme South Florida, is extremely drought tolerant and requires no irrigation. As wise water usage increases in importance, this and other water-thrifty species will become more popular. Use tarflowers singly or massed for colorful accents, as part of mixed-shrubbery borders and in cottage-garden settings. Propagate this long-lived plant with seeds and warm-season cuttings. Plants are difficult to find even at some native-only nurseries, so be prepared to travel to obtain them.

Red pineapple plants

Among the most striking terrestrial bromeliads I’ve seen recently is the red spineless pineapple, with rainbow-like foliage that defies description. The plant (Ananas lucidus) is produced by Monrovia and is reported to grow 3 feet high and wide, withstanding temperatures down to 30. Following pinkish-white flowers, inedible but attractive fruit develop, though – as with all bromeliads – this results in the eventual demise of the main rosette. Prior to death, however, offsets are generated. Grow this and other pineapple plants in bright conditions in containers or in the ground. Provide protection during unusually cold weather.