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Copper Worth Every Penny In the Summer Landscape By Norman Winter

This morning in Savannah, Georgia, the heat and humidity were simply staggering. But, as I drove into the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, there they were, two acalypha plants, the tropical troopers of the landscape. I was looking at ‘Java White’ and the bright red, cattail-like blooms of the chenille plant.

When it comes to August temperatures, we gardeners need some tough tropicals to help the landscape dazzle until cool-season planting time arrives. When you think of the dog days of summer, the copper plant is one that comes to mind.

Calling ‘Java White’ “copper” is certainly a misnomer. It’s funny that it’s in the same genus and species, which is Acalypha wilkesiana, where you find plants with foliage that is truly copper, many as showy as a new penny. But, the foliage of ‘Java White’ appears as though it has been kissed by snow. It features various patterns and variegations of green, white and cream, with leaves that are like snowflakes in that no two are alike. Like the others, it too maintains a shrub-like habit in sun to partial sun, and certainly offers an exotic appeal all its own.

The copper plant, or copperleaf, has its origins in the Pacific islands. It is in the Euphorbia family, making it related to the poinsettia, croton and chenille plant, the latter of which is known botanically as Acalypha hispida. In the South Pacific, copper plants may reach 10 to 15 feet in height, a stunning sight.

In addition to the ‘Java White,’ keep your eyes open for ‘Beyond Paradise.’ The name is well suited as this plant thrills with its brilliantly variegated leaves in shades of copper and rose. That is its full-sun color. In the shade it is not quite so bright, but is equally stunning as the leaves feature various blends of copper, green, cream and rose red variegation. ‘Beyond Paradise’ reaches 36 inches in height and will be a beacon in the garden, mesmerizing all who pass by it. It also makes a visually stimulating companion in mixed containers.

A fairly new introduction called ‘Jungle Cloak’ has a unique camouflage pattern featuring green, cream, red and copper. It too reaches about 36 inches in height and spreads to 24 inches.

But I also mentioned the chenille plant, which, by the way, is officially red hot cat’s tail. This pendulous, blooming jewel is from Malaysia and New Guinea. There and in similar tropical climates it grows to be a 6-foot-tall shrub adorned with 18-inch long, drooping, tail-like structures of deep red. In the Savannah sun, it seems to glisten. At the garden, we grow ours in a planter box-like setting that allows the flowers to cascade over the edge.

Whether you choose a variety of copperleaf or the chenille plant, well-drained soil will be your friend. If the soil’s drainage is the least bit suspect, incorporate several inches of organic matter while preparing the bed. These plants grow quite large, so space them adequately. At 18 inches, they will quickly form a hedge-like look. Depending on the variety, you will want to space them 24 to 36 inches apart.

They are incredible in mixed containers with both flowers and foliage. The copper partners well with blue flowers, whether salvias or my favorite, the light blue plumbago. Create thrilling partnerships with soft orange and apricot.

Copper plants were sold generically for years, but that is now passé thanks to varieties like ‘Beyond Paradise,’ ‘Bourbon Street,’ ‘Ceylon,’ ‘Tricolor’ and ‘Jungle Cloak.’ The chenille plant, on the other hand, is still pretty much generic, but wonderful nonetheless.

Unless you live in zone 9 or warmer, these plants will be grown as an annual, but are worth every penny. Certain gardeners take them inside for the winter to bring a touch of the tropics indoors. Because of their rugged nature, many garden centers bring them in for a late summer landscape pickup. You could hardly do better.

Follow me on Twitter @CGBGgardenguru. For more information about the University of Georgia Coastal Botanical Gardens, go to coastalgeorgiabg.org.

(Norman Winter is the director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm in Savannah, Georgia.)

'Java White'
'Java White'

'Java White' looks as though it has been kissed by snow, creating a daring look on a porch patio or in a landscape.

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'Java White' looks as though it has been kissed by snow, creating a daring look on a porch patio or in a landscape. Download Image
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