Native to Fiji in the South Pacific, the Acalypha – better known as copperleaf- group of plants has the most colorful foliage I’ve ever seen. They can turn your garden into a spectacular, unending kaleidoscope of color.
Under perfect conditions they will grow to ten feet and just as wide, but they can be kept to any desired height with just a little trimming. The flowers are small and inconspicuous, mostly hidden by the colorful foliage. Copperleaf comes in a large variety of leaf shapes, ranging from large and oblong to round and fringed to slim and string like. They also come in a broad range of colors. They can be pink, green, white, red, maroon or a combination of all of the above.
Copperleaf does well in well- drained, alkaline soil and will thrive in full sun to partial shade. The leaf colors intensify when they receive the most light. Unlike more fragile plants that cannot survive a sun-to-shade transition, the copperleaf is very resilient. It simply adapts to the sun’s changing positions throughout the year by changing its leaf colors. This makes it very interesting to observe over time.
Trimming copperleaf should be done with a pair of hand trimmers, which eliminates only the unwanted growth. Never use power trimmers that are designed to box, ball and mushroom plants into a formal shape or hedge. I could never figure out why anyone would want that in a beach community anyway.
You can use copperleaf in the garden in various ways. Use it as a hedge to give you a dense privacy screen with loads of color. It can also be utilized beautifully as a specimen plant, integrated into your garden and creating islands of color where needed. Having pots of copperleaf on your lanai adds life to an existing living space without the mess of flowering plants that drop leaves and flowers and can stain surfaces. Whatever way you choose to use copperleaf in your home or garden, it will be a striking and colorful addition.
One of my favorite copperleaf plants is the Chenille or red cattails (Acalypha hispida). This plant has long, fuzzy, red hanging tails and is a beautiful specimen tree or shrub form. There is also a dwarf version called dwarf chenille (Acalypha reptans). This one makes a great ground cover where grass is hard to grow. It is also beautiful in a hanging basket. Both plants take sun to partial shade; require average water and bloom repeatedly.
Frost can do damage to copperleaf, just as it can to so many other plants that are accustomed to growing in our usually mild South Florida winters. The past couple of winters have been harsh on our tropical landscapes here and in other areas surrounding Naples, but my experience has been that almost all plants make a comeback and most actually look better than ever.
Mike Malloy, local author and artist known as “The Butterfly Man” has been a Naples resident since 1991, moving from the New York, New Jersey area. At that time he started a landscaping and lawn service business and after almost forty years totally in that line of work, he decided to sell his business and concentrate on his passion: “bringing butterflies back to Naples.” He has since written two books entitled “Butterfly Gardening Made Easy for Southwest Florida,” and “Tropical Color – A Guide to Colorful Plants for the Southwest Florida Garden”, and currently writes articles on various gardening topics for several local publications. Mike has planted, designed and maintained numerous butterfly gardens around Naples including many Collier County schools, the City of Naples, Rookery Bay, the Conservancy and Big Cypress National Preserve and is a familiar face at the Third Street Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings and on Thursdays at the Naples Botanical Garden where he does a Plant Clinic. Mike also does butterfly art and has a website, naplesbutterfly.com