Chicago Botanic Garden

What's in Bloom

What's in Bloom — Highlight 03.29.13

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Variegated shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana 'Variegata') is in the Semitropical Greenhouse.

Variegated shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana 'Variegata') is a special form of this popular plant. Native to Mexico, the common name of this plant refers to its striking shrimplike blossoms. Its true flowers are 1-inch, white, tubular blooms held between and arching from spikes of reddish-maroon bracts (modified leaves) atop the flecked foliage. Its medium green, matte leaves are splashed with creamy white markings and covered with soft hairs.

Hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11, this herbaceous perennial becomes full and dense as it ages, reaching a height of 2 to 5 feet with a width of 3 to 5 feet. It thrives in full or part sun in well-drained, moist soil. If killed to the ground during cold weather in the northern part of its range, it will quickly return in the warmth of spring. The tropical character of this ever-blooming old favorite adds color to any American southern garden, where it attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. In other regions, it can be successfully grown as a tender container plant.

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Primula malacoides 'Special Mix', commonly known as fairy primrose, produces a rainbow of color in early spring. Its ½-inch-wide, dense, open flowers bloom in clusters in a colorful range of pink, burgundy, purple, red, and white on soft, hairy stalks held just above the medium green foliage. Its dainty, oval, pale green leaves have slightly frilly edges. This is a rosette-forming, upright perennial usually grown as an annual.

Fairy primrose is low-maintenance and thrives in USDA Zones 8 to 10. It prefers part-shade to part-sun in moist, loamy soil with moderate water and good drainage. It makes a cheerful showing as a seasonal bedding plant and sited in rock gardens and containers in cooler zones. This cultivar, 'Special Mix', is named for a seed mix blend unique to the Ivy Garth Seed Company.

Fairy primrose (Primula malacoides 'Special Mix') is in the Semitropical Greenhouse checkerboard area.

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Coral aloe (Aloe striata) is a succulent native to South Africa. Succulents originated in climates where rain is not regular or predictable, and many are therefore drought tolerant — their leaves and stems can store water to tide them over during dry spells. Coral aloe's smooth, fleshy leaves form a tight rosette at the base of the plant, and can reach 18 inches long before tapering to a point. The tubular, coral-orange flowers bloom on erect stems held 2 feet above the foliage, and the nodding, dense inflorescences provide a colorful contrast to the leaves below.

Coral aloe is one of the easiest aloe species to grow. It isn't fussy about where it is sited, but it likes well-drained soil and handles all but hot sun or significant shade. As with most aloes, the flowers provide nectar to hummingbirds when grown outdoors in USDA Zones 9a to 11.

Coral aloe (Aloe striata) is blooming in the Arid Greenhouse near the agave collection.

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Shrubby bulbine (Bulbine frutescens), a member of the Liliaceae family, is native to desert grasslands of South Africa. The name Bulbine comes from the Latin word bulbus, meaning onion or bulb. This name is misleading, however, as these plants do not have a bulbous base. A clump-forming succulent, it grows to 1½ feet tall with a 2-foot spread. The leaves are tall, fleshy green cylinders, similar to the onion leaf blade. The tall spikes of small, star-shaped yellow flowers bloom on stalks 2 to 3 feet above the foliage. The plant produces ten to 12 stalks per individual plant, which bloom continually in mid-spring and again in the fall.

Hardy in USDA Zones 9a to 11, Bulbine frutescens survives to 20 degrees F., but at that temperature the foliage will be damaged. In its native habitat it is known as the burn jelly plant, because the fresh leaves produce a jellylike juice that is wonderful for burns, rashes, blisters, insect bites, dry lips, acne, cold sores, and areas of cracked skin. The Rastafarians make an infusion of a few fresh leaves in boiling water, which they take for coughs, colds, and arthritis.

Shrubby bulbine (Bulbine frutescens) is in the central bed of the Arid Greenhouse, surrounded by paths on the south side and the northernmost raised bed near the west end.

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The epiphytic dragon's mouth orchid (Encyclia cordigera var. rosea) is native from Guatemala to Panama, where the subspecies rosea is found. The flower spikes can produce flowers for up to three months, and each of the flowers smells like chocolate. This species requires very bright light whether grown in greenhouses, on a windowsill, or under artificial lights. During the summer growing season it prefers a moist, humid growing environment, but in the winter the watering should be reduced and diurnal — the difference between night and day low temperatures —with temperature fluctuations of 10 degrees F. to initiate flower production.

Most of the Encyclia species are easy to grow, making them popular with beginners and expert hobbyists alike. They are often found in the company of ants, which probably are necessary to their well-being. English botanist William Hooker first described the type species, Encyclia viridiflora, in 1828.

Dragon's mouth orchid (Encyclia cordigera var. rosea) is in the Tropical Greenhouse, lower level, on the east epiphyte tree.