A PLANT CALLED
‘COW SLOBBER’?

Unusual blooms range from fabulous to funny


July 31, 2008


By Kathy Chilek, Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener
ALL PHOTOS BY KATHY CHILEK, VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
Spiderworts are soft, fuzzy-stemmed, perennial herbs with three petal purple blooms and yellow centers. Broken stems produce a gooey sap that appears like “cow slobber.”
Ready to punch up those old petunias and boring shrubs with some out-of-this-world blossoms? How about a flower 3 feet across, that weighs 15 pounds?

This monster originates in the rain forest of Indonesia. Rafflesia arnoldii is the world’s largest flower. Actually a parasite, it lives inside a host vine and has no visible roots, leaves or stems. When it is time for it to bloom, Rafflesia sends a huge, foot-long bud through the stem of its host plant. This bud develops into a gargantuan, mottled red and cream-colored flower.

How cool would that be growing in my backyard? Two things keep me from trying to acquire one as soon as possible. First, it’s really hard to create a rain forest environment in Victoria. Second, this particular flower gives off a powerful aroma of rotting flesh to attract the flies that pollinate it.

So, how about five slightly less exotic plants that have unusual blooms, pleasant scents and can actually be grown here?


Passion Flower


A cousin, believe it or not, of rafflesia, is the beautiful passion flower vine (Passiflora incarnata). Some species of these perennial vines are native to Texas and produce purple, yellow or white blooms. The elaborate flowers inspired early missionaries to use them to teach indigenous people about the passion of Christ. The 10 petals and sepals were said to represent the apostles (excluding Judas and Peter); the concentric color rings of the corona, the crown of thorns; the five golden stamens, the five wounds of Christ and the three stigmas, the nails used in the crucifixion. Beside its intrinsic beauty and storied past, the passion flower vine is a food source for butterflies and their larvae including Zebra longwings and Gulf fritillaries. Some vines produce egg-size yellow fruit enjoyed by wildlife and humans alike. Passion flower vine requires protection from harsh winds, full sun and winter cold. Vines need fertile, well-drained soil and regular watering. Locate the vine near a fence or trellis to prevent its rambling over shrubs and trees.

Angel Trumpet

Another perennial plant with spectacular blooms for protected, shaded areas is the Angel trumpet (Brugmansia). Before opening, the eight-inch long pale yellow flowers look like collapsed umbrellas. Unfurled, the trumpets sport elongated petal tips turned up like tiny legs doing high kicks from under a long skirt. In a single summer, one brugmansia can produce dozens of trumpets hanging under its huge leaves like peach-colored church bells. Angel trumpets can be cut to shrub size or allowed to grow as small trees. Warning: Since it is poisonous, do not place this plant in any area visited by pets or children. Also for this reason, deer will not bother this plant.

No shady areas available? Walk on the wild side. Scare up some lion’s ears, some spiderworts or a pride of Barbados.

Lion’s Ears

Early spring to late summer, lion’s ears (Leonotis leonurus) have unique blooms like fuzzy orange fingers pointing outward from the centers of stacked martini glasses. Clusters of stems form a sort of shrub about 4 feet tall. These clusters can be used to fill a designated area, or easily be trimmed to size as part of a flowerbed. Stems not knocked back by frost should be cut back in early spring for bushy, healthy growth. Any well draining, medium soil with adequate water should sprout plenty of “ears.”

Spiderwort

Spiderworts (Tradescantia) are soft-stemmed, perennial herbs that used to pop up around our childhood homes that nurseries now get $6 a gallon pot for. They have gone from wildflower to “desirable Texas native” status for good reason: Their velvet green leaves, fuzzy buds and three petal violet blooms with gold centers are equally happy under a shady oak or out in the open. Though afternoon sun may make them appear shriveled and freeze-dried, they will rebound with blooms the following morning. Break off a stem and touch the gooey sap of a spiderwort. You can stretch the goo like a fresh spun spider web. The appearance of the clear, thick sap also explains why some folks call this plant “cow slobber.” Surprisingly, the leaves, stems and flowers of this plant are edible raw or cooked. Dinner’s ready – cow slobber, anyone?

Pride of Barbados

For really sunny, “hell strip” areas you can’t beat blooms of pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). The flowers begin as shiny orange balls arranged like Christmas trees on branch tips. The buds open sequentially. Ruffled gold petals with red veins and bases appear atop flat orange sepals. Curving red stamens protrude like long antennae of a giant insect from the center.

The colors are brilliant, easily seen from 30 yards away or more. A perennial shrub to 5 feet or so, the woody stems and fernlike leaves will disappear after a frost then re-emerge in late spring.

New plants can sprout from the scattered seeds of flat pods left to dry on the dormant stems.

Pride of Barbados is wildly popular with xeric gardeners for its ability to withstand sun and its conservative use of water once established. A bonus is its attractiveness to several species of butterflies.

Whether searching for shade plants, sun plants, butterfly magnets or just something different, any of these five blooming beauties will add zing to your landscape.

To see monster flowers go to:
http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/flower.html

For more information on the other five plants go to:
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/
The passion flower blooms in purple, yellow or white and is often a food source for butterflies and their larvae. It is best grown on a fence or trellis and should be protected from harsh wind, direct sun and cold temperatures.
The angel trumpet plant can be cut to a shrub or allowed to grow into a tree, with dozens of trumpets that look like peach-colored church bells. As striking as it is, its parts are poisonous to humans and pets, which explains why it deters deer.
The Lion's Ear -- Imagine a plant with fuzzy orange fingers protruding from the center of small green martini glasses. Clusters of stems form a sort of shrub that is about 4 feet tall and can be used to fill in a pocket in a landscape.
Pride of Barbados blooms have what appear to be curving red antennae from a giant insect in the center of ruffled, gold petals with red veins. A perennial shrub, which grows about 5 feet, is a great Texas SuperStar selection for xeriscape.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension -Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77902; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.
Perennial plants with unusual blooms


Spiderwort:
Perennial herb with three-petal purple flowers with gold centers on fuzzy stems that when broken secrete “cow slobber” gooey substance.

Passion flower:
Vine with purple, white or yellow blooms for shady protected areas best on a fence or trellis.

Angel trumpet:
Poisonous and deer resistant shrub or small tree that produces an abundance of elegant soft peach, yellow or white church bell shaped blooms.

Lion’s ears:
Unique blooms that resemble little orange fingers protruding from small green martini glasses on stems for partial sun locations.

Pride of Barbados: Texas SuperStar plant for hot dry spots with bright orange balls on red stems and red-veined yellow ruffled flowers that attract several species of butterflies.