|Written by Jeff Shimonski -- BT Contributor|
Many of the wondrous plants found at one of Miami’s signature attractions could also thrive in your yard
I started working at Parrot Jungle as the assistant horticulturist in the mid-1970s. I didn’t know then that I would forever be amazed by all the different species of plants I would find at this wonderful South Florida institution.
Some of the plants I first encountered had been planted decades before and were immense specimens, while others, like the bromeliad and cactus collections, would be changed or augmented on a regular seasonal cycle. Even though I worked five and a half days a week at the beginning, it was only after months of being there that I got to know the entire plant collection.
In our cactus garden, besides cactus, we had numerous species of succulent plants, from aloes to agaves to the stinky flowered stapelias. I enjoyed the hairy, deep red, hand-size flowers of our most prolific stapelia species, Stapelia grandiflora, a very variable species. The plants grew as a short groundcover in the hottest full-sun locations in the cactus garden and would bloom sporadically throughout the hot months of the year. They didn’t tolerate frost or too much rain very well, but otherwise this particular stapelia species was easy to grow.
There are numerous stapelia species with flowers of different colors and sizes, many of which stink when open because they attract flies as pollinators. Carrion flower is a common name for these succulents. Stapelia make excellent potted plants when given full sun and excellent soil drainage.
One plant at Parrot Jungle that always fascinated me was this large mass of stringy-looking vine with thick, succulent leaves that had grown throughout the canopy of a mature live oak. I had never seen anything like it before; the mass of vine must have grown at least 25 feet into the tree’s canopy. It was also growing in the canopy of another tree, a palm, the native Sabal palmetto. After I found it in bloom one day, I finally learned its name: hoya, or wax vine.
Hoya is a plant that is very closely related to stapelia. There are 200 to 300 species of this really interesting genus found throughout Southeast Asia, the Malay Archipelago, and Australia. The photo that accompanies this article is of a Hoya carnosa in bloom that I photographed in the canopy of a friend’s live oak here in Miami. This particular clump came from a single cutting planted in a hanging pot that had been attached to this tree about 30 years ago.
These attractive vining plants, or creepers, are often found growing as epiphytes, in the canopy of trees. Most hoyas like bright light but not full sun. The typically dark green foliage will often look a bit yellowish when in too much light.
I planted a Hoya kerrii a few years ago on a black olive tree at Jungle Island. This species has thick heart-shaped leaves and a large white bloom. Actually, the blooming structure is more correctly termed the inflorescence. An inflorescence is the structure that holds all of the individual flowers together.
Each of the white flowers on this species has a red, star-shaped center, which sometimes glistens with a dark yellowish nectar. When the light shines just right, these waxy-looking flowers sparkle like jewels. This particular plant has grown up into the canopy of the black olive but not onto the foliage, because of the bright light. I was once told by an old-timer that hoyas need to be allowed to grow up into trees; once they start hanging down, they will bloom regularly.
Hoyas have an interesting flowering structure. The plant will drop very thin stalks called spurs. (If you want to get scientific, they are peduncles.) At the tips of these spurs, the inflorescence will form. For many species the spurs are perennial, so they will continue to grow and produce more flowers over time. Do not cut these long stalks off to make the plant look “neat” because it will likely never give you flowers.
Many species of hoya have a sweet scent, sometimes resembling chocolate. Most hoyas also produce a good bit of nectar. This is, of course, to attract pollinators, which may include moths, flies, and ants. I have rarely seen natural pollination occur, but when it does happen, the fruit with the seeds inside will be borne as twin pods.
When ripe, the pods will split open and the seeds will be dispersed in the wind or collected by a sharp-eyed horticulturist looking to plant more hoyas. The seeds germinate quite readily but will not last very long, so plant them right away.
Hoyas can be a great addition to a landscape. Many species can easily be grown as epiphytes, while the smaller species make excellent hanging container specimens.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
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