Jumping Jatropha, A Spicy Plant For Hot Spots!

Say hello to a great plant, Jatropha integerrima ‘Compacta’, as one of next year’s Texas Superstars®. This subtropical plant is known under a variety of common names including compact spicy jatropha, chaya, firecracker, firecracker jatroph, or peregrina. As these names imply this plant adds a spicy zest to summer landscapes with handsome dark glossy green foliage that serves as the perfect foil for the rounded clusters of waxy red to pink flowers. These flowers are borne above the foliage in full view. Most spicy jatropha grown for our region have cherry or lip–stick red flowers that bloom from spring to frost, but pink flowering selections may also be found. If the flowers were not so attractive, one might be tempted to grow spicy jatropha anyway as the moderately coarse textured leaves are a rich dark green and come in a variety of interesting lobed patterns.

Spicy jatropha has long been popular in tropical climates where it is grown as a shrub or small tree, reaching 10 ft or more in height and width. There it is popular as a screen or general purpose evergreen hedge. ‘Compacta’ makes a smaller plant with a denser canopy than the species type, typically less than 8 ft or so as a shrub and much smaller, 3 to 5 ft as an annual. In southern parts of Texas, Spicy Jatropha will return regularly as a perennial or dieback shrub. In the rest of our region, Spicy Jatropha makes a great summer annual or patio container plant. Performance is best during hot muggy weather, just what the plant doctor ordered for our Texas summers. In fact the genus name, Jatropha is derived from the Greek words for physician and food, in reference to the use of various species in this genus for medicinal purposes. However, do not attempt to self–medicate with these plants because, as with many medicinal plants, the tissues are potentially poisonous if consumed. The many ornamental attributes make up for this species’ lack of edibility.

One of the best uses for compact spicy jatropha is as a patio or sidewalk container plant where the flowers can be enjoyed at close range. Of course patios and sidewalks can be tough places environmentally for flowering plants, so the ability of spicy jatropha to withstand reflected heat and periodic drought come to the forefront. Spicy jatropha also exhibits a good level of salt tolerance and ability to withstand a wide range of soil pH as long as the soils are well drained. Few insects or diseases bother spicy jatropha in the landscape. Fortunately, compact spicy jatropha will retain a reasonably dense foliar canopy and also continue to flower, but at a somewhat reduced rate, under shady conditions making it a good choice for a variety of light exposures. Excellent dark green foliage, great red to pink flowers, tolerance of sun to shade, heat, drought, and a lack of fussiness about soils combine to make compact spicy jatropha a great way to spice up next summer’s sales.

Published by Michael Arnold, 2007, in the TNLA Green Magazine 9(8):20