Don’t you just hate that call from a customer who wants summer long color in a display bed in front of their business, but the bed is exposed to full sun all day on one end and is in shade on the other? What can be specked that will provide a reasonably uniform look across this wide light regime and still hold up in the summer heat?
Oddly enough, a traditional interiorscape plant might offer a solution. Graptophyllum pictum, more commonly know as caricature plant, has medium to coarse textured colorful variegated foliage that retains a dense canopy in full sun to two–thirds or more shade. This tropical shrub from New Guinea has been grown for many years in low light interiorscapes, conservatories, and malls, however, it works equally well as a summer annual in Texas’ outdoor landscapes.
This species earns its odd name of Caricature Plant from the irregular splotched pattern of light yellow or creamy white variegation found in the center of each dark lustrous green leaf. The background color of the leaves varies from dark green to a metallic chocolate brown, while cultivars are also available with differing extents of central variegation including white, creamy white, light yellow, pink, or light green. Other common names associated with this species also allude to the variegated leaves, such as Calico Plant, Café Con Leche, Groptofilo, or Picture Plant. The lush tropical looking 4" to 7" long elliptic leaves feel almost rubbery or like latex. On larger plants inflorescences may develop, which consist of narrowly trumpet–shaped 1½" long reddish to purple–red individual flowers in short erect 3" to 4" long racemes or panicles. Flowers are mildly attractive as on many members of the family Acanthaceae, but are of secondary importance to the foliage effects.
Although adapted to all but the most alkaline of soils and intense heat, caricature plant is intolerant of extended drought and will suffer chilling damage at temperatures considerably above freezing. Hence, like most true tropical plants, caricature plant is best planted as a summer annual after night temperatures are consistently above about 55° BF. A well drained moist soil and good fertility will contribute to strong vegetative growth, which is of course what we are hoping for with this species to show off the handsome foliage. Occasional infestations of spider mites, thrips, or scale insects may occur, but these are more likely to become a problem in interiorscapes or greenhouse production than during landscape use.
In addition to use in beds with varying light exposures, caricature plant makes an excellent patio container plant — either in mixed or single species pots. Caricature plant lends a strong tropical flavor to summer landscapes and its season of enjoyment can be extended by digging plants or rooting cuttings to take indoors for winter color. Plants will root readily from cuttings, and this is the manner of propagation for most cultivars. Caricature plants will form a medium size upright oval shrub in tropical climates, maturing at 6' or 8' tall, however half this size is more typical when transplanted and grown as summer annuals in our regional landscapes. This species blends well with other colorful tropical foliage in summer landscapes, including copper plant (Acalypha wilkesiana), variegated sea hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus ‘Tricolor’), and variegated tapioca (Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’). Caricature Plants grow quickly and benefit from early pinching to induce a good form on young specimens. Urge your clients to give caricature plants a try for painting with foliage colors in next summer's landscape.
Prepared by Michael A. Arnold, 4/23/08