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Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Gout Plant

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A tropical shrub that blooms year-round, that loves to grow in a pot, that needs almost no water, can grow in full sun or part shade, and has a lot of weird names:  Gout plant—I mean, Buddha's belly, or is it purging nut?—is a must. 

 

Mine has just arrived from Florida.  Even after several days in a box, it retains some of its small coral-red flowers accented with bright-yellow anthers.  They mature to the green fruit in the picture above, displayed so well against the bright branching stalks of the flower cluster.

 

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Gout plant can be in bloom year-round—even if it goes dormant in cool weather, and drops its leaves.

 

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The leaves are large enough that they had become folded up during the plant's shipment.  They have five lobes, and can be as wide as a foot across.

 

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The trunk is always a bit swollen at the base, hence those common names of Buddha's belly and gout plant. 

 

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Even in Winter dormancy, when the plant is leafless, you'll want to keep your Buddha's belly in your sunniest window instead of sticking it in a back corner of the greenhouse.  This plant is a show all year long.  

 

 

Here's how to grow this heat-loving tropical shrub:


Latin Name

Jatropha podagrica

Common Name

Gout Plant, Buddha's Belly, Purging Nut, Guatemalan Rhubarb

Family

Euphorbiaceae, the Euphorbia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 9 - 11

Habit

Upright and thick-trunked, the base of which is noticeably swollen (hence the common names of gout plant and Buddha's belly).  The trunk is normally unbranched unless the tip is damaged or pruned, in which case one or two branches can result.  Large leaves—very large when the plant is grown in the shade—are held only at the top of the trunk.  Winter-deciduous if the weather becomes cooler, but blooms most of the year regardless.   

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

Two to three feet tall, two feet wide.  

Texture

Sculptural; the whirl of large foliage at the tip is in strong contrast to the bare swollen trunk below.

Grown for

its foliage:  The green leaves are large, with five pointed lobes separated by deep notches.  The leaf is palmate: The lobes and the spaces between them are both so wide that the leaf would be circular if unlobed.  In sun, the leaves are about six inches across; in shade they can be twice that.

 

its flowers: Four-petaled and coral-red, the flowers are accented by a cluster of yellow anthers.  The flowers are part of an inflorescence whose petioles are so profusely and finely branched that they could be a species of coral.  They, too, are coral-red.  The flowers mature to blueberry-sized green fruits that contain thick brown seeds that can be as large as a half-inch long.   

 

its easy-going habit: Gout plant expects to dry out between waterings.  It needs no water at all when dormant in the Winter.


its appeal to hummingbirds and butterflies:  Although the rest of the plant is highly poisonous, the nectar is ambrosial.  Gout plant can out-draw even butterfly bushes.

Flowering season

Spring to Fall; year-round if the climate is truly tropical. 

Color combinations

With its coral-red petioles and flowers that are accented with yolk-yellow, gout plant belongs only in the red- and yellow-friendly areas of your garden as well as your house.  Pink and blue would be anathema; white or grey irrelevant; burgundy a pleasure.

Partner plants

Indoors or out, associate it with other heat-loving species that also sing the praises of red, orange, burgundy, and yellow.  The near-black leafy rosettes of Aeonium arboreum 'Schwartzkopf', which also demands the same hot and dry conditions, would be dramatic, indeed.  The grassy green leaves and small but bright-yellow flowers of Bulbine frutescens would contrast in texture as well as color—as would, from the dark burgundy side, Hibiscus acetosella.  Having a pot of "volcanic" sorrel nearby is yet another way to bring in contrasting texture and harmonious colors—while also soothing any itch you may have to combine gout plant with anything as prosaic as big-box-store impatiens, regardless of whether they're a perfect match in color.

Where to use it in your garden

Outside of hot-and-dry tropics, gout plant can survive year-round only as a container plant that's brought into dry warmth for the Winter.  Thanks to the odd swollen trunk, the plant is sculptural enough to be placed like a piece of art: alone atop a stone plinth, or at one end of a long flat bench against a simple wall. 

Culture

Soil that's very well-draining, especially if the plant is growing where the climate isn't hot year-round, and so may need to shed its leaves and wait out the cool weather in dormancy.  That's only possible if the plant experiences dormancy that's dry, not just cool.  At any time of year, weather that is cool and wet can be fatal.  When gout plant is in growth, provide full sun and all possible heat in any but the hottest climates, where it also thrives in half-shade.

How to handle it: The Basics

Jatropha podagrica can grow in-ground only in climates that are frost-free.  It thrives in containers in any climate, so is easy to bring into warmth and shelter for the Winter.  In the tropics, the plant can grow contentedly in dappled shade as well as sun, so it can also grow year-round as a houseplant, where the direct sun of even a South window would feel weak.

 

Grow gout plant as you would a cactus:  Plant in very well-draining soil, and let it dry out between waterings.  Fertilize once a month when the plant is in active growth.  Let the plant enter dormancy in the short days of the Fall; it will often drop its leaves, but will retain any active flowering stalks.  Withold water until the plant responds to longer days in late Winter and Spring by starting to produce new leaves.  Even so, never try to push the plant along by more frequent watering, which will only cause rot.  Practice "leading from behind," watering and fertilizing only in response to increased growth, not in advance of it.

 

After all danger of frost or even cool nights has passed, the plant can be set outdoors for the Summer.  The sun and heat in temperate climates is always much less than that of the tropics, even at the height of Summer.  Unless you're gardening in the subtropics or tropics, then, you'll normally set the plant in full sun for the maximum growth and vigor.  Growing the plant in part-shade may encourage larger leaves, but at the expense of overall growth.

 

Bring the plant into shelter weeks before any danger of frost; even the cooler nights of late September will feel like Winter to this heat-lover.  Withold water, and let the plant drop its leaves.  With no watering needed until late Winter or early Spring—and, if Summer brings any rain at all, none then, either—you may need to water your gout plant only three or four times a year: During the month or two between resumption of active growth and when it's finally warm enough to set your plant outside for the Summer. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

As with true cacti, Jatropha podagrica is content in a seemingly small pot.  Only pot-up when the plant is clearly about to burst through the current one, or has become so top-heavy that it's difficult to keep the plant upright; a prematurely-large pot would only increase the likelihood of the soil's remaining moist for too long.  Gout plant's Achilles heel is wet feet, or even damp feet.  When in doubt, withhold water—and don't pot-up until the next year.

Quirks or special cases

The blueberry-sized fruits are, in horto-speak, "explosively dehiscent," and can throw the seeds several feet from the plant.  A quirky talent, but not a unique one:  Witch hazel can eject its seeds as far—and the little pods that contain them make a sharp cracking sound as they explode.

Downsides

Like most species and cultivars in the euphorbia family, all parts of Jatropha podagrica are poisonous, especially the large seeds—hence, another of the common names, purging nut.

Variants

There are well over a hundred Jatropha species, which are all more or less succulent, whether shrubs or trees.  They are typically everblooming as long as the weather is hot and sunny; in solidly tropical climates, they bloom year-round.  It's not unusual for cooler weather to bring on a period of deciduous dormancy.  The flowers are typically small and coral-red; they're in clusters of only a few, but their bright color makes them showy.  J. multifida has foliage so lacy it's similar to that of a Japanese maple.  Other species have foliage that's entire; sometimes the young foliage is burgundy-flushed or even, as with J. gossypifolia, an exciting shiny burgundy-black.  The foliage of J. curcas 'Tapestry' is nicely variegated.  The trunk of J. berlandieri is so swollen it looks like a rutabaga. 

 

In the tropics, the bushier species of Jatropha are so easy and therefore so popular that they are overused for foundation plantings, the way Northerners so often reach for azaleas and rhododendrons.  The spare foliage and striking trunk of J. podagrica saves it from such pedestrian assignments. 

Availability

On-line and at retailers that specialize in succulents and cacti.

Propagation

By seed. 

Native habitat

Jatropha podagrica is native to Central America.

 
 
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