Jatropha for the Florida Garden
A large Jatropha integerrima at a South Florida nursery
Jatropha is a tropical evergreen that has slender stems and multiple trunks. Jatropha integerrima plants can reach about 15 feet tall and have an equal spread when left unpruned. They are cold intolerant. Jatropha multifida plants are a usually a bit smaller (10-12 feet) and have a wider range, having successfully naturalized in Central Florida as far north as Lake George.
Zebra Longwing on Coral Bush (Jatropha multifida)
Jatropha integerrima is native to Cuba and the West Indies and is sometimes called peregrina, spicy Jatropha, or fire-cracker. The individual flowers on this species are star-shaped and generally red, although a pink-flowered variety exists. Flowers are 1-inch wide and are produced year-round in beautiful clusters that are held upright above the lobed leaves. Some of the butterflies you may see enjoying this plant include monarchs, swallowtails, and zebra longwings.
Jatropha multifida seed pods will turn yellow when ripe.
Jatropha multifida, commonly called coral plant, is native to Mexico. This species has flat circles of coral-pink flowers and distinctly tropical-looking foliage that is deeply dissected and fan shaped. Coral plant is a bit more cold tolerant than peregrina and is a favorite of the Florida Zebra Longwing butterfly.
A hedge of Coral Bush, South Florida
While these two species are not an invasive problem in Florida, there are some Jatropha species that are invasive in Florida. The UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-Native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas has labeled Jatropha gossypiifolia and Jatropha curcas as invasive plants that should not be planted.
Jatropha gossypiifolia or "the belly-ache plant" should not be planted.
These two species look nothing like the species featured here except that they produce similar nuts (You may have heard of J. curcas; sometimes proposed as source for biodiesel fuel production.) J. gossypiifolia goes by the ominous colloquial name "Belly-ache plant" indicating what might happen if you ingest any of the plant.
Once established, J. integerrima and J. multifida are both low maintenance and drought tolerant. Jatropha plants need well-drained soil, and while they can handle partial shade to full sun, they will flower best in areas with full sun. This plant is not salt tolerant. Frosts and freezes will damage Jatropha, but they usually recover quickly.
Jatropha tolerate pruning well, which gives you options when it comes to the form of your plant. You can let it grow naturally into an interesting multi-trunked tree, or with some pruning, it can be trained into a fabulous espalier, shrub, or single-trunked tree. Take care when pruning Jatropha plants, as the milky sap can irritate sensitive skin. The versatility of these plants is not limited to your pruning skills—Jatropha can actually work quite well in a large container on a porch or patio.
Above, Jatropha seed with other species for comparison. In general each Jatropha seed pod will contain 3 seeds. So if you plant the pod whole (as I normally do) you'll usually get 3 plants in about 60 days in winter or much faster germination in summer.
Because these plants do so well in containers with little water, I often plant them directly into containers. In a couple of years they will have reached maturity and bloom year-round.
Propagation is easy. Seeds will yellow on the plant then fall off when they are ready to sprout. Either stick them in a pot of place where you want them to grow. Each seed pod usually produces 3 Jatropha plants.