Garden Detective

Garden Detective: Prized plume flower looks sad

What am I doing wrong? I have a Brazilian plume flower plant on my patio in filtered shade, which is on the east side of my home, and it has thrived for many years and it has produced many beautiful flowers. Yet, now it looks very straggly and is only producing the blooms at the ends of the stems. There are hardly any leaves on the plant. It gets regular water along with the azaleas and shamrock plants that I have. Should I be doing something different? How am I supposed to maintain or care for it? Please help; I would love to save this plant.

Janet Cass, Citrus Heights

According to UC master gardener June Bleile, your Brazilian plume flower ( Justicia carnea) might improve in blooming with a hard pruning in early March. Flowers form on new growth, so pruning should be done in early spring.

Prune back to 8 to 12 inches. This hard pruning will help to produce a fuller, multistemmed plant.

Other growing requirements are a rich, evenly moist but well-drained soil and partial to full shade. Feed in early spring, mid-summer and early fall using a balanced all-purpose fertilizer, following the directions on the package.

Brazilian plume flower is a shade-loving, tropical evergreen perennial shrub with large dark green leaves that is frost sensitive but will grow well in your zone 9 area.

Brazilian plume flowers are very easy to propagate, so you might want to share your beautiful plant with a friend. Take an 8- to 12-inch soft wood cutting and remove all but the top two leaves. Dust the root end in rooting hormone powder (available at most nurseries), then put the cutting into moist potting soil and cover with a plastic bag.

Place the cutting under a “grow light” or in an indoor bright spot but not in direct hot sun. Keep cuttings moist and covered until sprouting is shown, then remove the plastic bag and continue growing in a bright spot until ready to transplant into a pot.

Recently, our condo association chopped down many shrubs in the complex. They took the oleanders down to stumps. They say they will grow back – and that it was done to keep the root ball from growing. This sounds odd to me. Is this true?

Jodi Johnson, Sacramento

This pruning controlled the size of the shrub, not the size of the root ball. Oleanders can reach 20 feet tall but are usually kept in the 6- to 8-foot range.

According to UC master gardeners Annie Kempees and Mary Griggs, oleanders need little water once established and need little pruning.

To control size and form, the oldest stems should be cut to the ground before spring growth begins.

According to Sunset Western Garden Book, to prevent bushiness at the base, unwanted suckers should be pulled, not cut.

To renew an old, unattractive, leggy plant, lop it to the ground before new growth begins in spring.

When working with oleanders, always wear gloves, long sleeves or other skin protection. All parts of the plant are highly toxic. Never burn oleander cuttings.