Monday, August 4, 2008

The red pentas is that one plant that can do it all

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 4, 2008)

If I had to pick one plant -- one flowering plant -- to place in my yard, I'd choose Pentas lanceolata, also known as star flower or star cluster. It's available in lavender, white and multiple shades of pink, but my choice would be a red pentas -- full size, not dwarf -- and I'd be sure to position it right outside my window.

If I were limited to only one plant -- and I hope I never am -- I'd want that plant to have multiple assets.

Ideally, it should bloom profusely year-round, grow without needing much care, attract wildlife, work well as a cut flower and have a wonderful fragrance. The pentas fulfills all those preferences but the fragrance.

Planted in loamy, moderately moist soil, a small one-gallon potted plant will turn into a compact, bloom-covered shrub in a single summer. Although it has a tendency to get leggy, that trait can be turned into an advantage. Pruned blooms can be used in cut-flower arrangements -- they're long-lasting, upright and cheery -- and can be turned into starts.

To propagate pentas, all you have to do is trim the bloom and most of the leaves off a soft-stemmed shoot and dip the stem in rooting formula before pressing it into potting soil. When kept in a shady, moist location, the cutting will develop roots that will soon grow deep and strong enough to sustain the plant on its own.

I like adding pentas to bouquets, but what I like most about this perennial bloomer is its amazing ability to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

How hummingbirds and butterflies know when a pentas has been added to the landscape is one of nature's great mysteries. All I know is that this inexpensive, common landscape plant acts like a magnet to fluttery fliers.

Pentas is the host plant for the Sphinx moth, a hummingbird look-alike that comes out at dusk to feed.

Pentas is also a nectar source for more than a dozen members of the lepidoptera family, including several varieties of swallowtails, the orange-barred sulphur, monarch and the Gulf fritillary.

But the pentas' most outstanding attribute is the way it attracts real hummingbirds -- the smallest birds in the world. I never tire of watching them flit about the yard in search of food.

Hummingbirds are feathered jewels that weigh about as much as a penny and hatch from eggs the size of jelly beans.

Although they can see a wider range of colors than people can, these small birds with large brains are partial to red, the color of most nectar-producing blooms. With wings that beat an average of 80 times a second and speeds up to 30 miles an hour, they seem to appear out of nowhere to hover above the star-like clusters of red pentas blooms.

Appearing simultaneously methodical and manic, a hummingbird zooms to a pentas shrub. With its long, needle-like bill and specially adapted tongue, it buzzes systematically from one blossom to another before zipping off.

The entire feeding process -- which may include stops at dozens of blooms -- is over in seconds, but to maintain their body weight, these agile fliers have to eat every 10 to 15 minutes during waking hours.

In volume, a single adult hummingbird consumes eight times its body weight daily.

The single red pentas outside my office window is a constant source of delight and entertainment. When I'm not enjoying the sight of a butterfly landing on the rounded flower heads, I'm anticipating the arrival of the fast-flying hummingbirds that have claimed my plant as their own.

If for no other reason than the opportunity it provides to watch some of nature's most fascinating creatures, adding a pentas to the landscape is a must.


  1. Is it me or is the red penta a lot hardier than all the other colors? I've never seen a hummingbird on my pentas but yes, I have lots of butterflies.

  2. I just bought two pentas a few weeks back. A reddish one and a wonderful purple one. I repotted them and will take some cuttings and hope they root, plus I'll put the two pots on the shelf outside of the scullery window so that I can see them and any butterfly/hummingbird action that might happen while washing dishes.

    Thanks for this informative post.


  3. Thanks for writing the tip about propagating standard red pentas (the tall variety). I've had 3 in my front yard that I LOVE, but mostly in my area of Southern CA, I usually only find the smaller pink or lavendar colored pentas for sale. Will try this tip this week!

  4. I live in south Florida and I have 2 red ruby heirloom pentas that I just bought. They are tall and are in pots. They should be transferred into the ground later to grow into a bush. My friend has a huge bush in her year. They are beautiful and take the heat well.

    1. You are in the right part of the state to grow beautiful pentas plants. Here in Central Florida we occasionally have cold snaps that kill back the plants. You won't have that problem and your plants can grow huge without worry about cold damage.