Some plants have names that fit them perfectly, and the shrimp plant is a good case in point. This odd piece of botanical work displays flowers made of long, overlapping, segmented bracts that make each bloom resemble — you guessed it — shrimp.
Its botanical name is Justicia brandegeana, which makes “shrimp plant” sound like a great catch when it comes to easily pronounced plant names. A native of Mexico and other parts of Central America, it’s a tropical perennial that often won’t survive typical winters in our state.
In spite of its tenderness, the plant was successfully introduced here as a houseplant. Its bright, long-lasting, odd-shaped blooms, however, have also enticed growers to take it outside to the garden, either as a potted specimen or a summer annual.
Who you callin’ a shrimp?
Although the term “shrimp” is used derisively as in “little,” it doesn’t apply here. A happy shrimp plant can reach 4 to 5 feet high and have a span of 3 feet. But in small gardens and indoors, it can be tip pruned in the spring for a shorter, bushier version.
When in flower, the plant draws a crowd with its strange beauty. The unusual looking bracts start out orange-red and taper to a yellow or greenish yellow. At this point, the blooms — small, pendulant, whitish tubes loved by hummingbirds and butterflies — emerge. Gardeners looking for variety can try the pretty cultivar ‘Yellow Queen,’ which has solid, bright yellow bracts. Both selections will exhibit a long season of blooms. In the summer, the plant can be used as a visual anchor in a perennial border or as a small shrub providing a focal point almost anywhere in a sunny landscape.
Shrimp plants will grow strong and healthy in well-worked, loamy, or sandy soil, with lots of compost. They tolerate drought, but for better blooms, water every week or two during dry conditions. Whether it’s used as an indoor plant or is free to romp outside in the garden, the shrimp plant’s sure sign of distress from lack of water is when it begins to drop its leaves. Usually, a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch will conserve enough moisture to help sustain a healthy plant.
Because they’re from the tropics, shrimp plants can take our summer heat, but a bit of shade late in the day will help keep blooms looking fresh. Indoors, care should be taken not to expose overwintering plants to cold drafts or dry air sources like heating and cooling vents.
Inside, locate the shrimp plant in a sunny location. In the garden, situate it in an area that receives full sun. Take care to provide some protection from the hot, mid-afternoon rays, however, as the flowers are susceptible to sun scorch.
Shrimp plants used as houseplants can be fed a diluted fertilizer solution monthly from spring until fall. In the garden, a slow-release, low-nitrogen fertilizer in the early spring is beneficial. Then, when it begins to bloom, slightly supplement the feeding with an occasional watering of compost tea or a similar organic fertilizer like a liquid kelp solution.
Generally, these plants are trouble free when it comes to insects. And as a bonus for gardeners who must constantly guard against Bambi, shrimp plants aren’t favored by our state’s large population of plant-hungry deer.
Editor, writer, and lecturer L.A. Jackson lives in Apex. This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Our State magazine.