Rabo de Toro Makes a Living Fence

November 3, 2006

Visitors to Costa Rica often comment on our beautiful cercas vivas, or living fences, which are an integral part of the landscape here.

Among the many varieties of plants used for this purpose, rabo de toro is commonly found gracing hedge rows and front yards across the country.

Rabo de toro, which means “bull’s tail,” is just one of the many common Spanish names used for several bush-like plants of the genus Stachytarpheta spp. They are often referred to as porterweed or snakeweed in the Afro-Caribbean region of Costa Rica.

These plants belong to the family Verbenaceae and have characteristic square stems and opposite leaves with a toothed edge and an aromatic scent,much like mint. The flowers are born on long, peculiar stems that locals once imagined as a tail or snake.

These flowers come in pastel blue (S. jamaicensis), purple (S. frantzii) and pink (S. mutabilis, shown here).

All of these plants are wonderful for attracting butterflies, moths and, most of all, hummingbirds, which spend the day zooming around the flowers to drink their nectar. A big advantage of rabo de toro plants is that they bloom during most of the year to provide a steady source of food for local hummingbirds.

Gardeners will be pleased to hear that these plants are easily propagated from woody stem cuttings from mature bushes.

Most often, Ticos prune their rabo de toro hedges several times a year to keep them compact and bushy. This is an ideal time to gather the pruned branches for planting.

By the way, one of the reasons rabo de toro is preferred as a hedge fence is that the stems are soft and easy to cut with a machete. Take 30-centimeter woody stem cuttings and plant them about halfway deep in tilled soil along a fence line.

Our neighbors like to crisscross the stem cuttings 15 cm apart to form a dense, impenetrable fence line, which helps to keep out stray animals once the bushes are well established.

In the first year, you may need to water your newly planted hedge during the dry season. Usually a soaking once a week is sufficient to keep them happy. After that, the only maintenance for these hardy shrubs is periodic pruning to keep them dense and bushy. They have no significant insect problems or plant diseases.

All in all, you will find rabo de toro an excellent companion for your hummingbirds and the home garden.

 

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