San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Powder Puffs Add Showy Touch to Patios, Fence Lines

The powder puffs of the Mimosaceae family are a group of exotic flowering shrubs and small trees found in Costa Rica. They are often confused with the bottlebrush trees recently featured in this column (TT, July 18). The flowers have a certain similarity, but, upon closer observation, you’ll note that the powder puffs are actually flowering heads of brightly colored stamens, compared to the flowering spikes of stamens found on bottlebrushes.

So much for technicalities – both are exquisite ornamentals that can bring charm and beauty to the landscaping around your home. They are also hardy plants that require little care and no watering in the dry season, which makes them a perfect choice for an “eco” home garden.

The powder puffs belong to the genus Calliandra, which has some 200 species.

About a half dozen popular species can be found in Costa Rica and are readily available at leading nurseries. Most frequently they are referred to as caliandras in Spanish. These shrubs usually have lush, pinnate foliage with sprawling branches that often require trimming to keep them compact. Their flowers may be red, pink, white or scarlet. They are frequently used as a privacy barrier along fence lines, though it’s also common to see them as freestanding specimens.

Some of the popular species here are: C. haematocephala, originally from Bolivia, with bright red flowers; C. emarginata, a native of Mexico, with scarlet flowers; C. surinamensis, native to Suriname and northern Brazil, with pink and white flowers; and C. tweedii, another native of Brazil, with scarlet flowers.

Propagation is commonly done with woody stem cuttings taken from mature specimens. Cuttings require careful attention and regular misting or watering to root successfully. Once they are well rooted, they can be transplanted to larger pots or planted directly in their permanent sites.

As a privacy barrier, they are planted 1.5 meters apart. For freestanding specimens, give each plant at least four meters of space between other plants or buildings. Sunny sites are preferred for better flowering, though they will tolerate broken sunlight.

Powder puffs grow in most regions of the country, but don’t tolerate the salty sea breezes near the beach. Applications of organic soluble fertilizers, such as compost tea, helps keep them growing and flowering well. Pruning once or twice a year helps maintain neater, more compact shrubs. The flowers and leafy stems make a nice addition to floral arrangements.

Without a doubt, these hardy plants can add a showy presence to your patio or fence lines.

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