The Peregrinator

Spicy Jatropha, or Peregrina (Jatropha integerrima)

When I visited the Rockport City Cemetery, I was impressed by a pair of tree-like shrubs covered in the most brilliant red flowers imaginable. I’d never seen them before, and a little post-trip research convinced me they weren’t native to Texas.

Today, a trip to a well-regarded local nursery with a well-informed staff brought the answer to the question of their identity. The plants were Jatropha integerrima, a member of the  Euphorbiaceae, or spurge family. Variously known as peregrina, spicy jatropha, or fire-cracker, the plant is native to Cuba and the West Indies. After traveling first to South Florida, it began spreading: finally reaching at least as far west as Rockport, Texas.

The species first was described in 1760 by Austrian Nikolaus Joseph Jacquin (1727-1817) who botanized numerous Caribbean islands during a four-year expedition beginning in 1755. The star-shaped flowers, generally red but sometimes pink, are produced throughout the year and attract monarch, swallowtail, and zebra longwing butterflies.

In south Texas, peregrina is a perennial or dieback shrub. In other areas of the state, it’s a good summer annual or container plant, since it overwinters well indoors. Reports from as far north as San Antonio confirm that it can come back after spending winter outdoors, although with reduced blooms or stunted growth.

For the coastal areas of Texas, it has a lot of advantages. It’s able to withstand reflected heat, so it works well on patios, and it isn’t much bothered by drought, which makes it a good choice for xeriscaping. Salt tolerant, it’s rarely bothered by insects or disease. Flowering is reduced but not eliminated in shade, and the dark green foliage complements the colors of other flowering plants.

When it finally arrives at our nursery, I could be tempted to bring one home to fill up a large, empty pot that’s been sitting on my balcony. If you don’t have an expansive garden center in your area, don’t despair. This ‘exotic’ beauty also is being sold by Home Depot and Lowe’s.


Comments always are welcome.


42 thoughts on “The Peregrinator

  1. The brilliance of the red is really quite amazing and I can see why people would be instantly attracted to it. Do you know whether seeds found their way naturally or were they anthropogenically introduced?

    1. I don’t know, but I can imagine that either is a reasonable explanation. There are many plants in Florida whose seeds have found their way there via ocean currents. The seeds of this plant have some characteristics of drift seeds, so it’s possible that they arrived naturally. Of course, it’s also possible that people traveling back and forth brought them to Florida, especially those early botanists and plant collectors.

    1. It certainly would suit your area, GP. In fact, you could plant it in the landscape without worry. It’s smaller size makes it perfect for a yard. As I remember, ten feet is about as tall as it gets.

    1. It certainly stopped me in my tracks. The color was so vibrant, it looked artificial — but it wasn’t. Maas Nursery is going to be getting it in, so I suspect nurseries and garden shops in your area will have it, too. A severe freeze wouldn’t do it any good, but I read that it can take (very) short plunges to 25-28 degrees.

    1. What a perfect expansion of the title. I read that peregrina is Spanish for a female pilgrim — is that so? I also found it translated as ‘scallop,’ which made no sense at all, until I remembered that the symbol of St. James, and of the pilgrimage route called Camino de Santiago, is a scallop shell.

  2. I was sure you’d track down it’s identity.
    Now I’m curious whether or not it has white sap?
    Certainly a most attractive plant.

    1. It does have a sap that resembles latex. Not only is the sap irritating, the plant’s toxic in all its parts, so it’s not a plant for households with children or animals. That said, with Dixie Rose no longer around to sample leaves, I just might give it a try.

      1. It is beautiful! But not even listed in our Sunset Western Garden Book, which seems to have “everything” we can possibly grow, from Arizona to the Pacific Northwest. So that’s not a good sign about its availability here. And then when I read that it’s in the Euphorbia family… I removed many Euphorbias from my garden last year and replaced them with something harmless, after getting a terrible rash with second degree burns a few hours after cutting them back. I didn’t want to risk it again.

        1. If you’re sensitive to euphorbias, this isn’t one for you — no question. Several of the articles I read mentioned that — at least one in large letters and italics. Beyond that, I don’t think the hot and humid conditions it prefers are found in your part of the world. The drippy parts of the PNW aren’t hot enough, and the heat of southern California isn’t humid enough. You have reminded me that I need to check with our local nursery and see if they have it in stock now. I’d be curious to see what kind of price-and-advice they’d offer.

    1. I’ve known about ‘xeriscaping’ for a few years, but imagine my surprise when I learned that there are xeric ferns. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. The xeric ferns I’ve seen are cute as can be — really fuzzy and small: the better to conserve that moisture. What a world!

  3. I might have to consider adding into our garden but am unsure if it will survive in northern zone 9. It was definitely commonly planted in Florida/central and southern.

    1. In reading a little further, I discovered that all parts of it are toxic, so depending on your boy’s habits and the number of animals you have around, caution might be advised. I do think it might work well for me, since I have a northwestern/northern exposure, and a lot of hot, direct sunlight on my balcony in summer. My cacti love it, but not much else. This might.

    1. First I’ll wait to see what the price tag is. When I was out there yesterday and saw what was being charged for some of the plants — especially the bougainvilleas — I nearly died. They were gorgeous, though. There was a brilliant red one very nearly the color of this plant. I’ve never seen bougainvillea in bright red, and I was impressed.

    1. I’m sorry to say this one wouldn’t even find Dallas suitable. It’s obviously surviving in Rockport, and our nursery stocks it, so it probably would do fine here, but south Florida is its real happy place. One article I read said it adores heat and high humidity, and they certainly have that. I wish I thrived in those conditions.

    1. And it tends to stay put, which means it could be added to a yard without much concern for it taking over. On the other hand, the darned thing is toxic, and there are warnings all over not to plant it if you have children or pets given to nibbling. Everything — stems, leaves, flowers — can cause problems, which really is a shame. “Look but don’t eat” is hard to communicate to certain creatures, human and otherwise.

      1. Sounds like Sago palms.
        Honestly, we grew up around all sorts of toxic “dangerous” plants and yet, never knew a kid to sit around munching on landscape. We were told to leave things alone and not put stuff in our mouths….of course some got into trouble when the went to college and became smarter than their parents and started eating “nature’s bounty”and foraging in the woods. (always a bad idea for non-local or city kids)
        Sometimes “No” should be all that’s needed? A word that has almost vanished from use. HAHA

        1. All that’s true, but it’s always good to spread the word about things that are potentially toxic — especially with plants that are so pretty it’s hard to imagine they could cause harm. On the other hand, I’ve told you about my grade school classmate who used to eat a spoonful of dirt for a nickel. It never seemed to hurt him, and he always had money for the penny candy counter.

    1. It would go nicely with the cardinals that are stopping by now. There’s something about a clear, pure red that feels lively – and this is one of the prettiest reds I’ve seen.

    1. That’s what I thought, too. It isn’t tinged with blue, or yellow — there’s not a hint of orange or purple. I saw it on a sunny day and on one that was a little cloudier, and it was just as pretty on both days.

  4. Too cold for it up here, I would imagine, but I can see it as a cheerful balcony plant for folks down in your neck of the woods. A bright pop of cheerful color.

    1. It seems that we’re at the northern edge of its preferred territory, but it would make a nice addition to my collection of cacti. I mean — prickly pear are fine, but there’s not much going on in those pots.

    1. Maybe yes, maybe no. This time of year, I tend to be a reluctant buyer of things that would have to be left behind in case of a hurricane evacuation. It’s a little irrational, but not entirely! Still, if the cost isn’t too much, and the plant looks like a good fit, it might happen. We’ll see.

  5. Such a vibrant and rich red. Since it traveled to Texas from Cuba I’d say Peregrina is an apt name. Home Depot and Lowe’s, at least around here, have been selling plants treated with Neonicotinoids
    which are not at all friendly to pollinators. We try to buy from local nursery shops generally but especially when it comes to plants.
    I am imagining a border of this shrub in full bloom. That would be awesome.

    1. There’s a lot of education that’s been going on around here about the Neonicotinoids, and especially their use by suppliers for some of those commercial stores. Under normal circumstances, I’d not even mention those stores’ names as plant sources, but at the time I was struck by the incongruity of something that seemed so unusual and exotic being marketed by the chains.

      Like you, I prefer local shops and always purchase from the same place I went to get an ID for this one. I haven’t bought a plant in years, but they have the best dirt in the world; their organic landscape mix makes potted plants think they’re in heaven.

      I read somewhere that in Florida they use this as a border plant. It would be a show-stopper, for sure.

      1. Yes it would. I’d be in awe of a long row of this brilliancy. We try to keep it local whenever possible. I did just buy a replacement trellis at Lowes for our garden clematis as there wasn’t anything we liked at the local shop. But all plants come from one of two small guys near here.

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