“Gardeners, I think, dream bigger dreams than emperors”-Mary Cantwell (American journalist)
Mussaenda-Tropical Dogwood Features And How To Grow It
The Mussaenda is a tropical and subtropical plant valued for its abundance of soft, luxuriant blossoms. Also, you will often find Mussaenda, referred to as ‘Tropical Dogwood,’ because it grows as a shrub with large glossy leaves and showy blossoms at the ends of the stems. (You may also find it called ‘Ashanti blood, or red flag bush.’)The shrub is in bloom from spring through fall. It is otherwise a rather ordinary shrub or small tree of roughly eight to ten feet in height and 15 feet when grown as a tree. In addition, the plant is semi-deciduous and hardy in USDA Zones 9-11. and has a slightly rambling growth pattern. (Keep the pruners sharp!)
The Appearance of the Plant
The appearance of your Mussaenda plant will vary depending on the variety. There are choices in size, density of growth habit, and leaf and flower forms. Consider the Mussaenda a relatively low-maintenance plant resistant to pests and diseases.
Varieties of Mussaenda (Tropical Dogwood)
Mussaenda (Tropical Dogwood) Colors
We grow the Mussaenda philippica variety, a large shrub with an especially dramatic blossom. The white is a glowing creamy shade; the peach is a true orange, yellow, and white mixture. The color glows even when seen at a distance. The pink shade is a particularly delicate pale shade. Some varieties offer a unique orange glow. If you appreciate color accents in your garden, the Mussaenda offers many opportunities.
Enhancing the Mussaenda’s Beautiful Tropical Dogwood Flower
This is a plant we appreciate for its flowers. To ensure blooms, the key requirements are sun for six hours, regular water, superior drainage, and modest, regular fertilizer applied during the blooming season only.
Is Mussaenda A Plant For Pollinators?
The small, actual flower of the Mussaenda is a deep trumpet-shaped bloom. This means that it will attract both butterflies and hummingbirds and appeal to those butterflies with a long proboscis.
Use Mussaenda To Add A Tropical Touch To your Garden
Use the plant in sunny or afternoon shade locations wherever you need a shrub or a border. They will create privacy and color for at least three seasons of the year. The colorful presentation is useful as a small specimen tree. (In late fall we prune our tropical dogwood to control the size.)
What If My Climate Is Too Cold For Tropical Mussaenda?
If your garden is north of Hardiness Zone 9, there are varieties to grow in containers and one is advertised as a house plant. Check the headings below for descriptions and plant dealers to talk to.
Growing Mussaenda In Our Garden
Mussaenda, in our Zone 10 South Florida garden, blooms for all but the coldest part of the year and will lose leaves during a rare cold snap. The shrub we see at dinner or from the pool is covered with blooms in the color you see in the photo below. It is a true feature of the garden.
It is the luscious, cloudy flower that entices us and as often happens in tropical blooms, the parts we admire are sepals (modified leaves) that surround the tiny star-like flower. You will see this plant advertised as tropical dogwood. The plant can become elongated and vinelike and will require regular pruning.
Mussaenda Genus-What’s Included
Mussaenda is a genus of flowering plants in the Rubiaceae family. Rubiaceae is the Madder family and is largely found in tropical locations. (It is the common madder plant whose roots produced the dark red dye that colored the ancient world. We think that the Romans brought the dye to Egypt, and the rest, as they say, is history.) The Rubiaceae family includes 619 genera and over 13,000 species. We will see only a small fraction of these plants in cultivation, but they will add ornamental value to our gardens. Coffee, Gardenia, and Ixora are familiar Rubiaceae family members.
Mussaenda Tropical Dogwood-Essential Knowledge
Mussaenda, a woody flowering shrub and small tree, comes to us from its native ranges in tropical and subtropical parts of Asia and Africa. Valued for its luxurious, lush, and cloud-like blossoms, it appears to be greatly appreciated in its native regions and growing in appreciation in other areas. We are seeing more of these plants in Central and South Florida.
This map, from Kew Science will show you the native areas of the plant.
To appreciate how the Mussaenda can enhance our gardens, it is helpful to understand the ‘cloud-like’ blossom. A flower is encased in a protective leafy structure called the Calyx, which is made up of leaf-like elements called sepals. In Mussaenda, each tiny flower is attached to a larger, more colorful sepal. Note that plant breeders can increase the number of sepals per flower and thus enhance the appearance of the plant.
The Mussaenda Family
The family Rubiaceae includes coffee, gardenia, Ixora, and the tiny pentas flowers. Importantly, they are distributed throughout most areas of the world. If you are looking at an area of tropical tree understory woody plants, you are most likely looking at members of the Rubiaceae family.
The Genus Mussaenda
There is some debate about the species of Mussaenda, and in a time of constant DNA testing of plants, it is always wise to check on your plants. We are constantly learning more about the features of plants that can help us grow and maintain them.
In this species, each flower produces one large, colorful sepal. In hybrid plants, a flower will produce multiple sepals and thus appear more colorful.
If you would like a quick review of Family, Genus, species, varieties, cultivars, and other issues in Botanical nomenclature, read “Latin for Gardeners.” I hope it helps.
Varieties of Mussaenda (Tropical Dogwood) Plants
While the species of Mussaenda are many and still under discussion, most plants that growers and garden centers will offer you will fall into these few species. I am listing them in the order in which I see them offered to me in garden centers and gardens I frequent.
This plant described below is what we grow in our garden. You see two plants in the featured image at the start of this article. One with almost iridescent white blooms and one with a lush peach color.
- Mussaenda philippica ‘Dona Luz’-and Donna Aurora have a lush, rose or peony-like bloom, although much looser in style; we have a few of these in our backyard behind the pool, and their color is a beautiful peach and white.
- I read that many varieties of this plant are named for the First Ladies of the Phillippines. (I don’t know who Dona Luz was, but she was a stylish dresser! In addition to the salmon color, you will find cultivars of this plant in beautiful, pale shades of pink, red, rose, white, and some mixtures.
This is the variety we have the most experience with, and while it does suffer in cold weather, it snaps back with pruning and is a very reliable bloomer. (Wait to prune cold-damaged branches until any risk of frost is past.)
Some Varieties You Will See Offered By Dealers And Garden Centers
You will frequently see these plants if your grower or dealer handles tropical shrubs.
- Mussaenda philippica-also called the Bangkok Rose, has sepals in a variety of colors, and the flower is pink or yellow. It is native to the Phillippines, Indonesia, and New Guinea. In our subtropical climate, these are the most popular varieties. They provide us with large, commanding plants that create a color feature in the garden.
- Mussaenda erythrophylla-which has deep red sepals and a small white flower with red centers. It is an evergreen shrub native to West Africa.
- Mussaenda glabra-With white sepals which have slightly green veins, it is found in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Phillippines. It is a smaller plant, at two to three feet in height.
- Psudomussaenda flava-Is a dwarf or standard yellow shrub; it is a related species and is native to Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It has a strikingly charming sepal, oval and smaller than many others, and of a delicate creamy yellow/white color with a yellow flower. We see these in our local botanical garden and grow a larger creamy white Mussaenda. These colors are extremely effective in a moon garden. It is sold as a desirable container plant that can be brought inside for the winter.
- Mussaenda frondosa-With reddish orange petals and white sepals, this is a dwarf version. It is native to India. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Phillippines. Mussaenda frondosa is one plant I have seen offered as a house plant. If your climate is colder than zone 9 and you really would love a Mussaenda, this might be the one for you. See the information I found on dealers below in the summary.
New Cultivars to Look For
In developing new cultivars of Mussaenda, note that successful efforts are being made to develop flowers that produce multiple sepals. This greatly enhances the lush and fluffy effect we appreciate from the plant. Look for these features when buying plants.
Mussaenda In The Plant List-(What’s the Plant List-How to Use It)
The Plant List, developed as a collaboration between The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, is designed to be a comprehensive list of all vascular plants (have xylem and phloem.) and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts.) It has different versions and is considered to be a work in progress. For us gardeners, it is a valuable place to find information we can use.
Here is a link to its list of Mussaenda plants. Assume that these lists are enhanced over time and check back. I find this a useful source for plant research.
How To Plant And Grow The Mussaenda-Tropical Dogwood
How To Plant Mussaenda
Plant Mussaenda in a space where you will appreciate its large blooms and bold color, with sufficient room for a large shrub or small tree. Dig a hole twice the size of the root mass and plant at the same depth as in the container. To finish, backfill and water deeply as you plant.
Light Conditions For Mussaenda
The plant will perform best in full to partial sun with some shade in the hottest part of the day. This is especially true in tropical climates. Approximately six hours of sun will be sufficient.
The Best Soil For Mussaenda
Excellent drainage is the key for Mussaenda plants, and the best soil is fertile and organically rich. It performs well in slightly sandy soil. The preferred pH for the plant is below 7, slightly acid to neutral. The soil in our garden was initially alkaline, and with regular soil amendment supports the Mussaenda.
Improving Your Soil
If you start with a garden space in need of soil amendment try this. Test the soil first, your county agricultural Extension service will help you. Testing will tell you what amendments you will need. if extensive improvements are needed (we started with sand and rocks) it’s best to expect a multi-year project and do each planting bed at a time, taking on as much as you can handle.
Water and Fertilizer For Mussaenda
Mussaenda is a relatively low-maintenance plant; it performs best with regular water; allow the soil to dry down to 1-2″ before adding more water. Our shrubs adjust to our tropical climate with dry winters and wet summers with no trouble. We use a general fertilizer once each month in March, June, and September. Buy a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer and follow the instructions on the package. Do not over-fertilize Mussaenda, which can cause leaf burn.
Pruning And Ongoing Maintenance For Mussaenda
Prune in late winter or spring when new growth is beginning. This pruning can be the hardest. You can prune again in summer to maintain the plant shape but try to avoid damaging the beautiful flowers.
The shrub can have an open and gangly shape, and in the wild, the plant will grow, in a vinelike manner, into adjoining trees. Regular pruning will contain and shape the plant. Mussaenda is a rapidly growing plant, be observant for stem breakage and prune any damaged material.
Pests And Diseases Of Mussaenda
Healthy Mussaenda plants will attract few pests and diseases. Well-drained soil is important; avoiding wet soil will also avoid fungal diseases. Permitting standing water or constantly wet soil is the one error most likely to cause failure with Mussaenda.
Starting Mussaenda In Containers-Propagation
We start our cuttings in containers and then plant them in the ground. In our garden, we like a view of the pond we live on but have a need for privacy, and this large shrub makes a good contribution. Many gardeners do grow Mussaenda in large containers. Expect the container plants to reach about three feet in height, and also expect to water container plants on a daily basis. A drip system will be convenient.
Take cuttings from the woody stems and use rooting powder. Yellow and white varieties are described as the more difficult to propagate. Our hands-on experience is limited to the Mussaenda philippica, which we find easy to deal with. This is a project to grow cuttings commercially on the island of Barbados. It describes the techniques used and their success rate with different varieties. If you hope to propagate your plants, you may find it useful.
Can I Grow Mussaenda As A Container Or House Plant?
Mussaenda plants that will reach ten feet in height in the ground will stay at two to three feet in containers. This includes the showy Mussaenda philippica. Use a high-quality general-purpose or tropical plant potting mix and expect to water potted plants daily.
The peach-colored plant is taller. it is the oldest, and the white is at the end of a planting bed and is, therefore, more susceptible to cold winds across the pond. The white plant was damaged during one of our rare cold nights, trimmed in spring, and is regrowing.
A Mussaenda Grown As A House Plant
This is the Mussaenda frondosa, an evergreen tropical shrub with a rounded shape. You can keep this plant in pots to a mature height of one to three feet. In the ground, it will reach ten feet in height.
The small five-petaled orange flowers grow in clusters, but the creamy sepals create the show!
Overwinter your Mussaenda in containers in a warm area with bright light.
For gardens in hardiness Zones 9-11, the Mussaenda can add a colorful, tropical element to your environment. Potted plants can succeed in other areas if you can provide a bright light environment over the winter.
The plant’s needs are few but specific. The Mussaenda needs to have the following:
- Bright light for six hours
- Well-drained soil
- Regular water, add water when the soil is dry for one to two inches down. Water potted plants daily.
How To Find Mussaenda
In tropical or subtropical climates, this is a plant for specialty nurseries. In other climates, expect to buy your plants online from a specialist. Here are a few names. Check the websites and dealers’ locations. In the Mussaenda world, many of the successful dealers are in Asia. The below are US-based plant dealers we know.
Literature on this plant is limited. These are two sources I appreciate and use often.
This is a profile from the University of Florida
This is the Plant Finder article from the Missouri Botanical Garden
If you like YouTube, there are many videos about Mussaenda. Some are not in English, and others use materials we are not familiar with, but they can be helpful and are made by people who appreciate the plants.
Other Plants That Will Add Tropical Flair To Your Garden
- Agapanthus for Containers
- Calla Lilies
- Canna Lilies
- Canna Lily Rhizomes
- Elephant Ears
- Flowering Trees-(about half are tropical trees with links to the individual trees.)