The Biscayne Times

Feb 23rd
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Written by Jeff Shimonski, BT Contributor   
January 2018

Newest leaves offer a surprising splash of color

TPix_YourGarden_1-18here is no greater thrill for a horticulturist than walking through your garden and finding a surprise, something special that has emerged since your last visit. Several times a year, my Kentiopsis magnifica palm sends out a brand-new leaf that’s colored a brilliant red. The color only lasts a couple of weeks before the leaf gradually turns green like the rest of the fronds.

There’s really no sure answer as to why the newly emerged leaf is red. It could be protection from bright light while the frond is growing and building new cells that will tolerate bright light or full sun. New leaves emerge red on many species of trees; check out the new foliage on your mango or avocado tree.

Of course, some reds, other colors, or variegated foliage are permanent -- for instance, on bromeliads, crotons, and some dracaenas. These shadings are different and often aid or regulate photosynthesis. The colorful foliage on poinsettias that we see every December is due to the length of the day. The shorter days cause the color on the leaves to change.

The foliage of many species of bromeliads will turn red when gradually exposed to full sun. This occurs naturally when deciduous trees drop their leaves and suddenly let in the bright light. When the tree canopy re-foliates, the bromeliads turn green again. This adaptation helps the bromeliad keep its valuable foliage from burning in the sun. Remember, the foliage is the food-making machinery for the plant, and when the foliage is damaged, that plant also loses that much food-making ability to grow, produce flowers, and propagate.

I used this color trait when installing bromeliads displays at Parrot Jungle. Under conditions of bright light, many bromeliads exhibit a much “tighter,” more symmetrical, rosette of leaves; so we’d grow them in brighter light. When the bromeliad would put out a red or orange flower spike (inflorescence), I’d put the plant in less light a few months before the inflorescence fully emerged so that the foliage would become darker to contrast with the inflorescence.

Some bromeliads are more striking in bright light or full sun. The very appropriately named Neoregelia “fireball” is one of the many smaller Neoregelia species that are striking in bright light. Remember, the move to more light should be gradual so the leaves don’t burn.

The West Indian almond, or Terminalia catappa, puts on a nice show every fall when its foliage turns bright orange or red. This happens to many deciduous trees, even in temperate climes, but the color is from the transfer of nutrients in the leaf to the tree for storage before the leaf drops off. That way the tree saves resources for the next round of new foliage, flowers, and fruit.

There are many species of palms whose new leaves are red. A palm that has been found in South Florida gardens for years is Chambeyronia microcarpa, the flame thrower palm. A palm named in honor of Lucinda Wait, the former executive secretary of The Palm Society, is Ptychosperma waitianum, a thin-trunked palm whose newly emerged leaf is red. All these palms used to be vulnerable to the cold of our South Florida winters. I lost a nice specimen of Ptychosperma waitianum to frost many years ago, but that no longer seems to be an issue with our much warmer winters.

At Jungle Island we planted hundreds of Dioon spinulosum, a Central American cycad species. The clumps of new foliage, 10 to 15 leaves that emerge together, would be green, with the exception of a couple of plants. These appeared to be a different species, and when their new foliage emerged, it would be a bright pink.

I grow my Kentiopsis magnifica in a large container so it doesn’t compete with all the other plants growing in the ground. I have many large palms that have dense root systems, and smaller, more delicate plants have difficulty competing with these large root systems. It also gives me an opportunity to move the palm around the garden. When the new red leaf emerges, I move it to a location where it can be noticed, like in front of my office window.

Many of my more diminutive palm species are in containers. These aren’t like tree species whose roots will circle around the inside of the pot and become a permanent liability when the tree is planted in the ground because the roots never straighten out (these trees tend to blow over quickly in high winds). I’m sure everyone saw enough of these failed trees after hurricane Irma. However, palms can be grown in pots for years without major root issues.


Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified arborist municipal specialist, retired director of horticulture at Parrot Jungle and Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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