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Alternanthera Became a Popular Victorian Plant for Bedding

The alternanthera is grown for its leaves.

It was a popular plant in beds during the nineteenth century both in England and in America.

In the 1880 issue of Philadelphia seedsman Thomas Meehan’s Gardener’s Monthly M. Digram wrote an article called “The Alternanthera as a Lawn Plant.”  He said, “A carpet-like effect may be producted with the Alternanthera on a smooth lawn in the following manner: cut strips  or figures out of the turf of any shape determined on, from three to four inches deep, and in width of the ordinary mowing machine.”

alternanthera 'Purple Knight'
Alternanthera ‘Purple Knight’

Today the alternanthera comes in many varieties. It is a genus of approximately eighty herbaceous plant species in the Amaranth family.

Alternanthera ficoidia, or in its common name Joseph’s Coat, is native to Mexico and Brazil and is related to celosia and gomphrena. It thrives in full sun with fertile, loamy, well-drained soil. You grow the plant for its colorful leaves, not its flower. The plant lasts in the garden till frost.

Hybridizers cross plants to get a stronger, more desirable variety.  That has happened with the Alternanthera.

Researchers at the Athens Select Trial Gardens in Georgia have evaluated hundreds of plants it receives every year from breeders around the world.  Two of them are now the alternanthera varieties called ‘Red Threads’ and ‘Summer Flame’.

Allan Armitage, professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia where the Trial Gardens are located, says, “Only the plants that prove to be outstanding performers under the South’s oppressively hot and humid conditions are selected.  These alternanthera met and surpassed our quality standards.”

The 5-inch ‘Red Threads’ features beautiful, deep burgundy-colored foliage that’s almost grass-like with its narrow leaves.  It forms a dense mound.  ‘Summer Flame’ is also low growing, only 6 inches, buts its foliage appears broader and is multi-colored in pink, white and green tones.

American seed catalogs of the nineteenth century often listed the alternanthera.  In the home landscape the plant appeared in beds, but also in containers.

What people like about this plant is that you can trim it to stay a height that you would like.  The plant takes the cutting and still grows quite well.  The new foliage looks great after shearing.

The alternanthera continues to be a popular plant in the garden.


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