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Linda Naeve, Reiman Gardens, (515) 294-2710,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

Copperleaf Plant Attracts Attention Indoors and Outdoors

By Linda Naeve
Extension Coordinator
Reiman Gardens

Several children's groups come to Reiman Gardens for tours. Last fall, while leading a class of fifth graders around the gardens, I asked if there were any questions. A boy quickly raised his hand and asked the name of a plant growing in a large container near the entrance. He wasn't the first person to ask about the large, colorful plant, however, it did surprise me that it appeals to young gardeners as well as old. That plant is this week's Reiman's Pick – copperleaf, Acalypha wilkesiana macafeana.

Copperleaf, sometimes referred to as beefsteak plant, attracts attention with its unusual, colorful variegated leaves. The large leaves are mottled in red, copper and pink. The color varies from leaf to leaf and appear as if someone randomly colored the areas between the veins. It resembles some large-leafed coleus cultivars, however, the leaves are not uniformly variegated like coleus leaves. Although it is grown for its foliage, it does produce long, slender spikes of greenish-pink flowers.

Copperleaf is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family. In other words, it is a relative of the popular poinsettia. Other common plants in this family include the spurges, donkey tail, crown-of-thorns and castor bean plant. Like many relatives, however, it doesn't look anything like its cousins.

Copperleaf is native to Fiji and neighboring South Pacific islands. In its native habitat it is an evergreen shrub that may grow 10 to 15 feet tall. In Iowa it is grown as an annual or indoor plant. It is best grown as a container plant so it can easily be moved indoors in the fall before it freezes. When brought indoors, it should be placed where it gets as much direct sunlight as possible.

Use a quality potting soil when planting copperleaf in containers. The soil should be light, porous and provide good drainage. Copperleaf will grow quite rapidly outdoors, so it may outgrow its container in a single season and require repotting. It is best to repot it in the spring when it is taken outdoors for the summer. Plant it into a slightly larger pot containing fresh potting soil.

After the last spring freeze, gradually acclimate copperleaf to the bright sunny outdoors. Place it in a shady location at first, then after a week or so move it where it will get full sun to partial shade.

Keep the soil consistently moist, but not soggy. If the soil dries out, the plant will react by quickly dropping its leaves. Fortunately, if it isn't too drought-stressed, it will produce new leaves.

Copperleaf looks best as a full, bushy plant. To achieve this, remove or pinch an inch or so of growth from the ends of the shoots. This promotes branching for a bush-like appearance. To rejuvenate old and straggly plants, cut them back in the spring to a height of 8 to 12 inches.

Like coleus, copperleaf can easily be propagated from stem cuttings. The Reiman Gardens horticulturists take cuttings in the spring from the new growth on stock plants. They take 4- to 6-inch long cuttings, remove the lowest leaves and insert them in moist perlite for quick rooting.

You can see copperleaf and one of its many relatives, the chenille plant (Acalypha hispida) with its long pendulous pink flowers, in the Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing at Reiman Gardens. The large copperleaf plants add a beautiful accent among the nectar flowers and the bright, colorful butterflies.


Editors: A color photo, suitable for publication, is available at right. Click on the thumbnail photo to go to the fullsized photo. The fullsize photo is 320K.

Caption: Copperleaf plant (Acalypha wilkesiana macafeana).


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