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Sunday, June 2, 2013
Cuba's white horse flower as lovely as its namesake

By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club

Lady Elizabeth Noel, the Duchess of Portland (1636-1680) whose husband was the Governor of Jamaica, was the eldest daughter and co-heir of Wriothesley Baptist, 2nd Earl of Gainsborough. If you care about those things.

In a painting by 17th century artist, Sir Peter Lely, her hair is parted in the middle with curly ringlets in her coiffure. She's wearing a dark tan dress over a white chemise with a low trapezoidal bejeweled décolletage with blue shawl is flung over her full skirt. She looks quite enchanting. Evidently, she impressed a botanist who gave her title to the newly discovered white horse flower, Portlandia latifolia, the glorious flower of Cuba.

The plant lives up to the beauty of the Duchess of Portlandia. Growing from 6 to 20 feet in height its glossy dark-green leaves emerge a ruddy pink. There are several varieties, grandiflora, latifolia and albiflora, which grow to different heights and widths with different sized flowers. The original trunk growth is from a single stem, but as the shrub ages it becomes bushier and can be 20 feet in width. Tan bark becomes strongly fissured, like a buttonwood, when older. If kept in a container, the plant will remain 3 to 5 feet tall.

The glossy, leathery elliptic leaves are four inches long. They set off the white trumpet shaped flowers.

Pale green pleated buds emerge looking like long chandelier drops. They pop open revealing a star-shaped trumpet blossom with pale-pink lines and yellow stamen. Each of the five-lobed petals curls backwards. Several flowers blossom from terminal branches at the same time if it has rained. Blossoms smell like chocolate or vanilla in the evening and attract night-pollinating moths and develop 3 inch blooms consistently throughout the year. Fruit consists of plump black pods that easily germinate when fresh.

I've always wondered why insects choose one flower and not another. According to Science Magazine, flowers emit a slight negative charge. When their nectar is fully fecund, the charge changes to positive which the insect can detect. That change signals the insect that dinner is served.

Portlandia grows well in the Keys. She survives in xeriscaped land and tolerates drought and well-drained alkaline soil. Portlandia does not like the cold or salt wind and will lose leaves and die back. But if the cold is of short duration, she will re-sprout. The Lady likes dappled shade and should be planted under a canopy parasol.

In its native Jamaica, it grows in rocky woodlands as an understory shrub but even in Jamaica it is uncommon. Jamaica's National Arboretum Foundation at Hope Gardens began propagating them a few years ago to encourage their growth. The specimen that is at the Garden Club came from Fairchild Gardens.

NOTES:

The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, learn to propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. till noon on Mondays.

Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.