Keys Homes
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Copperleaf is the drag queen of the plant world

By ROBIN ROBINSON The Key West Garden Club

Copperleaf's multicolored red and green psychedelic leaves flame into the garden adding a extravagant jolts of color to an otherwise green landscape. She dresses herself like a flashy drag queen, and she doesn't mind putting on this performance year-round.

A plethora of common names apply to the showy copperleaf. "Match-me if you can" is a game children play in which they try to find matching leaves. Another name, Jacob's coat, is as ostentatious as the colorful copperleaf in the garden. It is easy to imagine a fire dragon breathing fire to color the red and black leaves. In some gardener's mind, the leaves resemble the Irish petticoats of a flirtatious young woman. There are so many cultivars and so many names that the gardener cannot trust the common names.

There are more than 430 species of Copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana) with leaves as varied as its close relatives, the crotons. The common variety, found in Key West, have unmistakable alternate elliptical to oval leaves that are multi-colored and five to eight inches long. The edges of the leaves are strongly serrated like saw-teeth. Because there are 430 species, the variety of leave's size, shape and their dazzling colors all vary extensively. Colors include pink, brown, green, bronze, chartreuse, coral, white, yellow and the ubiquitous reds. Patterns on the leaves occur with no rhyme or reason.

Small flowers grow on multiple vertical racemes four to eight-inches long that emanate from the terminal branches. Blossoms don't need to be showy as the leaves are quite splendid, but they are sweet enough to attract the insect world for pollination. Both male and female flowers exist on the plant in harmony, I might add.

Copperleaf grows in well-drained alkaline soil but likes a bit of humus. If in drought conditions they drop leaves giving them a smaller area to keep moist. They may get leggy if watered too much. Cutting them back makes them bushier. Cut them down to one to two feet every couple of years. Heat and sun loving copperleaf survives in dappled shade and grows almost everywhere except where there is strong salt wind which damages its leaves. Copperleaf, like many Key West transplants, does not survive freezing.

They can be easily propagated from green stem cuttings dipped in root tone and planted in a small pot. Stick them in a glass of water and watch the roots grow, a new sport for those of us over 65. New plants grow quickly. A single plant may produce as many as 12,500 seeds a year.

Copperleaf is in the Euphorbiaceae Family (spurge) that also contains poinsettia, crown of thorns, chenille plant and castor beans. These are not look-alike cousins. The exotic lands of Fiji and other South Pacific islands originally produced this extravagant shrub.

Here we use them in massive hedges as well as a spot of gaudiness in a tame landscape.

An invasive papaya mealy bug that likes to eat frangipani and hibiscus can attack copperleaf. Mites and scale scar the copperleaf, especially if its roots are too wet.

Plant the luscious lady in your lawn and enjoy her flamboyant leaves.


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 This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit

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