The shrimp plant is an odd piece of botanical work that shows off flowers with long, overlapping, segmented bracts, which make each blossom resemble a—you guessed it—shrimp. And on a full blooming bush, it looks like All You Can Eat Night at a seafood restaurant.
Shrimp plant, botanically known as Justicia brandegeana, is a tropical perennial native to Mexico, and this should give you a clue as to its hardiness. In our region, shrimp plants will not survive typical winters outdoors, as they are deemed hardy only up to USDA Zone 9 and marginal in Zone 8. Interestingly, it is related to the classic acanthus, a hardier but less sun tolerant plant that displays a similar yet more open bloom structure.
The shrimp plant has been successfully used here as a houseplant. However, its long-lasting, odd-shaped blooms have also enticed gardeners to take it outside to the garden, either as a potted specimen or for use as a summer annual that will dependably continue to show off into the fall season.
A happy shrimp plant can reach four to five feet high and three feet wide—not exactly a shrimp of a plant! However, for small gardens, it can be tip pruned early in the growing season to produce a shorter, bushier plant.
With the species plant, the shrimp-like bracts start out orange-red and taper to a yellow or greenish yellow. At this point, the true flowers—small, pendulant, whitish tubes that hummingbirds and butterflies love—emerge. Gardeners looking for brighter color can try the cultivar ‘Yellow Queen’, which has bracts that are a solid, sizzling yellow.
Both selections will exhibit a long season of blooms on healthy plants. In the summer, the plant can be used as a visual anchor in a perennial border or as a small shrub providing a focal point just about anywhere in a sunny landscape.
Shrimp plants perform best in well-worked, loamy or sandy soil with lots of compost. And a sunny location that gets some shade in the afternoon is an ideal spot. They can tolerate drought, but more moist conditions will encourage better bloom production. Note that “moist” doesn’t mean “soggy,” as this plant will suffer in waterlogged soil. Usually, a two to three-inch layer of mulch will conserve enough moisture to help sustain a healthy plant.
Generally, these plants are trouble-free when it comes to diseases. Insect problems are also rare, but if they do appear, it will probably be mealy bugs, whiteflies, aphids or spider mites. And as a bonus for gardeners who are constantly on guard against Bambi, shrimp plants are not considered the catch-of-the-day for plant-hungry deer.
Photo courtesy of L.A. Jackson.
L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. If you would like to ask L.A. a question about your garden, contact him at [email protected]