In the garden: a touch of the Brazilian rainforest right here at home

Growing pineapples in Scotland? I don’t know if they ever have, but the possibility arose when I read the story of Scottish horticulturist Sir James Justice.

He was a notorious figure in Scottish gardening in the early 18th century. He wrote bestselling books on the subject, and when explorers started coming back with newly discovered plants, he must have had them. An obsessive gardener, he spent so much money on these new species and on botanical experiments that he almost went bankrupt.

One of his experiments is rumored to be a pineapple stove, a means of heating the ground to grow pineapples in a cold climate. His idea was going nowhere, but by the end of the 19th century, pineapples were actually grown in cold frames on heated ground.

Unfortunately, Sir James put his hobby and profession ahead of his family, which contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. He was also expelled from the Royal Society Fellowship after investing too much money in greenhouses and soil mixes.

And yet, although he is not a household name, he lives in the world of botany. He was honored when an entire genus of plants was named justicia, and there are over 70 species in the genus justicia. Well done, Jim.

These plants are native to tropical and warm temperate areas around the world, including Brazil, where they grow in the Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic Forest ecoregion. Although qualified as an ecoregion, 90% of the original area has unfortunately been deforested.

This is where justicia carnea, the plant that now grows in the corner of my garden, was born, except the particular plant came from a local garden center. It is an evergreen shrub with large dark green leaves and beautiful feathery flowers. It is unlikely to reach its maximum height of 1.5 meters in my garden. It’s only a few feet tall, and that’s because I dug it up and stored it every fall. I guess I can say I’m trying to save an endangered species. It is a perennial in Brazil, and must be a fine sight growing wild, or grown in someone’s front yard in Rio.

It’s its third summer in my garden and it’s almost at the top of my ever-growing list of favorite plants. The leaves drop off when I store them dormant, but they would keep them like other tropical plants if they were in a conservatory – justicia carnea is sometimes sold as a decorative houseplant.

It’s those distinctive flowers that make it a hit. They are the size of a hand – OK, small hands. The petals are tubular and as the flower opens further it shows why it has the common name Brazilian plume or flamingo flower. I would call it pink rose, but shades of pink can be subjective. I guess you don’t need me to point out that carnea, the species name, comes from the Latin for flesh color.

Justice pink

There is a pure white variety called alba, which I also grew. It didn’t overwinter successfully, probably because it wasn’t mature enough. I have more success with shrubby plants when they have developed woody stems.


Anyway, my current justicia is a beauty, and I planted her in the perfect spot because she’s grown so well this year. It’s in my Brazilian rainforest; i.e. a corner of my shady side yard where the soil is rich in organic matter and moist like a damp sponge.

Although old Jim gave his name to this genre, he never traveled to the rainforests of Brazil. I’m not sure he ever left Scotland, so maybe he was honored for his work on those mysterious pineapple pans.