Since we have been on a butterfly garden theme for a few weeks, we cannot overlook a beautiful flower that many people might not know about – Pentas. Pentas lanceolata are native to east Africa and southern Arabia where they grow as sub-shrubs with woody stems at the base and herbaceous stems above. Pentas are only perennials in USDA zones 9 -11, but they can easily be grown as annuals, and they are quite adored by butterflies and hummingbirds. Pentas may not be as well-known as some flowers, but it’s a fact that they are a delight to butterflies, hummingbirds and gardeners alike!
Some flowers, like vinca and coleus, are known by their Latin name and not by a common name. The same is true for Pentas. There are a few common names for the flower (starflower, Egyptian star flower, Egyptian star clusters, and Egyptian stars), but they are used more outside of the United States. Pentas is a descriptive name and the Greek word for five. The dense clusters are made of long-tubed, star-shaped flowers, and each flower has five floral petals. The clusters can reach 3 – 4 inches across, and their colors are in vivid shades of white, pink, red, and lavender. Some are two-toned and all are extremely attractive to butterflies, and the red and dark pink varieties are loved by the hummingbirds. The contrasting dark green leaves are lance-shaped, 3 inches long and deeply veined. The attractive foliage provides the perfect back-drop for the prolific clusters of flowers.
Pentas are very well suited to containers, planters, and hanging baskets. For large garden beds, Pentas are beautiful in mass plantings. They perform best in fertile, well-drained soils with regular moisture. They will flower in full sun and in light shade. Less than 6 hours of sun will reduce flowering. Prepare a bed by adding 3 to 4 inches of organic matter and tilling it into the soil. A soil pH of 7 is preferred, so in acidic soil, add lime into the soil before tilling. Once the plants are established, they are fairly drought and heat tolerant. Pentas have a fast growth rate, and their growth habit creates a rounded, dense plant. In their native habitat, Pentas grow 3 – 6 feet in height, but in non-tropical climates, they can reach 24 – 30 inches in height and about the same in width. There are also dwarf varieties that only reach 12 inches. When grown in containers, incorporate a slow-release fertilizer into the potting soil.
If you live in a warm climate zone, Pentas will bloom throughout most of the year. Each winter, prune plants back to encourage a compact, bushy growth habit. In USDA zone 8, apply heavy mulch over the plants after they have been cut back to the ground to help them over winter. In colder zones, Pentas can be dug, cut back and stored in soil. While storing, water the plants occasionally to keep the roots from drying out and then re-plant in the spring once danger of frosts have passed and fertilize. To help Pentas have a bountiful supply of blooms, fertilize regularly throughout the growing season and remove the spent flower clusters. The dwarf varieties are also grown as house plants in bright, sunny windows.
Propagation is by cuttings or from seed. Start the Pentas seed indoors in late winter. The seeds are tiny so do not cover them with soil as they require light for germination. When grown from seed, about 14 weeks are required to produce a blooming plant, and a good light source is needed for proper growth. Pinch back the early growth in order to encourage bushier plants.
Gardeners have said that butterflies will visit Pentas before any other flowers, and that butterflies can be seen circling the flower clusters waiting for their turn to enjoy the rich nectar. Pentas offer a profusion of color, wonderful nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds, and they require so little maintenance. In addition … it may be difficult to bring yourself to cut some of these gorgeous flowers, but they are excellent for cutting and do well in the vase. Wow, what an amazing flower to add to your summer landscape!
Question for the week: Have you heard of Pentas?
By Kimberly Bell