Leadwort, the common name assigned to the flowering members of the Plumbaginaceae family, are ordinary garden plants that initially originated in China. It has gained its unsound name from the Latin words plumbum, which means ‘lead’ and agere, meaning ‘resemblance.’ Now, the plant doesn’t exactly resemble the metal lead, but the powdery blue color of its flowers is slightly reminiscent of the identically-colored residue of lead. It is also rumored that a Greek botanist, Pliny the Elder, thought that it could be a cure for lead poisoning. That is how the pretty plant of Leadwort is said to have acquired its distasteful name.
Perhaps this tough perennial plant is not appreciated for its beauty and strength as much as it should be. The small vivid flowers and the impressive foliage falling all around it make for a refreshing and pleasant sight in any garden. The plant is non-invasive and low-maintenance and serves as the perfect ground-cover for your garden.
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Known to botanists as ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Leadwort is a perennial plant, which grows easily in backyards and gardens, and persists all year round. It sprouts bluish-purple flowers that are 3-4 inches in diameter, and the green foliage takes on a reddish tint in the winters.
Though it can take time to emerge from its shell and start growing, once it does, Leadwort tends to grow faster than other perennials and often outgrows all surrounding perennial plants. It is often used as a ground cover, complementing gardens with daffodils, sunflowers, and hyacinths.
Leadworts are herbaceous plants, which means they don’t have any woody stems above ground.
Leadworts tend to grow up to 6-12 inches, sprouting glossy, green leaves falling down in trails and decorated with a spattering of bluish or often whitish flowers. The flowers grow more persistently as winter approaches.
They are colonizing, creeper plants which grow and spread horizontally. They grow new shallow roots on the ground they cover, and sprout up new shoots from there, eventually covering a large area of land. They are fast, aggressive growers, but are not known to be invasive.
Found easily in cosmopolitan cities and backyards, leadworts or plumbagos are touted for their tolerance to harsh growing conditions, droughty soil and all sorts of pests. Though they grow far more easily and all year round in warmer, more tropical areas, leadworts are found in abundance in areas with little resemblance to its origin country, too.
This plant should be planted in drained soil that is wealthy in organic compost content. The plant grows best in slightly acidic and well-aerated soil and needs a sunny (6+ hours of sunlight) or slightly shady (4-6 hours of sunlight) location to grow in, though leadwort adapts to sandy and clay-like soil, too.
Leadwort is semi-evergreen in warmer, tropical geographic areas, and deciduous in the colder, northern spaces. Reproduction is done asexually by trimming plant stems, or sexually through the dispersion of their flower seeds.
Types of Leadwort Flowers
The Plant List approves and states 17 official species of ceratostigma plumbaginoides which are widely accepted throughout the world. These 17 species are as follows:
- Plumbago amplexicaulis
- Plumbago aphylla
- Plumbago auriculata
- Plumbago ciliata
- Plumbago coerulea
- Plumbago dawei
- Plumbago europaea.
- Plumbago glandulicaulis
- Plumbago indica
- Plumbago madagascariensis
- Plumbago montis-elgonis
- Plumbago pearsonii
- Plumbago pulchella
- Plumbago stenophylla
- Plumbago tristis
- Plumbago wissii
- Plumbago zeylanica
Each of them differs slightly in their growing conditions, flower colors, and other specifics. The most popular among garden tenders and planters are perhaps Plumbago auriculata and Plumbago ciliata.
Of the 17 species available, we’ll discuss some of the most popular ones below.
Perhaps the leadwort plant that we’re all familiar with, Plumbago auriculata can be seen everywhere. From lining the sidewalks in the parks to adorning the bare ground in your garden, this particular species of leadwort is perhaps the most popular one in the plumbago family. It is commonly known as Blue Plumbago because of the deep or pale blue color of its cup-shaped flowers. It is also famous as Cape Leadwort or Cape Plumbago because of its place of origin; Cape Town, in South Africa.
The Latin term ‘auriculata’ refers to the shape of its leaves and literally means ‘with ears.’ The broad leaves are glossy green, oblong and ear-like, and grow up to 3 inches long.
The flowers, which are the defining factor of Cape leadwort, are pale blue, deep blue, or violet in color. The plant gained its nickname ‘imperial blue’, owing to the same fact. There are even varieties which have white flowers, although they are lesser-known. The 5-petaled flowers grow in clusters, known as terminal racemes, and they bloom throughout the growing season, which is generally from July to pre-winter. The tubular flowers are usually topped with barbed, fruit capsules that are dry and small. The flowers excrete a slightly sticky substance on their undersides that makes the flowers stick to the hands or clothes.
Plumbago auriculata’s twigs are weak and grow about 6-10 inches off the ground, spreading horizontally as well as vertically. The foliage, though impressive, can grow aggressively and quickly, taking over all surrounding plants and shrubs. It needs regular maintenance, every 3 months or so. Its twigs can be pruned and cut to keep it in shape, and to keep it reproducing naturally.
Plumbago auriculata is a tough one. It can withstand harsh weather conditions, a characteristic that enables it to survive in zone 9; Florida and other surrounding areas, even though the environment and weather are so very different from what these flowers were used to in South Africa.
Known as Common Leadwort and European Plumbago, this is another popular species of Leadwort, mostly found in Central Asia and Southern Europe, as indicated by its name. Decorating fences and sandy beaches in European countries like Albania, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Romania, this particular species of plumbago is also one of the better-known ones.
The flowers on common leadwort are quite different from those on Plumbago auriculata, and they bear a striking resemblance to those of carnivorous plants. The 5 lobes of the flower are oblong and connate, drooping down on the outside, while the color ranges from a dusty pink to lilac. It has a fruit cone emerging from the center of the flower, which grows to be about 5-8cm with the same type of barbs around it.
The European Plumbago has woody stems and is known to grow up to 120cm. The leaves are alternate lengths of about 5-9cm long and range from green to reddish-brown colors in the winters.
The Common Leadwort contains phytonutrients known as flavonoids, which give the flowers and fruits their vivid colors. The flavonoids, however, are also known to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which has made the common leadwort immensely important in traditional Turkish medicine when it comes to the treatment of dermatitis, acne, eczema and other skin-related diseases, including bites and infections.
For cultivation, European Plumbago requires well-watered, sandy or gritty soil and adequate sunshine to grow. Plant them after the winter has left as they grow better in warmer temperatures.
Plumbago Indica is found in abundance in Southeast Asian countries like Pakistan, China, Indonesia, and India, from which it derives its name. This species of plumbago thrives in tropical temperatures of 25-35 degrees Celsius, which is the average temperature of all these countries near the equator, with tropical rainfall.
The Indian Leadwort is planted in almost all backyards and parks in Southeast Asian countries and is mostly prized for its aesthetics. The bright red or deep pink color of the flowers has also lead to it being named scarlet leadwort, and it is very prominent and ostentatious; giving gardens and yards a pop of color.
The plant is an evergreen shrub with a splattering of the red/pink flowers and can grow up to 1.5 m tall. The climate is ideal for its growth, abundantly humid and sunny all year round. The flowers are inflorescent, arranged along a spiked stem. The stems are semi-wooden and flexible, and the leaves are oblong to ovate-shaped.
Locally known as Lal (red) Chitrak in Hindi, Plumbago indica has more to it than its visual appeal. Chitrak is widely used in traditional Indian herbal medicines because of its root, which contains plumbagin, to cure a plethora of diseases and health problems, ranging from diarrhea and headaches to tuberculosis and rheumatism. Its nectar paste, powdered roots, and leaves (as a poultice) are topically applied for relief against a number of ailments in the rural parts of South Asian countries.
A word of caution is necessary here, however. The plant is poisonous, and if ingested in large doses, has been known to be fatal. Pregnant women are advised to stay away from it, as it can cause potential harm to the developing fetus.
Indigenous to up to 20 states in Mexico, Plumbago pulchella is mostly known by its local Mexican name, Cola de iguana, which translates to Iguana’s tail. This strange name is courtesy of the appearance of this species of plumbago. Small lilac or violet flowers adorn the head of the thorny, tail-like green stem of the plant, splattered with tiny red marks, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual iguana’s tail.
Plumbago pulchella is important to the indigenous tribes and people of Mexico, like the Raramuri people, and the Mesoamericans, for its use in traditional medicine. Pulchellidin, an O-methylated anthocyanidin, can be found in Plumbago pulchella, from where it derived its Latin name. The blue-red plant pigment, Pulchellidin holds great significance in traditional Mexican medicine and veterinary uses.
Grown mostly in the rocky areas and inland cliffs of Namibia, which it is indigenous to, Plumbago wissii also grows well at the Cape. It was named after the Namibian naturalist and farmer who discovered it in 1955. The species is a tall, multi-stemmed plant, having a wooden stem at the bottom, which becomes branched towards the top. The branches are glaucous green. The leaves are narrow, long and fleshy, designed to retain moisture. This is an adaptation to the conditions over the years that helped the plant survive the harsh sunlight and aridity of the region.
Found mostly in the Bradberg Mountains in Namibia, the Plumbago wissii easily reproduces and propagates, and thrives in the hot temperatures and granitic soils of Namibia, surrounded by the Namibian desert. The Bradberg Mountains hosts an impressive proportion of endemism, and Plumbago wissii is no exception.
The flower (corolla) is purple to maroon-purple and opens during the day. It is 13-14mm in diameter with a slender, whitish tube. The inflorescence is complete with stamens and anthers, and the flower has a greenish ovary at the bottom. The fruit capsules of the plant are sticky, ensuring the pollen gets stuck to the coats of mountain animals, helping the plant disperse its seed and spread its area of growth.
Another species of plumbago that is indigenous to India, Plumbago zeylanica is also locally called Safed (white) Chitrak or Ceylon leadwort. Mostly occurring in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bengal, UP (Uttar Pradesh), and South India, it is a perennial shrub that sprouts small white flowers, very unlike the Indian Leadwort flowers. It is also found in the tropical areas of Australia, in monsoon forests. Plumbago zeylanica is also known as doctorbush, possibly because of its pharmaceutical properties, and as wild leadwort, owing to its untended and unencouraged growth in parts of India and Australia.
The flowers have five widely separated lobes and a thin corolla tube with dense spikes on the stems and bristly hairs. It generally blooms from February to August, when temperatures are highest.
The root of Ceylon leadwort is also used widely across Ayurvedic medicine, as it exhibits antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-carcinogenic activity in humans, as well as a huge array of different health benefits and cures. It is used to shrink tumors, treat skin problems, and as a wound-healing agent. It is also used as an abortifacient, meant to induce abortions.
Leadworts can be a great addition to your gardens and sidewalks, as they are low-maintenance and easily propagated. The colorful flowers of the various species of leadworts or plumbagos can instantly brighten up your gardens, parks, and backyards and give your space the oomph that it needs.