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Acanthus Family


By: George Rogers


A large mostly tropical family of about 2000 species and 200 genera (BA1) of herbs to shrubs having opposite simple leaves without stipules. Stems often square with a small ledge connecting the leaf bases.ruttya fruticosa capsule Flowers usually bilaterally symmetrical, typically with 4 or 2 stamens, the flowers often associated with conspicuous bracts, these frequently spiny. Fruits distinctive: two valves separating like the two halves of a clam shell, each valve with fingerlike organs called “jaculators” protruding inward and helping in seed dispersal.  An extensive treatment of Acanthaceae in Florida is available as "Acanthaceae in Florida Gardens" by D. Burch and E. Demmy (Proc. Fl. Hort. Soc. 99: 186-188. 1986).


This capsule from Ruttya fruticosa is a good example of the diagnostic Acanthaceae fruit: long, boat-shaped splitting like a clam, and having "jaculators" extending inward from the two sides.




Key to Acanthaceae Important in South Florida Landscaping


1. Leaves deep metallic purple…Persian-Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus)

1. Leaves otherwise…2

2. Plants vines…3 (note 6 possible choices for question 3)

2. Plants subshrubs or shrubs…4

3. Flowers yellow…Black-Eyed Susan Vine (Thunbergia alata)

3. Flowers orange with a dark blotch in the throat…Hummingbird Vine (Ruttya fruticosa)

3. Flowers coral colored…Coral Creeper (Barleria repens)

3. Flowers large (> 2” across), blue (rarely white); climbing vine with entire leaf-margins, the blades green…Clock Vine (Thunbergia grandiflora). (Thunbergia battiscombei is similar but the flowers are purplish, and the plants are smaller and less aggressive.)

3. Flowers small (<1” across), white; sprawling vine with dentate-crenate leaf margins, the blades partially purplish…Red-Ivy (Hemigraphis alternata)

3. Flowers to 5 cm long, the stigma cup-shaped, having sepal-like bracts and a tiny multi-toothed calyx…Fragrant Clock Vine (Thunbergia fragrans)

(See Hemigraphis page for comments on similar species.)

4. Leaves with parallel creamy-yellowish or white stripes following the veins…5 

4. Leaves green, or the markings not parallel stripes…6

5.  Leaf stripes creamy; flowers in loose spikes with small bracts…Sanchezia (Sanchezia speciosa)

5.  Leaf stripes white; flowers in dense heads with congested yellow bracts…Zebra Plant (Aphelandra squarrosa)

6. Flowers white and lost in a massive head of purplish bracts…Brazilian Cloak (Megaskepasma erythrochlamys)

6. Plants otherwise…7

7. Flowering bracts showy bright yellow…Lollipop Plant (Pachystachys lutea)

7. Flowering bracts not yellow or not apparent…8

8. Leaves multicolored…Caricature Plant (Graptophyllum pictum)

8. Leaves green…9

9. Flowers and bracts white…White Candles (Whitfieldia elongata)

9. Flowers and bracts otherwise…10

10. Woody shrubs; flowers strongly curved, the basal portion of the tube white, the outer portion blue to purple with a yellow eye; leaves ovate…Kings Mantle (Thunbergia erecta)

10. Plants otherwise…11

11. Flowers orange…12

11. Flowers otherwise…13 (note 3 choices)

12. Orange flowers with black markings in the throat…Hummingbird Vine (Ruttya fruticosa)

12. Orange flowers with no black markings…17

13A. Flowers scarlet…14

13B. Flowers bright yellow…Yellow Barleria (Barleria oenotheroides)

13C. Flowers otherwise…15

14. Spikes with conspicuous bracts…Cardinal's Guard (Pachystachys coccinea)

14. Spikes with bracts absent or not conspicuousFirespike (Odontonema tubaeformae) some have purple flowers)

15. Flowers usually purplish or white, variably colored, the bracts spiny…Philippine-Violet (Barleria cristata)

15. Bracts not spiny…16

16. Flowers nearly blue-lavender in dense bracteate spikes…Blue Sage (Eranthemum pulchellum)

16. Flowers not blue or lavender, or not in dense bracteate spikes…Mexican-Petunia (Ruellia simplex)

17. Plants 2’ tall, the petals spreading into a fan shape…Firecracker (Crossandra infundibuliformis)

17. Plants to 7' tall.  Flowers narrowly tubular…Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)

Other plants in the manual include:

Hygrophila polysperma



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