Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

The Best Season Ever: Purple-leaved Sugar Cane

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By August, the garden is a jungle, and this arching fountain of purple foliage—'Pele's Smoke' sugar cane—is Jungle Central.  Its leaves can be six feet long, on fast-growing canes that, even this far north of their tropical homeland, can reach ten feet tall.  The palm-like leaves of 'Silver Umbrellas' aralia provide an intense contrasting backdrop.

 

Sugar cane loves water so much that I set this huge pot in a galvanized tub that I top up with buckets of water.  Pots of this giant mother-of-thousands, Kalanchoe prolifera, are a drought-proof juxtaposition.

 

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The purple leaves of 'Pele's Smoke' are overlaid with purple, not saturated with it.  When backlit, their "inner green" is revealed. 

 

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The dark leaves harmonize with anything.  Three pots of 'Pele's Smoke' sit at the back of this horse trough, and are just barely keeping pace with the quick growth of the blue-leaved 'Panache' canna at the left.

 

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Tasseled flowers of variegated Kiss-me-over-the-gate, Polygonum orientale 'Variegatum', are a happy a partner for 'Pele's Smoke'.  So are the plant's, light-green leaves, which are heavily splashed and sectioned with cream.

 

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But my heart is in the combination of purple sugar cane with Summer's hottest colors.  A pot of Cape honeysuckle, Tecomaria capensis, produces clusters of orange trumpets. 

 

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The flowers open from burnt-orange buds, an even better pairing.

 

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Here's how to grow this massive heat-loving grass:

 

Latin name

Saccharum officinarum 'Pele's Smoke' / 'Violaceum'

Common name

Purple-leaved sugar cane

Family

Poaceae, the Grass family.

What kind of plant is it

Perennial grass.

Hardiness

Zones 9 to 11.

Habit

Upright, dense, and spreading.  In frost-free climates, a colony of Saccharum officinarum increases steadily via underground rhizomes, but not as fast as is typical for bamboos.

Rate of growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

In frost-free climates, canes of the straight species of Saccharum officinarum can reach fifteen to eighteen feet; 'Pele's Smoke' can reach ten to fifteen.  When used as an annual or a Summered-in-the-garden specimen, height is usually not much more than half that.  Still, any purple grass seven or eight feet tall is quite a statement. 

Texture

Bamboo-like.

Grown for

its color: The canes and their foliage are both burgundy, and hold that color reliably over their entire lifespan.  Unlike the dark foliage of many cultivars of species hardy to Zone 6 and colder, such as Acer palmatum or Fagus sylvestris, the intensity of the coloring of Saccharum officinarum 'Pele's Smoke' is not affected by the high heat of Summer, nor the duration of that high heat over the growing season. 

 

its foliage: Sword-like leaves are four to six feet long, and arch out gracefully from each joint of the cane.

 

its season-long vigor: When it receives the heat, moisture, and nutrition it enjoys—see "Culture," below—Saccharum officinarum grows very fast.  Especially when sited in climates with a shorter growing season than in its native tropics and subtropics, a clump of sugar cane continues to increase in height and overall bulk all season long.  As Summer grinds on from August to frost, sugar cane positively thrives, seemingly capable of enlarging without limit.  In reality, the season is long enough only in frost-free climates that the plants can complete their yearly cycle by flowering, in which case the clump does finally reach its mature size. 

 

its scale: Saccharum officinarum can become as large as even the largest hardy grasses, such as Miscanthus sinensis.

 

its imperviousness to browsers:  As is typical for species in the grass family, Saccharum foliage is typically not at risk.

Flowering season

Late Summer, but only in when grown in a frost-free climate with a long hot growing season.  When grown as a warm-weather annual, or as a container plant that is Summered outdoors and brought into shelter before frost, the growing season is rarely long enough to permit flowering.

Color combinations

The matte burgundy of the foliage and stems harmonizes with everything.  (I keep my biggest clump in my red garden, but three smaller clumps fill a horse trough in the pink garden.)  If your growing season is long enough that 'Pele's Smoke' can produce its soft pink flowering plumes, then you'll want to site the plant only in pink-friendly environments.  'Pele's Smoke' is much more versatile when it doesn't flower, or the plumes are removed.  Flowering is rare outside the tropics.

Partner plants

With its broad coloristic potential, 'Pele's Smoke' has too many partner plants to list.  Combine with heat- and sun-lovers that also provide season-long performance; you wouldn't want to spoil the effect of your sugar cane at its most triumphant in September by surrounding it with plants that look exhausted.

 

The easiest near-neighbors are other tropicals, which will maintain the same sense of ever-increasing energy and bulk throughout the growing season.  Clumps of 'Pele's Smoke' in my pink border share a horse trough with the blue-green foliage and pink flowers of 'Panache' cannas.  This canna is just as happy to grow with the bottom half of its pots submerged in water, too.  In my red garden, the deep green foliage and flaming orange flowers of Tecomaria capensis are equally heat-proof and fool-proof.

 

The soaring canes look best when they're groomed to remove lower foliage—see "Quirks," below—and cry out to be fronted with something mounding.  Last season I found myself with four pots of Kalanchoe prolifera, with light-green leaves and quick growth to two or three feet.  Its green leaves are purple-edged, in perfect (if subtle) harmony.

 

What about pots of the less-divided forms of Philodendron, or the less-than-giant forms of Colocasia or Alocasia?  They all enjoy similar heat and rich soil.  Cultivars with gold foliage will be particularly exciting.  The stems of Philodendron 'Ceylon Gold' could grow long enough to start to climb the canes of Pele's Smoke'.  Xanthosoma 'Lime Zinger' and Colocasia 'Maui Gold' provide much larger gold foliage, on stems that can become tall enough to hide all but the upper leafy portion of the canes of 'Pele's Smoke'.

 

Green-and-white variegated foliage is another option for a contrast strong enough to be an equal partner to the high (in all senses) drama of a hefty clump of 'Pele's Smoke'.  Next Summer, I'll underplant my largest clump with striped St. Augustine grass.  Stenotaphrum secondatum 'Variegatum' goes toe-to-toe with Saccharum in its love of swelter, sun, and saturated soil.  Its thick growth forms a mounding layer nearly two feet high from which the Saccharum canes can erupt, while its alarmingly-energetic runners enable the colony to spill over the sides of any container, to cascade four to six feet by September.  I'll set my tubbed clump of 'Pele's Smoke' atop a wide flue tile, which will raise it two feet.  The Stenotaphrum will quickly swarm over the sides of the tub, forming a curtain of vivid green-and-white growth right to the ground.  The height of the sugar canes can be seven or eight feet by September, so this elevated tub of heat-loving tropicalismo will be more than ten feet high.  Just the more-is-more gesture to anchor the alley of grass that is the center line of the entire garden.   

Where to use it in your garden

'Pele's Smoke' is an impressive heat-proof focus.  Even a small starter clump can reach six feet by September, so this is a plant to use when easy height is desirable.  Use purple sugar cane sparingly, so you can regularly remove lower foliage as it inevitably turns brown—see "Quirks," below—fully exposing the showy purple canes in the process.  Planting in a container—twenty inches across would be a minimum—ensures easy access for this regular grooming.  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!," below, as well as "Partner plants," above. 

Culture

Full sun, rich soil, and plenty of water.  If there were any plant worthy of growing in soil enriched with your most generous composting, sugar cane is it.  I find that growth is quickest—and, therefore, the overall size of the clump is the largest by September—when I place my containered specimen of 'Pele's Smoke' in a large low tub that I top up every other day, July to October, with a bucket or two of water.

How to handle it: The Basics

When used as a big-boned annual or Summered-out container, site in the garden only after warm weather has settled.  If planting in-ground in groups, space two feet apart; by September, the small plants of May will have filled up and out remarkably.  Set young plants several inches deeper than they were in their pots, burying, if you can, the next joint up.  Saccharum officinarum sends out roots and new shoots from the base of every joint, and that additional ring of roots will give additional anchoring to canes that will, by September, be a couple of yards taller.

 

Established plants tolerate periodic dryness, but this is likely to encourage more browning of lower leaves; see "Quirks," below.  Instead, water frequently, fertilizing with fish emulsion every other week if you can.  To cut down on the watering, don't hesitate to sink containered specimens into a few inches of water in your water garden or, as I do, set the pot in a galvanized washtub. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Saccharum officinarum is easy to overwinter.  If growing in-ground, dig up clumps before frost is likely; cut them back to about two feet first to make handling easier.  Pot up and bring into bright frost-free light.  Container specimens can be cut even lower—to just above the lowest joint—before bringing them into shelter.  They don't suffer the same root disturbance as clumps that are dug up, and the cane stumps won't be attractive when the clump returns to growth in late Winter.  Don't waste a prime greenhouse spot on overwintered sugar cane: The few remaining leaves on the stumps of the canes will probably turn brown, although the canes will remain purple.

 

Water only when needed; sugar cane can become quite dormant, especially if night-time temperatures can sink into the 50's. 

 

In late Winter or early Spring, new foliage and stems will begin to emerge from joints of the cane-stumps.  New stems will also emerge from the underground rhizomes.  Unpot the clump and repot low enough to bury the bases of the sprouting side-shoots, so they can send out roots of their own.  Cut off any remaining above-the-joint sections of the previous-year's canes.  If the center of the clump has become sparse, repot only the more vigorous outer sections.  In my experience, sugar cane clumps are very helpfully "loose on their feet;" you'll probably be able to pull the clump apart easily with bare hands, with none of the sawing and hacking needed to divide clumps of, say, Papyrus or Hedychium

 

Return to the garden only after danger of frost is past.   

Quirks or special cases

Although the colony burgeons excitingly over the season, individual leaves do not have a season-long lifespan.  Older leaves turn brown but, alas, don't then drop from the canes.  Because new foliage continues to emerge all season long outside of the native range of hardiness, the clump's proportion of burgundy foliage is always more than 50%.  Helpfully, this foliage is in the upper portions of the canes, so the problem of the brown foliage could be solved by siting the clump behind partners that remain comparatively shorter than the canes.  (See "Plant partners," above.)  Or the lower portion of the canes can be groomed to remove the brown leaves.  I recommend this latter tactic, because the canes themselves remain burgundy throughout the growing season.  When leafless, they're even more worth seeing.

 

The edges of the living leaves—the purple ones—can inflict nasty paper cuts; brown leaves are normally harmless.  It's easiest to wear long sleeves and gloves when you have to work around sugar cane.  Because the plant typically needs the most attention when the weather is at its steamiest, I compensate for the overheating due to the long sleeves by wearing running shorts, which increases the air-flow at my legs.   

Downsides

The dead foliage of the lower half of the canes would be a chore to handle if you were growing more than a specimen clump or two of 'Pele's Smoke'. 

 

Although flowering doesn't usually occur in non-tropical climates, if it does, the pinkish plumes will make the plant difficult to combine with the strong hot colors—orange, yellow, and red—that are so prevalent in partner plants that also appreciate the high heat and strong sun that Saccharum needs.

Variants

The leaves of 'Variegatum' are striped in cream and white.  Arundo donax 'Peppermint Stick' is similar in scale, habit, culture, and coloring, but is so much hardier it can be grown year-round in southern New England, so it's usually the better choice.

 

Availability

On-line and at "destination" retailers.

Propagation

By division and by rooting sections of the stems, which can sprout roots from each joint.

Native habitat

Saccharum officinarum is native to southeast Asia.  

 
 
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