Pagoda flower is showy, easy grower for Hawaii

When in bloom, the pagoda plant, with its dramatic red-orange flowers arranged in a large bell, is an eye-catcher.

Clerodendrum paniculatum is the larger form of C. buchananii fallax, sometimes known as C. speciosissimum. The shrub grows easily here and adapts well at most elevations in Hawaii. Each has a similar inflorescence that grows in a pyramidal shape made up of small flowers. The slight botanical confusion around the scientific name is compounded when assigning this species to a plant family. Some botanists place pagoda flower in the verbena family while others assign it to the mints. Once you witness the showy pagoda flower, you’ll see why two families want to claim it.

The Clerodendrum genus includes more than 400 species that have native ranges in tropical or warm regions of Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands and the Americas. At least 12 species are cultivated in Hawaii. Pagoda plants have a native range that includes India and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and many Pacific islands.

C. paniculatum was first named and described in 1767 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern biological nomenclature. The name refers to the large paniculate cluster of flowers which makes it such a striking plant.

The flower panicle appears at the top of a single stem and consists of layers of half-inch flowers, arranged in rings that decrease in size toward the top. Flowers can appear red, orange or light-orange and sometimes a single blossom will contain all three colors. Pagoda flower panicles can be 12 or more inches in height making them a stunning specimen plant when in bloom. The common name probably refers to its tiered appearance, similar to a Chinese or Japanese pagoda.

The plant is a semi-woody shrub that grows in an erect manner with large evergreen three-lobed or heart-shaped leaves that can reach 12 inches across. The fast-growing multiple stems often grow from root suckers. On larger varieties, the stems grow vertically and may reach 10 feet tall. Smaller varieties are shorter and have smaller inflorescences. The showy display of flowers on all varieties is long lasting and repeats several times a year, in West Hawaii. The flowers can attract butterflies and bees to your garden.

The pagoda flower grows best in a sunny spot but will tolerate some shade. Rich, slightly moist soil is best, though it can also adapt to drier conditions. Regular fertilizing with a balanced fertilizer can encourage blooming. The stems are short lived, but the plant produces new root shoots to replace older stems. Mature plants can be pruned frequently to encourage new branches and the production of root shoots.

Pagoda plant does not set seed here in Hawaii. The flowers are either sterile or the pollinators are not present here. The best propagation technique for pagoda flower is from cuttings. Take semi-woody cuttings of about 4 inches and place them in a 50:50 perlite and vermiculite rooting medium. Dip cuttings in rooting compound before placing them at least 2 inches deep into the moist medium. Remove most of the leaves and keep the medium moist until new leaves grow. At that point you can transfer your plant to a larger pot or in its chosen spot outdoors. You can also propagate pagoda flower by removing suckers that appear around the base of an older stem to make a new plant. You’ll want to trim root suckers occasionally anyway to contain the plant and prevent its spreading into areas where you don’t want it to grow. Several Clerodendrum species produce root suckers as well as seeds, which makes them highly invasive. A close relative of the pagoda flower plant, Clerodendrum quadriloculare, or bronze-leaved clerodendrum, is highly invasive. Avoid planting this variety.

Pagoda plants are relatively disease and pest free, though fungus on the leaves can be a problem in humid areas. Harmful insect infestations are not common on this plant.

The stems of the pagoda plant can get long and leggy and leafless at the bottom as it matures. Fronting them with a mix of other shorter plants can help maintain a full tropical appearance when using pagoda flowers as a backdrop or along a wall.

Pagoda flower is commonly grown in the Asian tropics as a medicinal plant. An infusion of the flowers is consumed as a purgative and a poultice of leaves applied to the abdomen can relive a distended stomach. Magical attributes have also been assigned to this plant. In Malaysia, the plant is used to summon spirits and confer protection from harm.

Pagoda plants are available at several area nurseries. They make a beautiful addition to any tropical garden.

Diana Duff is an organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.