A Great Group Of Plants: Pigeon Berries, a.k.a. Duranta erecta

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In 1995, I was wandering around on my bicycle in Perth, Western Australia, when I spied a 15- to 20-foot-tall shrub/tree magnificently laden with beautiful lilac-blue flowers. After checking with the locals, I was told it was a sky flower, otherwise known as duranta. It was a weed in many parts of Australia, but did not appear to be so in Perth. I stayed in Perth throughout the summer but left before the golden berries had ripened. I can’t imagine what a sight that must have been. However, I brought one back to Athens with me. It only grows to about 6 feet tall, not only in the summer with its fine foliage and handsome flowers, but then later in the fall when the fruit ripens. It is one of the finest plants in the gardens at UGA. The flowers are fragrant and the butterflies adore them. The flowers and fruit are responsible for the common names of Sky Flower, Golden Dewdrop and Pigeon Berry. The genus duranta is a group of approximately 20 species of shrubs and small trees native from southern Florida to Mexico and South America. The genus honors the 15th century Italian botanist and papal physician, Castore Durantes. The plant I brought back is thornless and completely hardy to zone 7b, at least.

Some Cultivars

I have since trialed some handsome variegated forms (‘Variegata,’ ‘Gold Edge’) which seldom flower but are excellent for the handsome foliage. They should be placed in some afternoon shade once they leave the greenhouse. A white-flowered form (‘Alba’) is, in truth, a poor plant compared to the lilac-flowered forms. Recently, other flowering cultivars have appeared. ‘Sapphire Showers’ has blue and white flowers and is beautiful but can be quite gangly. ‘Geisha Girl’ appears to be fairly similar. All cultivars should be considered annuals in most of the country. As interesting as all these are, they have a couple of drawbacks. Most are big and rather unwieldy and most have very sharp thorns. 

The Best Of All

About six years ago, Dennis Schrader, an extraordinary plantsman and owner of Landscape Environmentals on Long Island, N.Y., showed me a most wonderful plant. It was only about 2 feet tall and completely golden. He called it ‘Cuban Gold.’ I was stunned with its beauty and habit. Of course, that was Long Island and I wanted to put it to the true test. I took some cuttings back to Georgia and discovered that even in our summer heat, it stayed dwarf and remained golden throughout the summer. Since that time, ‘Cuban Gold’ has been on our “best plants” list and performed so well, we included it as part of our Athens Select group of plants for heat and humidity. It is available through most reputable brokers. 

In The Greenhouse

Plant cuttings in 4-inch to 1-gallon containers in full winter sun. Apply 100 ppm N constant liquid feed. ‘Cuban Gold’ needs no growth regulators, but others benefit from a 1,500 ppm application of B-Nine or other PGRs. From a rooted plug, expect about 7 to 12 weeks at 65ºF, depending on container size. I have seldom seen an insect or pathogen in all the years I have been growing it, but whiteflies have been reported to be a problem.

In the Landscape

‘Cuban Gold’ is a perfect plant for edging and is wonderful in mixed containers with cascading blue torenia. If it gets a little too tall, just cut it back. The variegated forms are useful for the front of the garden and in containers, as well. The other forms take considerable space but are excellent garden plants if room is available. 

Unfortunately, plants don’t flower, but the good looking foliage makes up for it. There are a few thorns, but they are mostly at the base of the plant, so seldom will be a problem. There are many reasons to include these plants in your garden. However, if your clients struggle with deer, this may not be the plant for them.

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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    2 comments on “A Great Group Of Plants: Pigeon Berries, a.k.a. Duranta erecta

    1. Anonymous

      I am a landscape designer in Jacksonville, Florida and have grown to adore the duranta cuban gold and have used it in many of my clients landscapes. We have just had 3 nights of very unusually cold weather and covered the plants with frost cloth. I am wondering if some have been nicked by the cold still does this plant come back? Do I need to fertilize with anything special to help it along?
      Many thanks!

    2. Anonymous

      I am a landscape designer in Jacksonville, Florida and have grown to adore the duranta cuban gold and have used it in many of my clients landscapes. We have just had 3 nights of very unusually cold weather and covered the plants with frost cloth. I am wondering if some have been nicked by the cold still does this plant come back? Do I need to fertilize with anything special to help it along?
      Many thanks!