Plumbago is an extremely reliable, resilient plant which has been popular for home gardens as well as for commercial landscapes for many years. Plumbago may be found in gardens all over the world, and was apparently popular as a standard plant in Europe.
In nature plumbago is a scrambling shrub. It grows in scrub and thicket (valley bushveld). The new growth is bright green, darker when mature.
In summer the bush is covered with pretty trusses of pale sky blue flowers, although there are often flowers at other times of the year. The main flowering period is between November and May. “Royal Cape” is a darker blue form which is available in many nurseries. There is also a white form which is very attractive. It is slightly less vigorous than the normal blue but is a prolific flowerer and wonderful for working gardeners who only see their gardens in the twilight – the white blooms appear to glow in the dusk.
The distribution ranges from the southern Cape, Eastern Cape and into KwaZulu-Natal. It appears in Gauteng and the adjacent areas of the Free State and North West Province. There is also an isolated distribution in Mpumalanga. Plumbago shares a habitat with Tecomaria capensis, the Cape Honeysuckle.
The name Plumbago is derived from plumbum meaning lead – referring to it being a supposed cure for lead poisoning. Auriculata means ear shaped and refers to the leaf base. Plumbago auriculata was known as P. capensis, which was the name given by the botanist, Thunberg in 1794. However, the plant had already been named auriculata by Lamarck in 1786 in what was known as the East Indies where it had been taken as a garden plant! The Dutch East India Company trade routes included the Cape and this was most likely how the plant reached the East Indies.
Plumbago is visited by butterflies and is one of the larval foods plant for the common blue butterfly (Cyclyrius pirithous) which is apparently fairly common in gardens as a result of the popularity of plumbago as a garden plant.
Plumbago is used traditionally to treat warts, broken bones and wounds. It is taken as a snuff for headaches and as an emetic to dispel bad dreams. A stick of the plant is placed in the thatch of huts to ward off lightning.
Growing Plumbago auriculata
Plumbago makes a very good informal or formal hedge as it responds well to pruning. It will flower profusely after being cut back or after a growth flush, as it bears flowers on new wood. It may need to be cut back after winter to keep it tidy, even if this is only done every few years. Plumbago will scramble into trees if allowed and, depending on the size and style of your garden, you may need to control it. Plumbago is somewhat frost tender but will quickly re-grow if damaged.
Plumbago is propagated easily from seed, cuttings and suckers. Sow seed in spring in seedling trays. Use good seedling mix and cover the seeds lightly. Do not allow to dry out. The easiest method of propagation is to remove rooted suckers from the mother plant.