Published on Friday, July 16, 2021

By Victoria Torley

Well, there was a pause in my discussion of native Costa Rican plants for your new yard – I blame it on the giant tree that crashed into my greenhouse. That has all been cleaned up now, so it’s back to the ‘find-a-plant’ game.

By now, you have sprinkled your yard with trees for shade and fruit and we were in the middle of shrubs which brings us to heliconia - and an interpretation of what makes a “shrub.”

Personally, I think of shrubs as under six feet and multi-stemmed. Hmm. Heliconia are multi-stemmed, but under six feet they are not. Adjust your thinking, things are just plain bigger here.

Heliconia flowers pretty much all the time. The plant is thought of as shrub-like, although they seem more ‘stalk-like’ to anyone with sense. Besides, shrubs don’t usually grow 14 to 18-feet tall, at least not in my garden. They are also unprunable, which can make life difficult. Then there are the leaf-cutter ants  . . . Still, they make an attractive addition to the yard. In fact, there are people who boast of having at least one of every type of heliconia, understandable, as they can be very different.

If you are lucky – or unfortunate – enough to live in the wet montane forest and over a thousand meters, you can try the Gunnera insignis, the umbrella plant. Although you are unlikely to see the tiny red flowers hiding under the leaves, they aren’t why you planted the shrub. You did plant it for the size of the leaves, wrinkled and scattered-looking things. One leaf will provide all the shade you need on a sunny day. Maybe it should be called the parasol plant because the leaves collapse in our rains. Trust me on this, I know.

There is, however, one shrub that stays shrub-sized, the Randia loniceroides also called the natural bonsai. You will find the shrub, if at all, on the Atlantic slope or near the mountainous national divide. It is a delightful little thing, seldom more than a meter tall. It is single-trunked, with a tiered branching pattern and white flowers from April to June. Do not try to grow this little wonder unless you are a true gardener because it takes a lot of attention and can be difficult to maintain. A devoted caretaker will be rewarded by the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of anyone who visits. That can be worth the trouble.

For more garden color and extra points for fragrance, try the Castrum nocturnum, or night jessamine. At two meters, it remains somewhat shrub-sized. Wild varieties can be found in damp forest edges where the flowers are noted for their yellow-white color and, of course, their fragrance. Look for the flowers in the dry season, although it has been known to flower at other times.

Editor's note: More information on this article or about gardening, Ms. Victoria Torley, gardener columnist, can be reached at

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