Some plants are so colorful they look like that have dozens of flowers blooming. But not. Sometimes, all we see are leaves and we just mistake them for flowers. I’m not talking about the seasonal change in leaf color in countries with four seasons. I’m talking about specialized leaves.
The first time I heard the term “specialized leaves” was in grade school. It was nearing Christmas and we were discussing the poinsettia. We were asked to point where the flower was and, naturally, we pointed to all the red parts. Then, the teacher said they weren’t flowers — they were specialized leaves. The plant uses the bright color to attract insects to pollinate because its flowers — the small yellow seed-like structures at the center of the bract (the cluster of specialized leaves) — aren’t pretty enough to attract bees, butterflies and other insects.
The bougainvillea is another example of a plant with specialized leaves. The real flowers at the center of the bracts are so small that they’re hardly noticeable. What most notice is the bright color of the specialized leaves.
Plants with specialized leaves do not require the same kind of care that a flowering plants require. The poinsettia, for instance, will not produce those bright red leaves (sometimes, they are pink, orange, white or marbled) except at a certain time of the year when the weather turns colder. At least, that’s how they behave here in the Philippines, except in areas where the weather is cool all year round. Like Baguio. And Tagaytay. My grandmother had bunches and bunches of poinsettia growing in the garden and, as a child, when the reds disappeared, I thought the plants had died. It upset me (red was my favorite color as a child) and my grandmother said I’d have to wait until Christmas time to see the fiery colors again.
Some plants with specialized leaves require a different kind of pruning to make sure that they produce the colored leaves.
The plant in the photo above, for instance. We have them in the garden. When we moved here, they were already there — part of the efforts of the real estate developer who had landscaping design done on the garden to make the property more attractive to buyers. We were thrilled by the orange leaves until, a month or so later, we noticed that they became fewer and fewer until nothing was left.
The same kind of plant adorns the sidewalk fronting the village clubhouse. We noticed how the caretaker pruned the tops regularly. And that was the trick. The leaves are orange when they are new. As they mature, they turn green. So, to make sure that there is always an abundance of orange leaves, the plant requires regular trimming.
You can actually control where the orange leaves will grow by trimming the portion of the plant where you want them to appear. If you want the orange leaves to cover the top, trim the top regularly. If you prefer the orange leaves to cover the sides, trim the sides. Our grow near a wall so we don’t bother with the side facing the wall. Trimming the top and the side that faces the garden is enough.