In one of the early Tarzan novels, our main man ventures to a secret place to replenish his wealth from the stash of Opar. I knew nothing about that four years ago. All I knew then was that my favorite seed catalog offered an interesting "everlasting" called Jewels of Opar (Talinum paniculatum.) The rest may not exactly be history, but is an article about a flowering annual which is rarely mentioned in gardening books.
The catalog picture showed fascinatingly airy sprays of tiny black beads on stems: Jewels of Opar. That photo set me on the path to this article, before I had even enlisted in the corps of Dave's writers. Plant unseen, I ordered seeds and easily grew my first Talinum paniculatum. The plant in bloom was much more eye catching than the dried stems! Jewels of Opar has faithfully reappeared in my garden since then, and on a list of suggested article topics last month. It's a pleasure to spotlight a plant I have grown and treasure.
The origin of Opar
Who or where is Opar? It is a place born in the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan novels written in the first half of the 1900s. Opar may be based on an ancient African locale called Ophir. Burroughs' Opar is a fictional place holding a huge cache of gold and gems gleaned from doomed Atlantis. Tarzan ventures to Opar in order to claim some of the wealth, and from there a complicated and cheesy plot leads through this fifth novel in the series. Before researching Jewels of Opar, I had no idea the Tarzan books were so extensive ( a series of 24 books) and apparently very popular as well. The fictional Opar may have been very well known in the early 1900s because of the Tarzan phenomenon. Some event, which seems as logical as a few of the plot twists of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, linked this Central American plant to a fictional African city. At any rate, this charming plant was given the Jewels of Opar nickname.
Opar's hidden gems now decorate the garden
Jewels of Opar bears tiny but bright pink flowers. After each flower wilts, a perfectly round, 1/8 inch (3 mm) diameter, seed pod forms. Each pod is yellow at first but soon turns bright red before fading to cocoa brown. Now picture all of this happening in various stages on a delicate looking but wiry flower spray. Thus the jewels are a sparkling mass of pink, yellow, red and cocoa appearing to float above the plant. The plant itself is an excellent foil for this display. Glossy, oval, slighty thickened leaves form the base of the plant. Jewels of Opar can begin to bloom as a small saucer sized plant under hot, dry conditions. In an average garden setting, it forms a bushy specimen about 18 inches high and wide before making large sprays extending up another foot and a half. For most American gardeners it would be suitable as a border annual or a container specimen.
Grow Jewels of Opar anywhere... and everywhere...
Easily grown from seed and tender to frost, Jewels of Opar is often called an annual plant. It is found naturally across the hotter parts of the American continents. It will happily grow in full sun, but also does well in bright yet shady spots. A shaded Jewel will have a looser form than one in full sun. And the everywhere statement? That alludes to the mighty self sowing power of this dainty looking flower. If left on the plant, the tiny pods will drop seeds which easily grow the followng spring. And in nearly frost free areas, Jewels of Opar may overwinter. Its fleshy taproot can resprout after a mild winter, and the whole plant may grow to three or four feet. Some gardeners are overwhelmed by numerous seedlings of Talinum. To those I suggest persistently cutting the seed heads to place in a dry vase or discard. Or take the "if you can't beat them eat them" tack. Jewels of Opar leaves are edible (though I wouldn't say they are particularly tasty. The preferred edible Talinum is a different species.)
Picture at right appears in PlantFiles, courtesy of mgarr, who writes "Talinum paniculatum growing in flower border in bloom. The fuzzy red color is the seed heads."
Best way to show off your Jewels
A Jewels of Opar plant is interesting for close viewing but the delicate branches of flowers can get lost in the garden visually. A patch of the plants makes a much more effective showing. as you can see in this picture by mgarr. A solid background, such as a solid light colored wall, will also highlight your Jewels. For everlasting display, cut the stems when most flowers have matured to seed pods. The stems are surprisingly strong, but handle with some care to avoid knocking off too many "jewels." When shopping for this plant, you may discover one of the newer cultivars. 'Limon' and 'Kingswood Gold' have enhanced light colored foliage which adds to the show. 'Variegatum' presents you with variegated green and white leaves. You'll only need to buy seeds once. You can easily collect seeds from your plants in fall, or let them self sow, perhaps removing any seedlings that don't show the hybrid color.
"Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarzan_and_the_Jewels_of_Opar , accessed 7-22-2011
About Sally G. Miller
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.