It can tough out wintry conditions without losing its cool.
The term “powder puff” often is used to describe something so soft as to be ineffectual. That definitely doesn’t apply to the drought resistant and winter blooming powder puff shrub (Calliandra spp.). It is just getting started during the season when other plants are demanding a time-out.
Granted, Calliandra only is hardy in USDA zones 9 through 11 where winters aren’t particularly fierce. But Dave’s Garden members report that it can flourish in a pot too, if kept in a sun room or greenhouse over the coldest months.
The shrub’s common name derives from the resemblance of its’ stamen-rich spherical flowers to powder puffs, though some types more closely simulate the half spheres of feather dusters instead. Before opening, Calliandra buds look like raspberries.
The most popular species, haematocephala means “red head.” Only , in this case, you might want to envision a redhead with static-y winter hair which sticks straight out on all sides. Native to Bolivia and often called “red powder puff,” haematocephala can grow to 15 feet or so with flowers 3 inches across. It also is available in white as ‘Alba’ and in dwarf form as ‘Nana.’
In dryer areas of the U. S. such as California, the powder puff seems to bloom best from winter through early spring, which usually is the wet season in such regions. It apparently can flower for most of the year in more humid, frost-free locations in Florida. According to Dave’s Garden members, the shrub tends to bloom most heavily after periods of rainfall. In the nippier areas of Zone 9, it may die back over winter, but should rebound in spring and begin to flower at some point between late spring and midsummer.
Another of the most showy varieties is the Suriname powder puff (Calliandra surinamensis). Native to northeastern South America and blooming most heavily in late winter and early spring, it wields 2-inch-long feather-duster- shaped pink and white blooms . The shorter California native “fairy dusters,” such as californica (red) and eriophylla (pink), also are popular—especially with gardeners who want their shrubs to remain shrubs rather than growing into small trees.
Closely related to mimosa, Calliandra folds it ferny foliage at night and during wet weather. So such “wilting” doesn’t mean it is dying—just sleeping! It prefers well-drained soil in a position that receives full to partial sunlight. If you want to grow it indoors over the winter months, give it full sunlight in a cool location—about 60 degrees Fahrenheit—and allow its soil to dry out a bit between waterings.
You can find the shrub’s seeds in its bean-like seed pods. To grow more powder puffs, soak those seeds in water for one or two days before sowing them in a combination of seed-starting mix and sand. Cover them with about 1/3 inch of the mix and keep them at temperatures in the 70s Fahrenheit until they germinate. If pre-soaked, the seeds should send up shoots in four or five days. Otherwise, they may take two or three weeks to do so.
As a bonus, Calliandra blooms are extremely attractive to both hummingbirds and butterflies. So it’s no wonder that many gardeners puff—as in “to praise extravagantly”—the powder puff.
Photos: The Calliandra haematocephala banner photo is by Chamma, the emarginata photo by AridTropics, and the eriophylla photo by leeann6, all from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles. The antique haematocephala image is courtesy of plantillustrations.org