Chicken Gizzard, Bloodleaf, Beefsteak Plant
The Bloodleaf (Iresine) is absolutely one of the most colorful pieces of foliage this side of the equator. Of course, the first time that I saw one, I misidentified it as an Orach due to a particular google image result. Long story short, it was bitter… and I was given three cuttings. I tried propagating them in my usual way, not knowing about their fondness for heat and humidity. By luck, I had placed them on the windowsill of the bathroom – a good place for all of warmth, humidity, and (moderate) light. Two of the cuttings died quite quickly. The third, I’ll admit, I neglected for a while. Then one day I noticed the roots.
I had a leftover 4″ plastic pot from another plant I’d picked up, so that became its home. I still didn’t know about the light needs it had, or how much it loved moisture. I planted it outside in a larger pot once it seemed sturdy enough. Los Angeles summers can be pretty overwhelming on some plants, but this little bundle of red thrived. It got full sun nearly from the beginning, which certainly didn’t help. I also didn’t water it enough until I later realized my misidentification.
It’s a sturdy little plant. Surprising with its responsiveness, and quick to grow when you treat it right. An added bonus – they manage to survive the LA winters. Even this latest winter, with its sometimes random frosts and winds of 50 miles per hour, didn’t do any more than brown some leaves.
The bloodleaf is a lovely addition to the home. Just don’t eat it.
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The many varieties of Bloodleaf have some pretty severely lovely colors – the kind that don’t show up much in other plants, and especially not in the stems. Typical colors range between vibrant reds and purples, with some green and white coming up. Iresine flowers aren’t spectacular – this shrub is grown for its foliage. The leaves are lance-shaped, and generally less than 4″ long when grown indoors. Outside, they can vary quite heavily from environmental conditions (3-6″).
These plants are perennial shrubs in nature, grown in gardens mostly for their foliage. They tend to grow more on the margins of other plants, so they can tolerate varying light levels pretty well.
There are about 30 species of Iresine, native to areas in and around Brazil. In the northern hemisphere, they’re much less common. A few colorful varieties of bloodleaf were crafted through selective breeding, with four of the most popular cultivars being Aureoreticulata (green leaves with yellow veins), Brilliantissima (bright red leaves with pink veins), Blazin Rose (deep red-purple leaves with pinkish-red veins), and Acuminata (dark maroon leaves with pinkish-red veins).
During the heavy growing seasons of Spring and Summer, water when the soil is dry to about an inch. Keep watering until water comes out of the drainage holes, to make sure the roots are soaked. This plant really enjoys its moisture! You can keep the humidity and water retention higher during these seasons by mulching around the plant.
If you’re growing the Bloodleaf as a perennial, reduce the moisture in Fall and Winter. Don’t let the soil dry out, but watering will need to be less frequent as temperatures fall and the plant drinks less.
A thirsty plant will show browning around the edges of leaves, and sometimes the dropping of leaves. Keep them out of the way of dry drafts!
If you have a tray beneath the pot to catch water, make sure to empty the tray out after about 15 minutes. The Bloodleaf likes moisture, but not necessarily sitting in water.
Bloodleaf Plants enjoy full sunlight – and more light gets you fuller color. However, they are margin plants (growing around the edges of other plants in the wild) that can tolerate partial shade. In the winter, they’ll prefer a little less light – get them out of full sun or off the windowsill. Balancing that, they can also tolerate more light as they grow larger.
If the plant becomes leggy (with long spacing between the leaves), it isn’t getting enough light.
These plants come from a place with high temperature and humidity – if you grow them outdoors in cool areas, they’ll act more like annuals than perennials. To keep them as perennials, you’ll need to be in zone 10 – 11. In other words – they love when life is around 65-80F (18-27C), and may fail if below 55F (13C).
To save the plants, keep them indoors for the cold times. Don’t move them back outside until the ground is warm(ish) both day and night.
Amend the potential potting spot with manure or compost before putting the plant in. These plants enjoy eating up those nutrients! During the growing season (Spring to Fall in most areas), feed regularly with high-nitrogen fertilizer.
Organically rich soil that drains freely. If you’re potting it (whether for winter or its whole life), use a loamy, soil-based potting mix. Acidic, with a ph of 5.5-5.9.
To keep the soil from losing too much moisture (especially in a pot), it’s a good idea to cover around the plant with a light mulching.
Root & Pot
If you’re growing this plant in a pot, it’s best to move it up a size each year until it reaches its mature size (or your limit on room, as happened to me). Once they’re mature, repot them every other year if possible. Spring is a good time to do it. If you can pull up the whole plant without much trouble, check to see whether the roots have reached the bottom of the pot.
Size & Speed
Grown outdoors in something approaching their natural habitat, they’ll reach up to 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide, turning into a large reddish bushy mass. Grown indoors or in pots, however, they may only reach a foot or two tall. The leaves are most commonly less than four inches long.
You can periodically pinch off the growth tips to encourage bushier growth. To further the foliage along, you can pinch off the small flowers that might spring up. It generally responds quite well to pruning. The old leaves will fall off over time, giving an unpruned plant a scraggly appearance. If your plant is large enough, the pruned pieces could be a little larger and treated as cuttings to propagate.
These are quite easy to propagate by cuttings. For the best chance of success, take cuttings early in the growing season. Make sure they’re at least a few inches long. You may have to remove the bottom set(s) of leaves to allow it to stand in water. You can potentially seal it in a plastic bag to help it retain moisture (but be careful of fungus). Change the water regularly, and keep them warm. Put the cuttings in soil when you feel the roots can handle it.
I had a 1 in 3 success rate on rooting 4″ cuttings without rooting hormone. Using the compound increases your chances from there.
Flower & Fruit
If the plant isn’t grown in ideal conditions, it likely won’t flower.
The flowers are small, green and white, and don’t add much to the look of the plant. If you want, pinch off the flowers to devote more energy to foliage growth. Conveniently, they come up in bunches at the ends of the stems.
I had once misidentified one of these as an orach, so I ate a leaf to test it out. It was like a quite bitter spinach, with a similar texture to the raw leaf. Perhaps a better use – the juices can be squeezed out as a natural red food dye.
Pests & Diseases
Not very likely, but they may get aphids, mealy bugs, scale, or whitefly.
Browning around the edges of leaves, or leaves falling off, can be a sign of too little moisture. Up the humidity through misting, and potentially add a layer of mulch to the soil.
Responds very well to pruning.
Thanks for stopping by! I hope you had a pleasant time checking out the plants. If you’re in the mood for more nature, please stay in touch!