x Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden'
A.Meeuse & de Wet

Family : Acanthaceae
Common name : ruttyruspolia (Eng.)

× Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' shrub Photo © Stafford Smithies
Photo © Stafford Smithies

Because of its beauty and prolific, long-lasting inflorescences, the shrub × Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' is now grown in many urban gardens. It is a rare generic hybrid that shows that even in plants, when white is mixed with red, the result is pink! It is a hybrid between two species placed in separate genera in Acanthaceae: Ruttya ovata Harv. and Ruspolia hypocrateriformis (Vahl) Milne-Redh. var. australis Milne-Redh. The former has white flowers with tiny central, purple dots, while the latter bears scarlet blooms. The resultant plant is vigorous and very decorative. The yellow hue of the leaves in autumn is a bonus.

This is a large to very large, semideciduous shrub, growing fairly fast and reaching to c. 4×4 m in area and 2(–5) m in height. It is many-stemmed, forming a dense, erect to sprawling or scrambling bush. The stems bear pairs of simple, glabrous, ovate leaves that are bicoloured, being a rich medium green on the upper surface and lighter below.

× Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden'  inflorescence Photo © Stafford Smithies × Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' inflorescence
Photo © Stafford Smithies

The flowers are borne mainly in very crowded, spherical to oblong or conical inflorescences up to c. 100×60 mm, borne at the tips of branches.. They look like green bottle brushes before the flowers open. Each inflorescence has many soft, bristle-like bracts. In the axil of each bract there is a group of buds. Each bud has a green calyx with 5 soft, bristle-like lobes, which add to the brush-like appearance. The buds open serially within each group, so flowers of several ages are found together. The flowering time is long, lasting from about December to May. The inflorescences darken in old age and remain on the bush, looking like spiky, black candles.

Close-up of × Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' flowers Photo © Stafford Smithies Close-up of × Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' flowers
Photo © Stafford Smithies

The buds are white but when they open the flowers are a strong rose, mauvish or light pink. Older flowers darken to nearer rosé wine red. The corolla is salverform, with a narrow tube and short lobes held at about right angles. In the flower centre there is a close sprinkling of fine, dark red or purplish dots, especially on the lower lobes. These form a star-shaped, dark ‘honey guide' round the mouth of the corolla tube. These plants generally do not make fruits and seeds, because they are hybrids.

Conservation status
This hybrid does not appear in the Red List of Raimondo et al. (2009). Both parents are listed as LC (of least concern).

Distribution and habitat
× Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' was originally found in 1957 in Wylliespoort, in the Soutpansberg, in the northern part of Limpopo Province. A single plant was found on a rocky slope beside the road. This is in the summer rainfall area and drainage would probably be good. Temperatures would be above average, possibly tempered by a kloof (gorge) position. It would have little or no frost.

Derivation of the name and historical aspects
William H. Harvey honoured Dr John Rutty, a physician from Ireland (1697–1775), by the name Ruttya. Ruspolia was named after Prince Eugenio Ruspoli (1866–1893), an Italian who explored Somaliland but was killed by an elephant while he was still young. Mrs Phyllis van Heerden of Louis Trichardt discovered the natural hybrid, so it was called after her. Cuttings were taken from the original plant and raised at a nursery in Pretoria. Specimens were sent to the National Herbarium for identification, but they could not be matched there. However, they had characteristics of two acanthaceous shrubs that grow in the same area. Dr A.D.J. Meeuse also noticed there were no seeds. Hence he wondered if this were a hybrid plant? This was a surprising idea because species of different genera seldom cross and produce viable seeds.

To prove this idea, Dr Meeuse and Dr J.M.J. de Wet experimented with artificially creating such a hybrid. They removed the stamens of the Ruspolia plant and pollinated the flowers thereafter with Ruttya pollen. Several viable seeds were produced. These were planted and two flowered half a year later. The flowers were closely similar to the natural hybrid but were more mauvish pink than rose pink. In form, the hybrids took mostly after the Ruspolia parent but they had the fine dots on the corolla of the Ruttya species. This decided the matter: the Wylliespoort plant was accepted as a hybrid. Since the natural and artificial hybrids were so much alike they were given the same horticultural name.

A huge number of insects flitter and zoom around this shrub. Small bees, tiny wasps, various flies, large, shiny black, carpenter bees and butterflies all visit the flower heads. They go mainly for those in the sun rather than in the shade. Strangely, very few perch long on the outspread corolla lobes, if they touch them at all. (The bees were too heavy to perch there anyway, especially the carpenter ones.) Most insects land underneath or beside the corolla. If they do land on the open lobes they quickly climb under them, and busy themselves among the bracts and calyces. One wonders what they are collecting. The small bees do not have pollen sacs on their legs, so it isn't pollen, if there were any. Perhaps there is water stored in the narrow calyx tubes, for they were watched only on very hot days. Perhaps the insects are able to pierce the corolla tube base to get at hidden nectar, as they do in Ipomoea carnea Jacq. (personal obs.).

Only a butterfly was seen to land and remain on the corolla limb. It was possibly a citrus swallowtail, Papilio demodocus demodocus, although that species is said to hover and not to settle (Woodhall, 2005). It poked a long tongue down the corolla tube and, presumably, found some reward. It arrived with its long legs hanging almost straight down. These it had to fold up greatly, like doing a press-up, before it could reach the tube. After sipping, it stood up by straightening its legs again, before fluttering off to another flower. Nicholls (2007), in writing about the two parent plants and the hybrid, mentioned birds, and sunbirds in particular, as using these shrubs for nectar and seeds. It seems unlikely that birds are involved in visiting this hybrid as the flowers are rather small and delicate and there are seldom any seeds. More observation may enlarge the list of visitors and solve the mystery of the nature of the reward.

Uses and cultural aspects
Horticulturally, × Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' is a real treasure. It is best grown as a background for a wide, herbaceous border. It could also be placed between not very shady trees and it will happily scramble up them. However, its rather rampant growth may need cutting back at times, after flowering. In the Pretoria Botanical Garden it is cut down to about 0.3 m high every four or five years. It can also be trimmed to form a dense, screening hedge, or more radically cut for a large container on a sunny stoep or patio. It flowers for many months and is useful as a middle-to-late summer bloomer. It has an added advantage in having rich yellow leaves in autumn but perhaps this is so only in colder areas. These contrast well with the now black inflorescences.

The flowers make a good cutflower, looking good for a long time, as new flowers open continually. Finished, brown flowers can be removed gradually by hand. The vase time can be lengthened if a narrow strip of skin is scraped off the basal 20–30 mm of the stem. (Use a thumb nail if in a hurry!) This opens more cells for water absorption than the small cut end of the stem. (Do this with many other flowers and they will usually keep well in water. This includes even those that normally need to have their stem ends put in boiling water, such as chrysanthemums and flowers with woody stems.)

× Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' shrub
× Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden' shrub
Photo © Stafford Smithies

Growing × Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden'

As this is a hybrid plant, generally setting no seed, propagation has to be by cuttings. Nichols (2007) suggested the following: “Use semi-hardwood cuttings from the previous season's growth in early spring, just after the plants begin to grow again. Root the cuttings in a coarse, sandy, well-drained growth medium.” They will root in about a month's time. Move them into their final position when about 0.4 m high. Give them light, humus-rich, well-draining soil with a layer of mulch if possible. They need good light, preferably full sun. The shrubs are said to be half-hardy and might not withstand a heavy frost. Yet two plants, on the colder side of Pretoria, grow happily in the open with no particular shelter nearby. In colder gardens, a position with morning shade might mitigate the effects of frost. In the first two or three winters, protect them with frost covers, hessian or tall grass, if there is likely to be frost. Once over c. 1 m high, the plants will probably survive cold nights. In any case, leave any frosted parts on the bush, even if unsightly, until all danger of frost is over. These will help protect the growth points lower down.

Companion plants could be Anisodontea scabrosa, with pink flowers, and pink varieties of Tecomaria capensis. The former would not become dense enough for a hedge plant but it could be planted nearby. If there is much space, Podranea ricasoleana (Tanfani) Sprague would make a good partner. It also flowers in autumn. For contrast, use Plumbago auriculata, both blue and white forms. Melianthus major and M. elongatus would also add well to a mixed shrub group or hedge. The first has unusual bluish grey leaves and reddish brown flowers, and the second reddish green flowers deep inside the bush in spring. Like × Ruttyruspolia ‘Phyllis van Heerden', these shrubs would all need cutting back quite severely at times, except the Anisodontea, which is not so vigorous. If there is adjacent shade, some of the larger Plectranthus species could be added. They come in various colours – blue, purple, mauve, white and pink – and also flower in autumn.

References and further reading

  • Coates Palgrave, M. 2002. Keith Coates Palgrave Trees of southern Africa, edn 3: 1007. Struik, Cape Town.
  • Fabian, A. & Germishuizen, G. 1997. Wild flowers of northern South Africa : 388, 389. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, Cape Town.
  • Joffe, P. 2001. Creative gardening with indigenous plants, a South African guide : 206. Briza, Pretoria. (See p. 207 for the Ruspolia parent.)
  • Meeuse, A.D.J. & De Wet, J.M.J. 1961. x Ruttyruspolia, a natural intergeneric hybrid in Acanthaceae. Bothalia 7,3: 439–441.
  • Nichols, G. 1997. Trio of stunning African gems. Farmer's Weekly, 27 April: 87.
  • Obermeyer, M. 1971. × Ruttyruspolia “Phyllis van Heerden”. Flowering Plants of Africa 41: t.1622.
  • Raimondo, D., Von Staden, L., Foden, W., Victor, J.E., Helme, N.A., Turner, R.C., Kamundi, D.A. & Manyama, P.A. (eds). 2009. Red list of South African plants 2009. Strelitzia 25: 652.
  • Schmidt, E., Lötter, M. & Burrows, S. 2002. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park : 612, 613. Jacana, Johannesburg.
  • Smith, A.W. 1972. A gardener's dictionary of plant names : 279, 280. Cassell, London.
  • Woodhall, S. 2005. Field guide to butterflies of South Africa : 350. Struik, Cape Town.


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Shirley J. Smithies
National Herbarium
June 2012





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