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Pentas, Butterfly

Plant of the Week

Butterfly Pentas
Latin: Digitalis Pentas lanceolata

Picture of Butterfly Penta plant with red flowers.

Trying new plants is half of the fun of gardening. Pentas, while certainly not new, was considered primarily a greenhouse plant until the past few years when growers started offering it as a summer annual much like the more common lantana. Because it does so well in the heat and humidity of Arkansas the Butterfly Pentas was selected as an Arkansas Select plant for 2002.

Butterfly Pentas (Pentas lanceolata) is a member of the subtropical madder family to which coffee and quinine belong. In its native habitat in tropical east Africa and southern Arabia Pentas grows as a subshrub with woody stems at the base and herbaceous stems above.

In the garden Pentas plants can grow to 24 inches tall with a spread of 16 inches. Plants have opposite, lance shaped leaves to three inches long that are covered with short hairs. The plant branches freely from the base with each branch terminating in a dense cluster of flowers that can be three or four inches across.

Pentas flowers are tubular with each bloom producing a star-shaped set of petals at the end of the tube. Flower colors are in vivid shades of red, pink, blue and white and plants continue to bloom all summer. The blooms are clustered together into a dense flat topped cyme which makes an ideal perch for the butterflies that can be seen circling around it like miniature buzzards awaiting their turn at a dead armadillo.

Pentas is one of those plants like coleus and vinca that became known by their Latin names instead of some fanciful common name. The only common name I find listed for Pentas is "Egyptian Star Flower", but I've never heard anyone actually call it that. The name Pentas is the Greek word for five and is the same root word as Pentagon, and refers to the five lobes on the floral tube.

The Butterfly Pentas strain was selected as an Arkansas Select plant for 2002 because the committee of University and Arkansas Green Industry professionals which make the recommendations unanimously agreed on its outstanding performance across the state. For a complete list of Arkansas Select plants for 2002 consult the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service website at

Pentas can be used in the garden in mass plantings or as spots of color in the border. They should have full sun and a reasonably fertile soil but are by no means picky about the site. Less than six hours of sun will reduce flowering. Once established they have good heat and drought tolerance.

Plants can be propagated by cuttings or from seed. Growing plants from seed is slow and requires about 14 weeks to produce a blooming plant. Few insects or disease problems are reported on this plant. At the end of the summer cuttings can be taken and plant will continue to bloom through the winter if located in a warm, south facing window.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - May 17, 2002

 

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.