The name suggests something delicious, possibly exotic, and certainly not of the desert. But the charming and unexpected shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeeana) is a beautiful perennial for desert gardens and is in full, glorious bloom through the entire cool season. Its handsome bracts (modified leaves) resemble the tail of a shrimp.
Native to southern Mexico, shrimp plant is a sprawling perennial that grows only 2 to 3 feet tall but spreads up to 6 feet wide. The 1-inch, thin, pointed leaves are widely spaced on the plant. The white tubular flowers are an inch long or less and grow in clusters that are 4 or more inches long. Each flower is virtually smothered by large, overlapping bracts (modified leaves). These bracts vary from light pink to deep burnt orange, depending on the selection. Because they are actually leaves, the spectacular array persists a long time, beginning as early as September and continuing through February in the deserts.
Shrimp plant is hardy to 10 degrees, although leaves are damaged at 25 degrees. The plants recover quickly from any cold damage. Shrimp plant is remarkably tolerant of a wide range of soils, from dry, rocky alkaline, native soils to rich, garden soils. In the cool part of the year, it needs modest water, every 10 days or 2 weeks, but in the summer, watering should be increased to every 4 to 5 days. Mulch, such as Scotts® Nature Scapes® Color Enhanced Mulch, helps maintain soil moisture in the summer and reduce water frequency. Salty soil or water can result in tip burn, but watering deeply with each application is the best prevention for this condition.
In the deserts, provide light shade or an eastern exposure. Use shrimp plant beneath a shrub or within a mixed perennial planting as a colorful ground cover, and serves well filling a tree basin. It also makes an excellent container plant either alone in a large pot, as the base of a mixed planting, or where its spreading branches cascade over the pot.
There are a number of named selections of this species, many of which are redundant. 'Mutant' is a form with white variegated foliage and deep red bracts, but similar plants show up in other locations with other names. 'Fruit Salad' has bright chartreuse bracts, white flowers with a pink lip, and green foliage. 'Yellow Queen' and 'Chartreuse' both have bright chartreuse bracts, but the flowers are entirely white.