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Machu Morado is the ruellia you've always wanted

by Norman Winter, Tribune News Service | April 17, 2021 at 1:35 a.m.
The ruellia or Mexican petunia is in the Acanthus family and related to plants like the firespike. (TNS/Norman Winter)

Machu Morado is one of the most intriguing new plants in name and performance. In reality it is a dream come true, but I'll explain. First it is a Mexican petunia or ruellia, the gregarious "Uncle Buck" of the Acanthus family. A lot of gardening folks think it is a petunia.

These are the purple blue flowers that look so mystical in color and that everyone deeply wants in the garden. This is the ruellia however that strikes fear and trepidation for having a reputation of aggressiveness to the point of sparking anger in some.

But Proven Winners has introduced this new version and has given it a name hinting at one of the wonders of the world: Machu Picchu. This is the most visited site in Peru and, to me, the most appropriate name as Peru is one of the countries where ruellia is native.

Machu is reference to "old" or "ancient" and Picchu is the "peak," the ancient peak that the Incans built their village around and today represents one of the best archaeology preservations on the planet. "But," you ask, "what about Machu Morado?" The ancient reference is still the same but, in this case, Morado is the ancient and revered color purple.

When you think about what this plant represents, coupled with such a mystical name, southern gardeners should get pumped. The fear of unwanted spread is gone. The threat of seedlings or spread by underground rhizomes is no more. Sure, your clump will enlarge like a typical perennial and you can divide as you wish. You can also simply grow as a heat loving annual.

You know by now that The Garden Guy always looks at plants with an eye toward being a benefit to pollinators. Every place I have grown this ruellia species, pollinators have arrived. In Savannah, Ga., at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens we had Zebra heliconians feed. In Harris County, Ga., there were Cloudless Suphurs and the treasured Pipevine Swallowtails.

When I was director of the National Butterfly Center in south Texas, we grew native ruellias as one of the key sources as a larval host for the revered green Malachite butterfly. Most don't know that there are four native ruellias in Texas, with their own tendency toward an aggressive nature. Our Machu Morado species, Ruellia simplex, can likewise be a host plant for the Malachite, and also the White Peacock and Common Buckeye.

Machu Morado is a new award-winning introduction of Mexican petunia or ruellia with luscious purple blooms and no threat of unwanted spread in the garden. (Proven Winners)
Machu Morado is a new award-winning introduction of Mexican petunia or ruellia with luscious purple blooms and no threat of unwanted spread in the garden. (Proven Winners)

Machu Morado is already an award winner. A few that will most definitely catch your eye are Top Performer in University of Georgia Trials and Leader of the Pack at the JC Raulston Arboretum in North Carolina. It was also a Top Performer at the University of Florida, Fort Lauderdale trials.

Ruellia grows best in full sun, but I have seen some remarkable plantings in Mississippi that received quite a bit of shade and still bloomed profusely. This was the same on our patch in Savannah. The Mexican petunia thrives in moist well-drained organic rich soils and well in poorer soils, too!

Machu Morado will get about 32 inches tall with a spread of 18 inches. For an attractive informal drift, you will want to place them about 18 inches apart. The deep green foliage with hints of burgundy is attractive and works well in combination plantings.

You would love them planted with lantanas like Luscious Marmalade, the new Luscious Red Zone or Luscious Goldengate. Other good combinations with Macchu Morado would be echinacea or coneflowers like the flaming Orange You Awesome, Yellow My Darling or the new Price Is White.

My Machu Morado plants have returned this spring after what I consider a cold winter with a lot of hours below freezing. We in Georgia, on the other hand, did not have a 50-year freeze like Texas. You can definitely expect them to be perennials in zone 8, and warmer on typical winters and often in zone 7.

It is a wonderful time to be a gardener with so many new plants from which to choose. If you have a long hot summer ahead then put Machu Morado at the top of your list.

Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden."

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