The copper plant, also known as the copperleaf, is a much-loved shrub found in tropical gardens around the world. If you live in a tropical zone, the copper plant is low maintenance, needing a minimum of care and feeding. If you live outside a tropical zone, you’ll need to pamper your copper plant a bit, but we think the small amount of extra trouble is worth it for the beauty.
Copper plants come from the genus Acalypha, which includes over 400 different shrubs and herbs that grow mainly in tropical areas of the Americas and the South Pacific. Acalypha wilkesiana, the copper plant’s technical name, comes in many different varieties, including plants with pink, purple, green and white foliage.
With so many different tones, it can blend beautifully with all types of flora. You can use it to accent the greenery in your backyard or as a standalone centerpiece to add color to a bare room.
According to the USDA, the copper plant grows best outdoors in Plant Hardiness Zones nine through 11. Outside those zones, it will still thrive indoors. You can also get it started outside in its own container as long as you bring it inside once the temperature starts to fall.
What Does the Copper Plant Look Like?
Although copper plants do flower, their best feature is their colorful, oval-shaped leaves. If you expose them to enough direct sunlight, the leaves will develop an intense palette of rusty colors that outshine the tiny flowers.
Copper plants grow both male and female flowering parts. Male flowers have long, drooping spikes, while female flowers are just as spiky but a bit smaller and shorter. They also grow small inedible fruits that look like sleeping bags stuffed with stones and contain bunches of rock-hard seeds.
One of the most popular kinds of copper plant is the Marginata, which has pink outlines surrounding the beautiful copper-colored leaves. Another popular sub-species is the Tricolor, which comes with leaves that are red, yellow and green. The Tricolor usually grows around 3 to 5 feet high and a couple of feet wide.
Other robust kinds of copper plants may grow up to 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide if you give them enough food and space. If you keep it warm enough, your copper plant can keep growing all year round.
How To Start Growing Your Copper Plant
This plant doesn’t need a special seedling soil substrate. Any rich, organic soil mix will work. Copper plant seedlings are hardy and grow fast, so you can start them in the same soil as adult plants.
It’s easy to propagate copper plants from stem tip cuttings, which grow much faster than starting from a seed. If you’ve seen copper plants around your neighborhood, you can ask your friendly neighborhood green thumbs if they’ll let you take a cutting to start your own. If not, you can probably find some starter plants in your local nursery.
To take a cutting, measure about three or four inches down from a soft stem tip. Cut the stem at a 45-degree angle to give it plenty of space to sprout roots. Remove all but the two to four leaves at the top of the cutting. Before it has time to suck in air, quickly dip the bottom of your cutting into rooting powder or honey.
Start the cutting in a small pot so you can customize its environment. Use your finger to make a hole in the dirt in the middle of the pot about a finger-length deep. Put the cutting in the hole, and give it plenty of water.
Keep your cutting in a shady place at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In about a month and a half, your cutting will probably have outgrown the small pot and be ready for replanting.
Once either the leaves outgrow the pot’s diameter or you start to see roots coming out of the holes at the bottom, replant it in a bigger pot or outside in your garden. Water it first to help the dirt and roots stick together.
Make sure the hole in your new substrate is big enough to fit the entire contents of the small pot. Leave at least three feet of space on the sides so the copper plant can grow. Place the ball of roots and dirt inside the hole, and water it again to help it stick to the new dirt.
If you like babying your garden, copper plants thrive with extra care and planning. Its final location should be protected from strong winds that could topple it. If you’re planting it outdoors, make sure the temperature rarely dips below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
The more the sun hits it, the brighter your copper plant’s colors will shine. Don’t be afraid to give it a bit of shade, though, if you live in an exceptionally hot area.
Care and Feeding
Copper plants hate to be dry, so try to keep their soil perpetually damp. If they dry out, the roots may start withering up, and the leaves will fall off.
They prefer high humidity in the air as well, so don’t be afraid to mist their leaves when the weather is dry. If you live in a particularly cool, dry area, you may need to use a pebble tray or a humidifier.
Don’t let your copper plant sit in the same water for days or it may start to wilt as the roots rot. If you keep it in a pot, keep the drainage holes unclogged, and empty the tray regularly.
New leaves should be bright and colorful. If the colors look faded or you see too much green, your plant may be asking for more light.
You can fertilize outdoor plants during the warm temperatures of spring, summer and fall with any water-soluble fertilizer. They’ll grow slower during the winter, so you can give them less water and stop fertilizing them until spring returns.
It’s a good idea to prune your copper plant around springtime to keep it growing strong and bushy. You should mainly take off tips that branch too far out from the rest, and never remove more than half the bulk of the plant at one time.
Your copper plant won’t be the only thing that loves all that watering. If you want to keep your foliage full, you might have your hands full fighting the slugs and snails that love to hang out around moist copper plants. Put beer traps on the ground around your plants to keep the critters away from the leaves.
Whiteflies are another common copper plant pest. You can take care of them with sticky traps made from yellow or blue tape. They also hate it when you spray the plant down with soapy water. Whiteflies are persistent, but you’re more patient than they are.
Other unwanted copper plant guests can include spider mites and mealybugs. A good remedy for those is to wipe down problem areas with rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball.
Acalypha wilkesiana plants can accentuate interior design or exterior flora with their variety of intense colors. They make a beautiful complement to tall trees and can brighten up blank walls and porches in a stylized pot or hanging basket. They also pair exceptionally well with their relative, the chenille plant, having some of the same tones and features.
Copper plants are known for their medicinal uses. They’ve been used against skin fungal infections, gastrointestinal disorders and even diabetes. They aren’t toxic in small quantities but can cause diarrhea and vomiting if you ingest large amounts. Prolonged contact with the plant’s sap may also incite severe dermatitis. According to the ASPCA, they don’t pose a danger to cats and dogs.