An interesting group of 90 odd species of plants comes from tropical and subtropical Asia, the Malay Archipelago, Pacific Islands and Australia. Called Agapetes, this group is generally low growing and in many species is an epiphyte growing on trees in rainforest areas.
‘Agapetes’ is from the Greek word ‘agapetos’ which means ‘beloved’ because of the showy nature of the plant. This group of plants belong to the family Ericaceae which includes Ericas, Blueberries and Rhododendrons.
There are only a few species in New Zealand, as far as I know, and the most common one is Agapetes serpens (‘serpens’, Latin for ‘snake’ possibly for the long pendulous branches or maybe the chevron markings on the flowers.)
Agapetes serpens comes from Nepal, Bhutan and Northern Assam where it grows at an altitude of 1500 to 2000metres. They naturally grow as an epiphyte though they are sometimes found on the ground and on rocks.
To be able to survive periods of drought times the plants develop a fleshy caudex ( a water storing root) which can get to quite a large size. One year my plant didn’t get any water at all and the top died off. I thought I had lost it but after the rain came it sprouted happily away from the caudex and will make a nice new top.
The branches arch out up to a metre from the caudex and hanging below them are the five sided tubular red flowers with darker chevron markings. These flowers seem to appear for most of the year though most are produced in spring/summer time.
New growth is red, as are the young stems.
Fruit are pale coloured, fleshy and are edible though not very tasty.
Plants will grow in full sun, where greater colour in the leaves occurs, or in light shade where they are greener. They make very good subjects for hanging baskets as you can hang them at or above eye height to enjoy the flowers. Watering need only be occasionally. They can stand a light frost but are better protected from them.
Sometimes these plants can be purchased as house plants. Try planting them outside, they are worth it.