Add Christmas clover, Alternanthera species, to the colorful string of ornamental plants used to deck the halls and adorn the mantle for the holidays.
Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, poinsettia, and cyclamen are familiar plants used to festoon homes for the holidays. Delight guests with something out of the ordinary and unexpected like containers of Christmas clover.
There are numerous species of Alternanthera but two most commonly used as Christmas clover at holiday time are Alternanthera ficoidea and Alternanthera dentata. The former is a native of Mexico and the latter originated in the West Indies.
Portrait of Christmas Clover
The plant is prized for its brightly marbled or variegated foliage with shades of green, red, yellow, pink and purple. The rich color patterns give rise to two of its common names, Joseph’s coat, and Calico plant. Joyweed, another common name, befits the holiday season too.
In December Alternanthera puts forth inconspicuous small white flowers resembling clover blossoms.
Christmas clover is in the amaranth family and gomphrena, celosia, and love-lies-bleeding are relatives.
The Two Lives of Christmas Clover
Christmas clover leads two lives. The sun-loving tender perennial is usually grown outdoors as an annual in spring and summer. In a tropical summer garden, they provide lush rainbow foliage among cannas, elephant ears, hosta, leopard plants, and bananas.
Alternanthera species are winter hardy outdoors only in USDA zones 10-11. So to prolong the enjoyment many gardeners take Alternanthera indoors in fall to be a houseplant for winter.
As a houseplant, Alternanthera needs a well-lit location like a southern exposure, commercial potting mix and a container that offers good drainage. The houseplant should be watered well, checked for pests, and pinched back.
Pinching creates a full and compact plant and promotes the natural upright growth habit of the plant. Species range in height is from 6-36 inches tall.
Pests and diseases are not common for Christmas clover.
Varieties of Alternanthera
Garden centers carry many different varieties of Alternanthera year-round. Some of the most popular varieties are:
- Crème de Menthe
- Party Time
- Purple Knight
- Red Marble
- Snow Carpet
- Trailing Ruby Red
Propagating Christmas Clover
Christmas clover is easily propagated by seeds or cuttings. Seeds may be started indoors in flats of soilless potting mix and under grow lights at any time of year.
To propagate cuttings strip the lower leaves from 6-inch cuttings and place in moist sand or peat leaving at least one set of leaves above the soil. Alternately, cuttings may be rooted in water and then potted.
If you start cuttings in summer, you will have Christmas clover favors for the holiday table and to gift to guests.
Joseph’s Coat Look-Alike
When Thomas Jefferson took a botanical tour of Europe in 1786, he found a lovely “summer poinsettia” to bring back to Monticello. The seeds of the Amaranthus tricolor are for sale today at Monticello.
The common name is also Joseph’s coat and the foliage colors are vivid reds and yellows. This plant is a cousin of Alternanthera’s and, if used at yuletide too, is like having “family” together for the holidays.
No matter what name you use, the many varieties and kin of Christmas clover enliven and brighten the holiday season for everyone.
- Brickel, Christopher and Trevor Cole, eds. The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers. New York: DK Publishing, 2002.
- “Alternanthera dentata” on Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder website
- “Joseph’s Coat Seeds” on The Thomas Jefferson Foundation website
- Winter, Norman. “Old, New Joseph’s Coats Yield Rainbow of Colors.” Mississippi State University, July 28, 2005, on website