You can’t do much better than old reliable Beefsteak plant

March 29, 2017

When gas stoves began to replace slower-burning wood stoves, the phrase, "Now we are cooking with gas" came to mean finally getting a job done after slow progress or failed attempts. Take humble Philadelphia hot dog vendors Pat and Harry Olivieri. Delicious as hot dogs can be, even a die-hard fan can only eat so many hot dogs before getting bored. So Pat made up a favorite non-hot dog sandwich of thinly sliced beef and onions on an Italian roll.

A cab driver raved about this new sandwich, and the Olivieris soon started selling them at their stand near South Philadelphia's Italian Market, and the Philly Steak sandwich was born. 
Beefsteak is just as delicious in the garden. Beefsteak tomatoes are like their namesake, juicy, thick and meaty. 

But beefsteak is also an heirloom ornamental with stunning dark maroon, heart-shaped leaves and thick red veins. Beefsteak Plants, also called Bloodleaf (Iresine herbstii), reach 8 inches high, and spread up to 4 feet across. This makes for a spectacular ground cover. 

Or try them in large mixed pots or hanging baskets. They enjoy partial shade and go well with other shade lovers, such as coleus and impatiens. This tropical plant cannot take cold winter temperatures but makes a nice house plant when grown indoors in bright light.

You can enjoy them outside all summer, then bring them indoors before the first frosts. While it is easiest to start with full-grown plants, you can propagate Beefsteak plants from stem cuttings that root easily in water. If you are lucky enough to have plants that set seeds, collect the seedpods after the flowers fade. Let the seedpods thoroughly dry on the plants before cutting them. 

These easy-to-grow plants prefer soil pH between 6.1 to 7.8. Even though they thrive in rich, fertile soil, they do well in almost any well-drained soil, even sandy soils.

Avoid soggy or compacted clay soils. You can add organic material such as aged manure, compost, or peat moss to lighten heavy soil. 

Sow seeds indoors several weeks before your last spring frost. Just barely cover the seeds because they need light to germinate. Ideal indoor temperature is 72 to 77 degrees F. They should sprout in as little as five days, but be patient; they can take up to 20 days to germinate. After all danger of frost, transplant them into containers or outside into the garden. Because they sprawl, space them 12 to 18 inches apart. 

For best color choose a bright, sunny spot. They will do well in partial dappled sunlight, but not full shade. The best purple color is when grown with at least some sun, otherwise the leaves turn a bronze-green. They are fairly drought hardy, so let the soil dry out slightly before watering. You can fertilize Beefsteak plants with water-soluble organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion. 

Some of the more popular varieties are Blazin Lime, with bright-green foliage, and dark-leaved Purple Lady. 

To keep Beefsteak plants in bounds and create a bushier plant, pinch about an inch from the tips of each stem. They are susceptible to aphid and spider mite attacks. 

You can treat infected plants by spraying with insecticidal soap or organic treatments of pyrethrin, a natural repellent. Avoid chemical pesticides which kill beneficial insects such as ladybugs that eat aphids and spider mites. 

For a colorful, easy-to-grow heirloom you can't do much better than old reliable Beefsteak Plant. Try them on the patio while you eat an Italian roll layered with sliced beef, onions and provolone cheese. Now you're cooking with gas.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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