Growing and Caring for Eyeball Plants

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The eyeball plant gives gardeners an unusual garden plant that also happens to be pretty and easy to grow from seed. Although technically a tender perennial, most people treat this fast-growing plant as an annual, including it wherever a touch of garden whimsy is desired. Fun for kids and the young at heart, the eyeball flower might appear on your short list of favorite container plants after you discover its virtues.

Get to Know the Eyeball Plant

Eyeball plants belong to the Asteraceae family, which includes all types of daisies. Although at first glance you may think that the eyeball plant looks like anything but a daisy, there are some minute ray petals on some wild forms of eyeball flowers. In the case of the cultivated eyeball flower, only the showy central disk floret is observed. Leaves are triangular and deeply veined and may show flashes of burgundy.

The genus name of the eyeball plant is Spilanthes, which means stained flower, due to the reddish pollen on the yellow disks. In the trade, you may see plants referred to by their full Latin name, which is Spilanthes acmella oleracea.

Herbal Uses for Eyeball Plants

The common name of Brazil cress provides a clue to the usefulness of this plant in its native habitat: indigenous peoples use the leaves to season bland, starchy dishes. If you see these plants sold under the nickname “paracress,” note this is in reference to the Brazilian province of Pará. Some describe the taste as salty and exceedingly pungent, which is a polite way of saying spicy.

If the thought of tasting these bizarre plants doesn't surprise you much, perhaps the reason behind the moniker “toothache plant” will: as an herbal and medicinal plant, the leaves, when chewed, have a numbing effect. A further unconventional use for the leaves of the eyeball or “peek-a-boo” plant is to ward off malaria symptoms. In fact, the therapeutic potential of Spilanthes has been reviewed by the National Institutes of Health, demonstrating that it shows real efficacy for some maladies.

Are Eyeball Plants Right for Your Garden?

Eyeball plants may grow as tender perennials in zones 9-11 and grow in all areas as an annual. Eyeball plants grow about a foot tall, with the merry flowers bobbing on stems that increase the total height of the plant to about 15 inches. The foliage of the eyeball plant makes a pleasing contrast to the flowers and is dark green with burgundy tones. The golden flowers are about the size and shape of an olive, with brownish red eyes. Eyeball plants produce the most flowers in full sun, but afternoon shade is tolerated, especially in Southern gardens. When grown from seed, you will see your first blooms around midsummer. Buy young transplants for earlier blooms. The plants will continue blooming until the first frost, although the heaviest flowering occurs from May to August.

How to Plant Eyeball Flowers

Start your eyeball flower seeds indoors about eight weeks before the last frost. Press the seeds lightly into your sterile soil mix, as they need light to germinate. Keep the seedbed moist, and look for germination about three weeks after planting under room temperature conditions of 70 degrees F. You can place the transplants in a sunny spot after all danger of frost has passed. Expect healthy plants to spread to about two feet across, so space them at least 18 inches apart.

How to Care for Eyeball Flowers

Eyeball plants like a site with rich, well-draining, loamy soil. Achieve this by working in compost or leaf mold at planting time. A slightly acidic soil pH between 6.5 and 6.9 will help your eyeball plants to thrive. The addition of organic matter like compost will naturally acidify your soil while adding trace nutrients at the same time.

Your eyeball plant may start to look tired by summer’s end. Help it to wake up and give a fall encore in the garden by pinching it back and giving it feeding with a balanced flower fertilizer.

Garden Design With Eyeball Plants

The eyeball plant is a variety that shines when it can be viewed and examined up close. Although the plants are easy enough to grow to make a suitable ground cover, the curious details of the flowers are lost in mass plantings. Place a few eyeball plants at the edge of a tall container planting, like a porch urn, so visitors can admire the flowers. Eyeball flowers also grow well in hanging baskets, where they blend nicely with other flowers in warm hues, like zinnia ‘Profusion Cherry’ or celosia ‘Chief Mix,’ another flower with an unusual form.