The genus Christia contains two species of plants from the bean family (Fabaceae) that never fail to intrigue and make conversation pieces whether they are grown in the garden or in a pot indoors. The species include Christa obcordata and Christia vespertilionis. The interesting feature about these two species lies in their leaves – they resemble and flutter in a slight breeze like butterflies! As such, they are excellent candidates for planting in a children’s garden!
These two Christia species grow as perennials in the tropics (in Singapore). They are rather upright shrubs with slightly arching branches and grow to a height of about 60 cm. Like other relatives in the same family, Christa obcordata and Christia vespertilionis have a compound leaf with three leaflets. The leaflet in the center is roughly triangular in shape and has a size that is larger than the remaining two leaflets. Plants have rather thin stems and leaves are attached to stems via flexible, wiry petioles, which explains why the leaflets move easily with the slightest agitation. Leaves of Christia hang downward during night time.
Christa obcordata is known via a range of common names such as the Butterfly Stripe Plant, Swallowtail and Iron Butterfly. From Internet sources, the version that is grown horticulturally is perhaps a cultivar and has a cultivar name called ‘Stripe’, which has reddish brown stripes on a green leaf. The leaves of this plant are often larger compared to those of Christia vespertilionis. I have not witness it flower yet under local conditions.
The other species, Christia vespertilionis, is commonly referred to as Mariposa or Red Butterfly Wing. As the latter common name suggests, Christia vespertilionis has red leaves that are striped red. The leaves of this species are generally smaller compared to those found on Christa obcordata ‘Stripe’. The central leaflet has a concave margin which makes it look like a little boomerang. It has been observed to flower and the plant self-seeds.
Both Christia species are best grown under semi-shade outdoors. They are best kept out of direct sunlight outdoors as plants dry out quickly and the colour in the leaves becomes bleached. In an apartment, grow them in a location where they can be exposed to filtered sunlight for 4 to 6 hours daily. Both species prefer to be grown in soil that is well-draining and kept moist at all times. One can propagate them via stem-cuttings. Some pruning can be performed to keep plants looking great and encourage a bushier growth habit. Under conducive growing conditions, both species are relatively pest- and disease-free.
To date, the supply of these two species is quite sporadic in Singapore. They are not the ”bread and butter’ plants that appear all the time in local nurseries here. Christia vespertilionis appears to be more commonly available compared to Christa obcordata.