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Products > Gomphocarpus physocarpus
Gomphocarpus physocarpus - Hairy Balls
Image of Gomphocarpus physocarpus
[2nd Image]
Habit and Cultural Information
Category: Perennial
Family: Apocynaceae (Dogbanes & Milkweeds)
Origin: Tropical Africa
Flower Color: White
Bloomtime: Spring/Fall
Synonyms: [Asclepias physocarpa]
Height: 4-6 feet
Width: 2-3 feet
Exposure: Full Sun
Irrigation (H2O Info): Medium Water Needs
Winter Hardiness: 20-25 F
May be Poisonous  (More Info): Yes
Gomphocarpus physocarpus (Hairy Balls) An upright herbaceous perennial with fibrous roots that can grow over 6 feet tall with an upright to vase shaped habit. It has a single stout trunk with short pale green and hollow branchlets that hold smooth light green 3 to 4 inch long narrowly oblong to lanceolate shaped leaves. Half inch wide cream to white waxy flowers in pendulous clusters are borne primarily from late spring to early fall (May to October). The white flowers tingled with pink and purple are lightly fragrant with a vanilla scent, and like many milkweeds are interesting upon inspection, but that showy from much of a distance. The flowers are followed by unusual and attractive fruit. The pale green inflated sphere shaped fruits that are up to 3 inches in diameter and covered with soft hairs that darken to red or brown before splitting open to release the seed which are attached to soft pappus hairs, so that they float along in the wind. Plant in full sun in a well drained soil with regular to occasional irrigation. It is often treated as an annual but is actually a short lived tender perennial that lives through winters in USDA Zones 8 and above, though some think it best to replant the plants can be cult back in fall to have new shoots emerge in early spring. This plant is an interesting plant in the garden and the long stems are great in cut flower arrangements. It is a good nectar source for butterflies and other insects and a food source for feeding butterfly caterpillars, including monarchs and it noted as being one of the latest in the season food sources. All parts of this plant exude milky white latex that is poisonous if ingested, so we do list this plant as being poisonous and caution that no part of the plant be eaten. For this reason it seems that deer mostly leave it alone as well. Though most often noted as native to South Africa and abundant there north to Kenya, growing from the coast up to 3,000 ft in elevation in most states in South Africa, the article about this plant on the South African National Biodiversity website indicates that these are old established naturalized populations of Gomphocarpus physocarpus and the plant actually native to tropical Africa to the north. The name for the genus is from the Greek word 'gomphos' meaning "a club" and 'karpos' meaning "fruit" and the specific epithet also derived from the Greek with the word 'physa' meaning "bladder" and and 'karpos' meaning a fruit in referrence to the inflated fruits. Other common names include Balloonplant, Balloon Cotton-bush, Balloon Milkweed, Bishop's Balls, Elephant Balls, Monkey Balls, Nailhead and Swan Plant. Annie's Anuals even jokingly calls this plant "Family Jewels Tree". 

This information about Gomphocarpus physocarpus displayed is based on research conducted in our horticultural library and from reliable online resources. We also will relate observations made about it as it grows in our nursery gardens and other gardens we have visited, as well how the crops have performed in containers in our nursery field. We will also incorporate comments that we receive from others and we welcome hearing from anyone with additional information, particularly if they can share any cultural information that would aid others in growing it.