Phuket Gardening – put a cork in your garden

PHUKET: There are small trees around Phuket that you simply never notice until they suddenly burst dramatically into bloom.

Millingtonia (Indian cork tree) is one of these. A verdant wayside presence during the monsoon, it comes into its own in October, producing masses of white, fragrant flowers which account for one of its popular names of “tree jasmine”. A more profuse bloomer than any of the jasmine family, the young five-petaled flowers are pendant and bell-shaped, only revealing their similarity to jasmine when fully open.

Moreover, these panicles or clusters are produced at the end of long, elegant white stems. No wonder this tree is popular in Phuket, where it is known simply as biip. Some imaginative developers employ it as an ornamental tree for lining the avenues of residential estates: Patak Villas in Chalong, for instance, has many of these trees, all currently in fragrant bloom.

There are other reasons why it is a good choice for street or garden. One is its rapidity of growth. It takes only six to eight years to reach maturity and will flower much earlier than that. And millingtonia quickly develops an attractive shape, with an elongated trunk and relatively open crown. Perfect for gardens where you want to cultivate smaller shrubs underneath without depriving them of too much sun.

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The Indian cork tree is an only child, without relatives of any description. Thank goodness, it is widely distributed in Phuket, especially by birds, who have a liking for the flat, capsule-like seeds. It is quintessentially a South East Asian tree and is apparently not much cultivated elsewhere. Indeed, it revels in the hot humid climate which characterizes this part of the globe, where it will tolerate poor soil so long as it gets a sufficiency of moisture and sun.

Erythrina (the coral tree), on the other hand is a member of the substantial genus of fabaceae, small trees and shrubs with spiny trunks and branches, that belong to the pea family. Although there is a white variety, most possess strikingly beautiful red flowers that either droop in dense coral clusters (crista-galli) or are borne on long spikes (fusca). Crista galli, the most exotic family member, has the common name of cockspur coral, since its blooms resemble the comb of a cockerel.

However, there are several advantages to having a coral tree in your Phuket garden. In well-drained soil and over a dry period – it is free-flowering, and has attractive, three part leaves which are either a vivid dark green or, in the case of variegata, boldly patterned with bright yellow. It is moreover, mostly evergreen. Normally, the leaves fall once a year, allowing the brilliant scarlet flowers to be fully visible; in other cases, the leaves and blooms appear together.

Unlike millingtonia which has a long slender stem, the coral tree has a short trunk which means that its height rarely exceeds three meters. And its nectar-rich flowers mean that it attracts a wide variety of nectar-feeding birds. Definitely one for the ornithologists among you.

Phuket Gardening is Phuket Gazette columnist Patrick Campbell’s feature of all things flora.

Keep checking our online Phuket Lifestyle pages for regular gardening features and tips.

— Patrick Campbell

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