Phuket Gardening: The three o’clock flower

PHUKET: Today we consider two purple bloomers new to these columns. One, the Indian rhododendron (melastoma malabathricum), with flowers a glorious shade of deep magenta, was discovered by your correspondent in a garden center on Chao Fa West, south of Phuket Town, better known for its range of rustic stone.

For a moment I wondered whether it was the same shrub I had seen flourishing in gardens in San Francisco, but those had been small trees and possessed larger and even more spectacular blooms. Further research revealed that the Californian version belongs to the allied genus, tibouchina.

Nonetheless, the Thai specimens were constrained by plastic pots and although they were compact and shrubby, apparently they can rival their American cousins in height. The lance-shaped foliage is deeply veined and dark green, and the delicately separated, five-petaled flowers, borne in small terminal heads, are somewhere between those of a tulip tree (bauhinia) and a hibiscus.

The shrub requires reasonably fertile, well-drained soil and a position in the sun or filtered shade. Propagation is usually from half-hardened cuttings. In India, it occurs naturally, so it must be tough, but I had not spotted it in Phuket before.

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Today’s second newcomer has delicate, tissue-paper-thin flowers in a heavenly shade of lavender. The blooms are so ephemeral they last only until three in the afternoon and then fall. Hence its common Thai name “three o’clock flower”.

The showy, funnel-form flowers, slightly darker at the center, are produced on thin reddish stems, and are complemented by attractive, narrow leaves. Without seeing the blooms, one might be forgiven for thinking it was a Michaelmas daisy. Its name is ruellia squarrosa and, like the Indian rhododendron, it is beginning to appear in garden centers. Only today, I noticed a newly planted bed outside Central Festival.

Views concerning its cultivation differ: one expert maintains it can be grown as a marsh or pool-side plant with its roots immersed in water, after the manner of papyrus or water cannas. Personally, I am trying it out in a ceramic pot in full sun, while ensuring, unlike adjacent desert plants – euphorbias, yuccas and adeniums – that it gets plenty of water.

Every day, it produces fifteen to twenty blooms. Apparently there are purple and red varieties, but the lavender one seems so much more refined. Although it is soft stemmed, ruellia can be grown from cuttings.

A couple of sturdy annuals escaped mention last week. Both are uninvited visitors to my garden, their seeds, I assumed, borne by the wind or birds. One, marvel of Peru (mirabilis jalapa), was prone to self-sow in my Spanish garden. Indeed, like the balsam, it is naturalized in parts of Phuket. It seems to appear from nowhere, and since it is bushy and fast growing, it is useful for filling the odd gap. The small, long-stemmed flowers can be white, yellow, pink, or even greenish in hue. It needs moist conditions. Ideal for a wild area of your garden.

The West Indian holly or sage rose (turnera ulmifolia), which comes from Central America, has flowers which are buttercup yellow – the same color as the much larger giant sunflower, perhaps the most spectacular of all annuals.

But the blooms of the sage rose, attractive to bees, butterflies and birds alike, are not insignificant; 3-4 centimeters across, they are copiously produced. The leaves are deep green and serrated. One surprising fact: the seeds are often dispersed by ants, this may account for its unforeseen appearance in my pots. Like the ruellia, it has a built-in time clock: susceptible to light conditions, it closes its flowers at four o’clock. Two flowers to set your watch by….

Tip of the week – street trees
Few of us have our own street [soi], but we may be in a position to suggest suitable trees.

In a housing development in Chalong, rectangular spaces were left in the pavements for champaks. They now form an attractive avenue of perfumed greenery. For urban/suburban streets, it is preferable to choose small evergreen trees (4-5 meters), without branches that will eventually interfere with overhead wiring. Coconut palms are too risky. On the other hand, many palms are chosen, because they are graceful, can withstand dry periods, have smallish roots and do not shed their fronds.

The foxtail palm is ideal. If a median strip exists, it is better to plant trees there, since the foliage will provide relief from headlight glare, the roots will not crack the paving, and branches will not need annual trimming. Cassias, neem trees, jacarandas and crape myrtles are popular choices in Southern Thailand.

If you have a question or a garden that you would like featured, you can email the author here.

Keep checking our online Phuket Lifestyle pages or join our Facebook fan page for regular gardening features and tips.

— Patrick Campbell

Thai Life

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