The Mickey Mouse plant appears to be around in Singapore’s garden landscape for quite a long time. This plant can be grown as a shrub or allowed to grow into a small tree but usually, a colony of this plant are pruned to form a hedge that has been sheared to various heights. For a long time, I have never taken notice of Mickey Mouse plant as it appeared to me as a rather boring foliage shrub most of the time. The mature foliage of this plant is dark green and slightly glossy while newly formed leaves taken on a coppery colour tone.
My opinion of this plant took a turn recently when I saw it in flower and that took place when I was on my way to work. There was a hedge of Mickey Mouse plants which were used to line the metal railing near the entrance to HortPark’s Floral Walk and those plants were adorned with numerous bright yellow flowers. Each flower has five petals and a clump of stamens positioned in the center. Some sources cited that the flowers are fragrant but I did not notice any scent at close proximity when I snapped pictures posted on this blog. The Mickey Mouse plant seems to have a seasonal blooming habit as it is seldom in bloom most of the time.
A plant that is native to southeastern Africa, the Mickey Mouse plant is botanically known as Ochna kirkii and is a member of a rather obscure plant family, Ochnaceae. Its is sometimes referred to via another synonymous botanical name, O. thomasiana. Ochna is Greek for the wild pear (a species of Pyrus) because leaves of this plant resemble those of the pear tree. The specific epithet kirkii was given in honour of Sir John Kirk (1832 – 1922) who was a British doctor, naturalist and diplomat. He accompanied Dr David Livingstone on this second botanical expedition to Central Africa in 1858.
This plant’s common name ‘Mickey Mouse plant’ has always raised a question mark in my mind as I failed to connect black fruits and the red sepals to Mickey Mouse’s face. The common name was reportedly derived from the appearance of its ripe fruits which is similar to the face of Disney’s Mickey Mouse, complete with a pair of black ears and a red nose. In reality, the fruits of the Mickey Mouse plant are rather small and oval in shape and they turn black when ripe. The black berries are held erect on a waxy red base formed by the enlarged sepals.
Besides being a good hedging candidate and at times, a flowering ornamental shrub, the seeds of the Mickey Mouse plant can be pressed to yield oil that is used to dress the hair by African tribes. Other Ochna species have medicinal uses. It is said to be a source of hard, dense, durable wood and wood from other Ochna species have been used for making wheel spokes, utensil handles and engraving plates.
The Mickey Mouse plant is often planted in locations with semishade to full sun. Like most woody shrubs, one can expect it to prefer to be grown in soil that is fertile and well-draining that is also kept moist at all times. It is said to be easily transplanted and relatively easy to grow and maintain. Common pests include scales, mealybugs and thrips.
I was told by a colleague that there is a ‘musical note plant’ that grows in the one of the planter beds in the Carpark Garden of HortPark. I was made to guess what the plant was and I spent much effort in trying to identify which species of plant it really was. I have to admit that I am not good with imagination. Eventually, I gave up and was eventually given the answer. This ‘musical note plant’ was, in fact, a tropical flowering shrub known as Clerodendrum incisum!
A member of the Lamiaceae family, the musical note plant is botanically known as Clerodendrum incisum. It may also be known via various synonyms which include Clerodendrum macrosiphon and Clerodendrum incisum var. macrosiphon. Other common names of this plant include the morning kiss and witches’ tongue. How this plant earned its infamous name was due to the the shape of its flower buds. Each flower bud consists of a long and slender tube that ends with a flattened, oval-shaped club.
Botanical musical notes produced by Clerodendrum incisum seldom appear alone. The white coloured flower buds appear in an upright fashion in large numbers borne as a cluster. The club portion of the musical note splits to reveal an attractive flower that resembles a small white butterfly together with several red, thin and extremely long, yet, curly proboscis-like stamens.
This plant is a prolific bloomer if it is well-grown and allowed to grow as flowers are produced at the growing tips. The flowers, unfortunately, do not emit a fragrance and are rather short-lived, lasting at most for two days. The floral show will be cut short if heaven decides to pour and opened flowers will be washed off the plant, creating a white carpet of flowers which can be a chore to clear away.
A native of Africa, Clerodendrum incisum grows as a medium shrub with lanceoate, green leaves. It can be grown closely to form a short hedge or in small groupings in a flower/planter bed or even as a single specimen plant in the ground or containers! It is reported to be a fast-grower that prefers to be grown in well-draining, moist soil that is rich in nutrients and organic matter. Fertilise plants monthly with a balanced liquid fertiliser. Clerodendrum incisum is a highly versatile flowering shrub that can be planted in areas with full sun to partial shade and what’s more, it can tolerate short periods of drought once it is established in the garden.
In Singapore, Clerodendrum incisum is largely an evergreen shrub that is occasionally bothered by sucking insect pests such as whiteflies, mealybugs and aphids. Older specimens may also be affected by galls and cankers. Try to grow plants in a well-lit and ventilated space to reduce the likelihood of unappealing leaf spot disease. Propagate Clerodendrum incisum via herbaceous stem cuttings or semi-hardwood cuttings.
In this month’s Home Concepts magazine, I contributed an article on groundcover plants. In it, five relatively ‘new’ plants species were introduced. I call them ‘new’ because they are either not widely used or commonly thought of being a groundcover plant candidate.
Groundcover plants, in general, are low-growing plants that act as a transition zone from the lawn or garden path to taller plants that are grown in a landscape. Groundcover plants also act as a dense soil cover, which help to retard weed growth and prevent soil erosion. They can have attractive foliage or produce colourful flowers can add colour and texture to an otherwise monotonous green landscape.
Depending on the species, groundcover plants vary in height and can either adopt a clumping or running growth habit. Some are woody plants whereas others are herbaceous. The star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is an example of a plant that can both creep and climb whereas the red cat’s tail (Acalypha reptans), golden globes (Lysimachia procumbens), Chinese lobelia (Lobelia chinensis) and various mint (Mentha species and cultivars) are creepers.
My first encounter with this particular Allium species was when I started my community garden in Serangoon North. One of my community gardeners brought it down from home and planted it in one of the planting beds there. She told us it was from China where she cut and used its foliage like spring onion leaves. Unlike the normal spring onion, its leaves are bluish green in colour and have a powdery bloom on them. They stand erect and continues to grow vigorously throughout the year in Singapore. It is vital to grow this plant in direct sunshine, otherwise, the leaves will tend to flop all over.
That was about three years ago and at that time, this Allium species was still not available in the market. It was only in the recent few months did I start to see pots of it appearing in our local nurseries. Most of the time, pots of the plants that are available for sale are not in bloom. There was only one occasion that I managed to purchase a pot that was in flower.
Botanically known as Allium fistulosum, this Allium species has various common names which range from Japanese bunching onion, Welsh onion, multiplier onion and scallion. It is widely grown in tropical Asia and does not develop bulbs like the common onion. It produces basal lateral buds which develop into many offshoots and hence the common name ‘bunching onion’. Flowers are produced in a spherical umbel on a hollow scape and they open from the tip of the umbel downwards.
Plants that appeared in the local nursery scene seem to be rather heat-tolerant since there are sources that report that Allium fistulosum does not thrive in lowland areas with temperatures greater that 25 deg C. This Allium species appear to be also able to tolerate the high rainfall encountered in Singapore as long as it is grown in well-draining, fertile soil that is also rich in organic matter.
I came across a source which mentioned that some Allium fistulosum cultivars flower in short daylength but in general, these conditions encourage vegetative than reproductive growth. Assuming all nursery stock on sale are at the same stage of growth, this could probably mean that there are several different (but indistinguishable) cultivars that are available for sale in Singapore, which explains why some batches of this Allium species do flower whereas others only produce leaves and never flower?
The last instalment of the Root Awakening column for the month of September was published last Saturday. As usual, answers to three gardening questions were given.
The first question was about brown leaf tips seen on pandan plants. It is important to note that the pandan is a plant that thrives in a moist and cool area with filtered sunshine. It is a highly adaptable plant that can also grow in shade but definitely not under direct sun.
The symptoms described seem to suggest that the pandan plant was probably growing in an area that is too hot for the rest of the day since it was said to be growing under a glass trellis which can potentially trap heat from the sun. Soil that is dry can also cause similar problems. Try to keep soil moist at all times and a layer of compost serving as a mulch can also help to keep the roots cool and reduce rate of evaporation of the soil.
The second question asked about the identity of a plant that was given in the picture published in the column. The plant shown is an Indian borage, botanically known as Plectranthus amboinicus. It is a medicinal herb that is used as a cough remedy and is also commonly mistakened to be a mint.
The last question was about a rose plant and why its buds and leaves turned black shortly it was brought back home from the nursery. The rose plant in question might have been affected by thrips or spider mites that commonly attack young growth and new flower buds of rose plants.
To eradicate these pests, Condifor (active ingredient is imidacloprid), which is a systemic pesticide has been found to be particularly effective. Before spraying, it is best to prune away affected parts so as to reduce the population of pests.
Rose likes to be grown in a sunny area with moist, well-draining, fertile soil that is supplemented with organic matter such as compost. You can fertilise plants with a suitable rose fertilizer or water-soluble ones like Gaviota and Phostrogen, made up according to the manufacturers’ instructions.
Heat can be a serious problem with roses during the hot season where new shoots and buds can dry up as a result. Grow in pots so that it is easier to move plants to semi-shaded areas during that time.
It was a rainy Saturday and I was worried about the turnout for my costus talk. Despite of the incessant downpour, at least ten people turned up at HortPark’s Fruit Room. Not all who came knew about Costus species which are commonly termed as spiral gingers. So I reckoned it was an enriching session for all.
In the talk, I went at length to introduce to all participants the species they are able to find and purchase in Singapore. Nursery contacts were given so they knew where to go to if they are keen to buy some of them to grow at home. In addition, I have also shared with all any special cultivation requirements that pertain to a particular species. Most are taken from my own personal experience of growing them back at Serangoon North and at my current home.
Most Costus species are best grown as outdoor plants. Only a couple are suited for growing in highrise apartments. Although they are often regarded as plants for growing in semi-shade outdoors, they are best planted in pots located in a sunny location in an apartment. If light is insufficient, many Costus species exhibit etiolated growth and refusal to flower. Unhappy plants often get attacked by various sucking pests such as aphids, mealy bugs and thrips. Most of the smaller Costus species are suitable for container growing in highrise apartments. One species that I highly recommend is Costus woodsonii, commonly called the red button costus.
After the talk, participants were invited to take part in a guided tour of the Lifestyle Corner. They were all taken on a journey to learn more about the world of leaves, which is the theme for the current month and October. In the current showcase, one can get to learn about the leaves that are used to wrap food in this part of the world. My colleague, Jin Hong, who was the guide for the day, demonstrated how one can use young coconut leaf fronds to make a ‘ketupat’. Other things to look forward to are how some leaves in the Plant Kingdom are modified to become traps that help to capture insects in various carnivorous plant species and spines to protect cacti from being eaten up by desert animanls.
The Ceylon spinach is one of the first leafy vegetables that I got acquainted with when I was still a kid. Since young, I have a keen interest to see how edible plants grow and a market stallholder whom my mother often patronized then gave me a cutting of the red/purple Ceylon spinach to bring home to poke into a pot of soil for it to root and grow. It is used as a spinach substitute and is not related to the true spinach (Spinacea oleracea).
This leafy vegetable can be distinguished into two main species. The version that has red purplish stems is often called the red Ceylon spinach and is botanically known as Basella rubra while the all green version is called Basella alba. Locally, the red purplish version is readily available whilst the all green version is now harder to find. However, the tender and young growing tips of the latter are easier to find as they offered for sale under a more refined Chinese name as ‘huang ti cai’ which translates into ‘Emperor’s vegetable’.
The Ceylon spinach is a perennial herbaceous vine in the tropics. It adopts a creeping growth habit if a support is not provided. Its climbing growth habit becomes apparent whenever a shoot gets hold of one. The leaves of this plant are heart-shaped, green and have a glossy appearance. Older plants produce small, insignificant flowers in clusters and fruits are one-seeded berries. The fruits of the purplish red version ripen to a purplish-black colour and they yield a red dye that is used as ink for seals by court officials in ancient China. This sap is also used as food coloring and acidifying it with lemon juice intensifies the purple colour. The fruits fall off easily from parent plant for self-seeding when mature. As such, the established plants multiply and spread easily.
Young leaves and stems have an ‘earthy’ flavor and mucilaginous with slightly slippery texture which one needs to develop an acquired taste to really like this vegetable. The Ceylon spinach can be eaten raw in salads, as a steamed vegetable, or used as thickening agent in stews and soups. It is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as iron, calcium and soluble fiber and is believed to possess medicinal properties where the most well known is that the leaves and stems have a mild laxative effect.
The Ceylon spinach is fast-growing and can be grown as an edible and ornamental vegetable. It is best grown in a semi-shaded location with moist, fertile, well-drained and loamy soil. Use high-nitrogen fertilizer to promote growth. This plant is prone to foliar fungal disease and one can minimize its incidence by improving air circulation or increasing amount of light.
The easiest way to propagate this plant is by stem cuttings. Use stems around 20cm long – first trim away the larger leaves to reduce transpiration before planting into a pot of soil placed in a shady location. Once rooted, these cuttings can be moved to a brighter final growing location. One can also grow the Ceylon spinach from seeds but these are not readily available in Singapore.
My colleague, Keneric Ng, wrote and disseminated yet another article on an interesting flowering vine which he grew from seeds given to him by a friend. Read on and enjoy!
Any warm colours one could possibly imagine, one would be able to find it on the flowers of Ipomoea lobata (syn. Mina lobata), commonly known as the Firecracker Vine or Spanish Flag. It is impossible not to feel the warmth just by looking at this highly ornamental plant from the Morning Glory family (Convolvulaceae). With no typical funnel-shaped corolla, one might not be able to associate this with the Morning Glory family right away but indeed it is, and that is the thrill in the discovery.
Often mistaken as an annual, this fast-growing, sun-loving vine can however be cultivated as a tender perennial in the tropics. Since it is very easily propagated by seeds, one can choose to grow new batch of plants once every few months to keep up the vigor. The young plant starts branching vigorously within 2 to 3 weeks after germination, so pinching is not required to obtain a well spread specimen. By the 5th week, the plant would have covered the support with its numerous trilobed leaves and reddish vines. But do not be alarmed if the plant is not ready to give you flowers just yet. Be patient, and just when you are bored of seeing those leaves/vines…many tiny little spikes (inflorescences) start emerging. And before you know it, the plant is on fire!
On close observation, along with some imagination, each individual inflorescence resembles a skewer. Strange that it has never been commonly known as the Skewer Plant or Skewer-on-the-Grill Plant? Those would have been interesting names to call them.
So, if you want to feel the (oil-free, nectar-rich) sizzle, do pop by the patio of the Lifestyle Corner at HortPark. The plant will be on display there. Catch it while it is sizzling HOT!
The first Root Awakening question was about flowering and fruiting of jambu and custard apple trees. It is important to note that jambu trees produce bisexual flowers while custard apple trees bear both male and female flowers on the same tree. Flowers that fall without formation of fruits are an indication that the flowers have not been pollinated.
The flowers of jambu are pollinated by bees while custard apple flowers are pollinated by beetles. One should refrain from spraying pesticides in the garden as these chemicals can affect the population of these pollinators.
Excessive foliage on a fruit tree is a sign of over-fertilization with nitrogen fertilizer. Note that many organic fertilizers are rich in nitrogen. To promote flower and fruit production, switch to a flowering fertilizer that is higher in phosphorus content.
The second question dealt with potted fruit trees which came with fruits but produced no further ones after one brought it home. Many potted fruit trees are grafted ones and a grafted tree may come from a branch already about to fruit from the parent plant. This could lead to early fruiting on the grafted branch. The new plant will need to grow until it is sufficiently mature before it gives more fruits. Fruit drop could be due to moisture stress during fruit development. Fruit trees that are not well watered during hot and dry weather can become stressed and they abort their fruits as a result.
It is recommended to lay a ring of organic compost as a mulch around the root zone to help keep the tree roots moist and cool and all times. Water your fruit trees more frequently during hot and dry weather. Compost will break down over time and release nutrients to your trees.
The last question asked about the growing of thyme in Singapore. Many culinary herbs require full sun to grow well. Plants exposed to direct sunshine for at least half a day will produce compact and fragrant foliage for use in the kitchen. Herbs native to the Mediterranean region can be grown in tropical Singapore but they need to be planted in very well-draining soil. Most need to be protected from heavy rain outdoors.
Fresh herb cuttings can be dipped in a jar of clean tap water. Remove the some of the bottom-most leaves to reveal the nodes for rooting. Most stem-cuttings derived this way will root within a period of 1 to 3 weeks and these can be potted up in soil separately. A good selection of culinary herbs can be purchased from HortMart (at HortPark), Oh Chin Huat Hydroponic Farms Pte Ltd and World Farm Pte Ltd.
I was recently introduced to a tree called Gustavia superba by a colleague. The specimen that he showed me was a relatively young specimen and was in flower. The blossoms each measures about 10 cm across. Petals are pinkish in colour and in the center of each flower, there is a dense ring pink coloured stamens that are each tipped in gold.
The flowers of this tree reminded me of the tropical equivalent of peonies because I received a Chinese New Year greeting card before which featured the flowers of this tree. Although Gustavia superba is well-adapted to the climate of Singapore, it does not flower readily. This tree, which belongs to a rather obscure family of plants, Lecythidaceae, will do best in a location with well-draining soil and exposed to full sunlight. One can see several mature trees in Malcolm Road Park in Singapore.
Commonly called embrillo, sachamango and the heaven lotus, Gustavia superba is native to tropical lowlands from Ecuador to Panama and Venezuela. It is a medium-sized tree that can attain a height of 5 to 10 m and has a relatively straight trunk. It usually adopts an unbranched growth habit according to various sources and features a cluster of leaves at the growing tip which makes the tree look like a palm. In larger and more mature trees, a few large branches can sometimes be seen and each will bear a cluster of leaves at the end. The leaves of this tree are lanceolate in shape and have toothed margins. When they first appear, they take on an attractive, coppery colour before they turn green when they approach maturity.
After the flowers fade, fruits that are round or pear-shaped with a hard rind form. Take a look at this blog post to see how the fruits look like. From the same blog, the fruits were reportedly said to be edible and inside contained one to four large smooth seeds surrounded by a yellowish orange pulp that is rich in vitamins A, B, and C. In its native habitat, it is said that agoutis (rodent species that inhabit areas of Central America, the West Indies and northern South America) forage for the fallen ripe fruits where they consume the seeds but may also bury some for later use. Those that were buried but forgotten will then have a chance to grow into new plants. As such, these rodents also help to disperse the seeds of this beautiful tree.