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Green Thoughts: Flowers of fortune and good luck

Valentine’s Day is upon us and the shops are awash with cards displaying gold hearts and red roses. Ever since Robert Burns wrote: “My love is like a red red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” and likely long before that, the rose has been every lover’s choice for February the fourteenth, a floral symbol not just of beauty and romance, but a metaphor for the well-spring of true love, the human heart.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 16 February 2020, 10:00AM

Asoka Flower Photo: Media Space

Asoka Flower Photo: Media Space

Flowers have always been associated, not only with human emotions, but, more potently, with a charm-like ability to bestow good fortune, and nowhere more so than in Thailand. After all, Thais fervently believe in luck and since they are optimists, in good luck. This is why Thais make merit by offering gifts to their local temple; why they are avid buyers of lottery tickets, why they play cards for a few baht and risk a criminal record, even in the privacy of their own homes. There are lucky colours for particular days, crazes involving lucky amulets, and oh yes, lucky plants.

If there are sacred trees in India, there are revered trees in Thailand as well. Many varieties too big for the average garden, but happy in the ample grounds of temples: for example, the plumeria, sometimes known as the temple tree; the orange blossoming Asoka (saraca indica or sok) which is sacred to Buddhists because the prophet was born beneath its shade; the bo or bodhi tree (ficus religiosa or thon po) under whose spreading shade, Buddha is reputed to have achieved enlightenment; and the ironwood (hopea odorata or thakian thawng) which, in rural Thailand, is believed to be inhabited by a female ghost that can bring good luck.

But lucky plants? A different story altogether. Years ago, when I was planning my garden, I was told that I must have plants that would bring good fortune. Recently, I was again reminded of this imperative. Waiting at interminable traffic lights, I purchased my usual lucky garland from a Thai lady who both makes and sells them to passing motorists; as usual, my Thai passenger “waied” before draping it over the driving mirror. These leis perform a double function: one, they give off an alluring fragrance for a few days that helps mask the traffic fumes; two, the flowers are considered to be harbingers of good fortune with the pair of champaca at each end, the jasmine blooms (sambac), and even the Indian milkweed buds (calatropis gigantea), the main “beads” in the necklace as it were, which are included in the garland because they last and last.

This last-named lactiferous shrub (Indian Milkweed), which also has attractive grey-green leaves, grows on waste lots everywhere, and will, freely watered, take readily from cuttings. So my dok rak in the garden came free of charge. That it is regarded as lucky, is more a comment on its medicinal qualities than any sacred association, as the milk is used in the treatment of fungal infection such as ringworm.

This raises an interesting point about so-called lucky plants: most of them have healing properties and are therefore lucky in a health-giving, restorative sense. This is not to deny their presence in the religious mythos. Though the figure is smaller in Buddhist iconography, there are at least fifty plants, shrubs and trees associated in Asia with Hindu deities.

To return to my lucky garland. The second component consisted of tubular jasmine flowers. Varieties of sweet-smelling jasmines were always going to be part of my gardening plans: the star jasmine (multiflorum), the Arabian jasmine or jessamine (sambac), the Chinese box or orange jasmine (murraya paniculata), all are evergreen, all are reasonably hardy, all of them are now established in shady areas of my borders. And most are considered propitious as well.
The final element in my lei, the pair of champak flowers (michelia champaca), was a plant I had encountered in my earliest days in Thailand. In a gesture promoting both friendship and good karma with new home-owners, my Thai neighbour had planted these shrubs all along the street, one for each house. From the magnolia family, the champak has blooms, cream or apricot-coloured, that are so intensely perfumed that their oil is used to make incense. Indeed, it is the key ingredient in “Joy,” one of the world’s most exclusive fragrances.

Oak Maedow Phuket

In Asia, the shrub is held sacred both by Hindus, its flowers form one of the darts of love, and by Buddhists who link it to Maitreya, the eighth Buddha. So naturally, I had to have a specimen champak in a grassy position where it would, with luck, grow into a medium-sized tree. It has.

Even more strongly scented, in fact cloyingly so, is the infrequently produced flower of the corn plant (dracaena fragrans), another shrub considered to be propitious by many Thais. It is often grown in containers with its stems interwoven like a basket. It keeps company with two variegated versions which came as bare canes. They have now produced rosettes of that familiar sword-shaped foliage from the leaf scars. So far, no flowers.

Two other lucky plants are flourishing in containers at the front of my house. One, a mistletoe fig (ficus deltoidea), possesses a mass of round dark-green leaves and fruits that resemble tiny figs. Outside the garden, it is epiphytic and may be seen growing in the forks of large trees. My Thai friend says it brings luck in relation to money. Locals believe the same of another pot plant which has large, leathery dark green leaves, thick fleshy stems and a powerful aversion to direct sun. Mine has a ribbon tied around its base and is revered as symbol of good fortune in the household. Its Thai name is the give-away, septee pan larn, which roughly translates as “wealthy to the tune of a thousand million.”

Finally zamioculcas. Extraordinary name, extraordinary looking plant. Thick fleshy leafed stalks emerge like fingers from the soil, and open to reveal pairs of pointed green leaves so waxy they look as though they have been polished. More successful than most as a house plant because of its tolerance of low lighting, it is a real talking point and considered by Thais to be a harbinger of good fortune.

Patrick has been writing for ten years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at
Wordpress: Green Galoshes.

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