Sanchezia nobile, one of these bi-coloured fellows, prompted an enthusiastic Floridian visiting Phuket to write: “Does anybody know about this plant? I saw it here in town and I just had to get a cutting.” She must have been lucky: the good news is that not only will it grow readily from cuttings, but that it is available in plant nurseries everywhere.
Sometimes confused with the codiaeum (croton), its leaves are quite similar, since sanchezia has similarly deep green, oval foliage with deeply scored yellow or white veining. Glossy and leathery, the spectacular leaves, produced in opposite pairs, are comparable in size to those of the croton – up to a foot long in the right conditions.
And the right conditions mean good soil, a consistent supply of water and full or filtered sun. Potted specimens, for example, will wilt rapidly if the soil is allowed to dry out.
While it does not have the spectrum of colours possessed by the croton, this tropical American native named after a certain Dr Sanchez, has other compensations. It is a fast grower, makes a sizable bush (up to three metres) and has quite showy yellow flowers with bright tubular red bracts. Right now, in the middle of the dry season, it is blooming away in my border. Our Floridian friend said these blooms looked like hibiscus flowers, but I put that observation down to an aberrant memory – or an excess of enthusiasm. But the shrub is well worth a try and makes a leafy addition to your flower bed. If you want a bushier plant, remember to pinch out the growing tips.
The next plant comes with a health warning. Its common name, the blindness tree, affords a clue ‒ the sap is toxic and may be injurious to eyes, though it does also have medicinal uses.
The shrub in question, excoecaria cochinensis (the latter epithet an old word for Vietnam), is a bushy, woody shrub up to a metre or so with masses of shiny foliage. What makes what Thais call lin-krabue so distinctive is that while the upsides of the leaves are dark green (sometimes with white or pinkish variegations), they are deep maroon underneath. It is becoming increasingly popular here: one cultivar, “Firestone” has strongly contrasting leaf coloration. Its dense habit means it can be used as a hedge or border plant and will tolerate clipping. Distinctly useful.
Polyscias, sometimes referred to as panax, is another shrub that can be brought into service as a hedging plant and is often employed in this fashion by Thai gardeners. Around a long time, it is more a two-tone variegated plant than a multi-coloured one, rarely deviating from green and white patterned foliage.
Quercifolia (oak-leaved), the commonest variety here, has smallish, wavy-edged foliage and a strong, vertical habit. If you intend to use it for a barrier or border you will need to put the young plants close together. Trim the top growth if you want a bushier specimen.
Polyscias is exceedingly hardy, and will tolerate low levels of moisture. Moreover, it is evergreen and there are increasingly attractive varieties available. “Marginata”, for example, has dramatic blotches of bright yellow on the leaf edges. The shrub has achieved a new lease of life as a house plant, especially in America, where there are many cultivars with varied leaf shapes. “Ruffles”, “ parsley” and “spinach” should give you a clue.
Dracaena is abundant here as a single-stemmed plant. African in origin, it has become familiar throughout Thailand where it pressed into service both for hedging and in containers. Sometimes, and because of its acceptance of low light levels, it is employed as a house plant. Typically, it sports a thick, fleshy stem, crowned by a rosette of glossy, lanceolate leaves. If the plant is cut back, it will produce branches below the cut.
Tolerant to the point of surviving near total neglect, dracaena looks best in variegated forms such as “Mass Cane” or “Massangeana” (this variety is also known as the corn plant), which has a bright yellow stripe down the centre of its long, spathe-like, drooping leaves.
“Reflexa” can grow into a substantial tree. At the other end of the scale, a dwarf variety, “Compacta” is small and consequently better suited to indoor cultivation. Grow from segments of old stems put in moist soil. If half-submerged horizontally in the ground, a length of stem will normally produce vertical shoots.
“The Tropic Gardener”, an indispensable guide to plants and their cultivation in Thailand. Available from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org, from Seng Ho bookshop in Phuket Town or Delish in Rawai.