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Green Thoughts: Sun Gods and Sun Worshippers

As readers familiar with this column will be aware, I often iterate the point, perhaps ad nauseam, that botanical names are worth mastering since they offer valuable clues to a plant’s characteristics: maybe its place of origin (Japonica), its physical features (odorata) or even its cultural requirements.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 26 February 2023, 02:00PM

Photo: Patrick Campbell

Photo: Patrick Campbell

When such names begin with the letter ‘H’, many include the prefix ‘heli’ or ‘helio’, a label that indicates a link with the sun: after all, the god in Greek mythology who daily drove his fiery chariot across the sky was Helios. In some cases the connection is a double one: for example, the giant sunflower or helianthus not only resembles a sun with its massive, golden orb of seeds and flame-like petals, but also needs a sunny location in which to reach its potential.

A rapid grower, it will bloom within months of being sown. Often sold by florists for arrangements, it was the first flower to become an important agricultural resource. Now cultivars are grown primarily for their oil-bearing seeds.

The species began life as a fairly insignificant, hairy plant with blooms about six centimetres across. The hirsute stems are still there, but horticulturalists have since grown floral behemoths for both commercial and aesthetic reasons.

All have a single huge and weighty head consisting of an outer circle of brilliant yellow petals with a golden brown central cushion of hundreds of seeds. They look especially effective when planted next to an outside wall. Contrary to popular myth, the blooms face east all day, so the petals are in fact back-lit by the afternoon sun. A gross feeder, its other requirement is rich, moist soil backed up by regular applications of fertiliser. Undisputed king of the annuals.

You could add helianthemum, helichrysum, heliopsis, heliotropium and heliconia to the tongue-twisting solar list. Most owe their kinship with Helios to their brilliant golden flowers, though not all of them need the full force of a tropic sun. Full sun in temperate climates (where they were mostly given their botanical names) may mean filtered shade in Phuket. 

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The heliotrope is a case in point. One variety, H. argenteum, native to somewhat cooler Hawaii where it grows wild as a ground cover plant, bears rosettes of succulent grey-green or silvery leaves that form a mat about six inches high (just over 15cm). Clusters of flowers – usually white ‒ appear above the foliage. A tough cookie, the heliotrope does well in coastal gardens, where wind and saturating salt spray are a problem. And it tolerates drought ‒ though it will only spread rapidly if given sufficient moisture. It goes without saying that it loves the sun – hence the name. Why not try it in Phuket’s island environment?

The straw flower (helichrysum), like the statice or the Australian helipterum, is chiefly valued for its use in dried floral arrangements, though these days it has to compete with artificially created displays. A so-called ‘everlasting’ flower, it  belongs, like the sunflower, to the aster genus – hence its daisy-like blooms. Sometimes used in fresh displays of cut flowers, the helichrysum is much more likely to be found in these ‘everlasting’ arrangements, where its papery, prickly two-inch blooms look like pom poms, and will not only retain their colour and form, but will last for ages. H. bracteatum is the variety usually grown: a dual purpose plant, it comes in a range of colours from orange and gold to deep crimson and has strap – like leaves. It can be grown here as an annual or perennial. Give it moderate amounts of water and of course full sun. And enjoy its charms twice over…

The helianthemum or sunrose (rock rose or cistus in Europe) is another low growing plant with small leaves that may be grey on both surfaces or glossy green on top. It sports a display of single or semi-double flowers in bright or pastel shades ‒ flame red, orange, yellow, salmon or white. Each blossom lasts a mere day, but new buds continue to open. Shear plants back after flowering to encourage repeat blooming. They are at their best tumbling over stones, rambling over rockeries or even over sandy shorelines. Plants will be hardier if the soil is not too rich and is kept on the dry side. One unusual variety called “Raspberry Ripple” has ‒ you guessed it ‒ deep pink flowers streaked with white.

The ox-eye sunflower, or heliopsis, completes our solar survey. More widely known as a wild flower than one that inhabits gardens, it is a smaller, less distinguished member of the clan. Yellow flowers, about three inches (about 7.6cm) in diameter, top substantial plants with rough-textured oval leaves. There are one or two cultivars such as the four-foot-high (about 120cm) ‘Bresssingham Doubloon’, which has semi-double flowers, and a smaller variety ‘Summer Sun’ (that word again) which has deep yellow flowers and dark green foliage.  

Patrick Campbell’s book ‘The Tropic Gardener’, described in one Bangkok review as the best book on Thai gardening for 50 years, is available for B500 (half price) to personal callers from 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13 in Rawai (Tel: 076-61227 or 085-7827551). 

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