The Ming Aralia

Ming Aralia

The ‘Ming’ Aralia, Polyscias fruticosa ‘Ming’, has proved to be a bit of a surprise hit with foli8 customers - we have sold over 600 of them since we started back in February, with a very high proportion of those sales going to customers with Vietnamese names.

This made us wonder whether there was any particular significance of this plant in Vietnamese traditions or culture, and it appears that there is.

Polyscias fruticosa is closely related to ginseng, a species used in traditional Chinese medicine, and it shares many of its features.  The roots and leaves of the Ming aralia have compounds that have a wide range of therapeutic effects, and the plant can also be used as a culinary spice.  This species features heavily in Vietnamese cuisine and traditional therapies.

We are not sure how many of the 600-odd Ming aralias we have sold have been used therapeutically, or to flavour foods.  Our Ming aralias are premium-quality houseplants that are probably better value when enjoyed for their ornament rather than their culinary or medicinal qualities.

Please note: we cannot recommend the use of our plants as a foodstuff or as a source of medicine as we have no control over the early life of the plants at the growers’ nurseries and cannot vouch for the types of fertilizers or other chemicals that may have been used before we got them.

The coffee plant

Coffee Plant

A surprise hit houseplant in the summer is the coffee plant, Coffea arabica.  We have sold over 350 of them in the last few months.

This species hasn’t often been cultivated as a houseplant - its primary use is to produce crops of beans to turn into a favourite hot drink.  However, it has gorgeous foliage and will do well in almost all locations in the home.

Coffea arabica has its wild origins in Ethiopia (where it is now quite rare), and there are records of its cultivation in Yemen dating back to the 12th Century.  As well as its beans, coffee trees are also a source of timber and fuel.

As a houseplant, coffee is easy to care for:  It tolerates shady conditions and heavy-handed watering and will tolerate cool conditions too, so it is good for conservatories in winter time (as long as they are completely frost free).  In plantations, it takes about seven years to grow to maturity, but it is unlikely that you will get your plant to produce beans in the UK.

Alocasia X amazonica ‘Poly’

Alocasia Poly Leaves

This plant, often known as the ‘Elephant’s Ear’ is one of several types of Alocasia that are proving to be very popular in 2021.  The Elephant's Ear, Alocasia X amazonica ‘Poly’, is a relatively small plant with large striking patterned leaves, which have beautiful silvery-green veins on its dramatic dark green, arrow-shaped leaves, which can grow up to 30cm long.   The undersides of the leaves are a deep red colour and they are held aloft by fleshy green stems.

In the wild, Alocasias are native to the tropical rainforests of Asia and Eastern Australia, and the many species are often noted for their dramatic foliage, occasionally richly patterned, and sometimes even on their stems.  

What makes ‘Poly’ a little bit unusual is its history.  The variety ‘Poly’ (not ‘Polly’ as it is often labelled - it was named after its supposed polyploidal chromosome number, not the girl's name) is a hybrid of Alocasia longiloba and Alocasia sanderiana, which was developed in the 1950s from a selection of an earlier type called Alocasia Amazonica. This was bred by Salvadore Mauro, who was a postman and also the owner of the Amazonica Nursery in Florida, after which he named this variety. No Alocasias grow wild anywhere in the Amazon, so its name is rather misleading.

‘Marmite plants’ - variegation is a love-hate issue

If you venture into houseplant discussions online, or even read some articles in gardening magazines and newspapers, it won’t take long to find that some people have very strong feelings about variegated plants, especially those plants that are normally wholly green.  Some variegated Swiss Cheese Plants (Monstera deliciosa) have sold for ridiculous amounts on online auction sites and many new varieties of well-known plants have been bred with variegation in mind.  Variegated varieties of Philodendrons and their close relatives are increasingly popular.

Why does this subject cause so much argument?  Some people are quite purist (or believe themselves to be) by arguing that variegated varieties aren’t natural.  This is only sometimes true - many tropical houseplants are variegated in the wild and the genes that express variegation must be present in wild populations, otherwise they couldn’t be selected for by plant breeders.  In fact, for many houseplants, it is their natural variegation in the wild that brought them to the attention of collectors in the first place.

Variegated leaves

Natural variegation

However, there are some varieties of houseplants that are the result of hybridization and very selective breeding that has exaggerated variegation.  Certainly they are not ‘natural’, but are they any less beautiful than wild varieties of the same plant?  Gardening and horticulture has always been about selecting and cultivating plants in such a way as to make them more suitable for human use - ever since humans invented agriculture by first selecting and breeding the strongest, most useful, plants from a population and discarded the rest.

Another objection to variegation is that some people find them sickly-looking, especially those plants where the variegation is yellow or cream.  Yellow leaves are a symptom of watering problems and poor root health, but a yellow leaf caused by a health problem (or even natural senescence) looks very different from a healthy variegated leaf, as we can see here.

Unhealthy leaf versus healthy leaf

Snakes and dragons - how are two such different plants so closely related?

Snake Plant and Dragon Tree

Images. Snake Plant (L) and Dragon Tree ( R ) 

It might surprise you to know that these two plants are very closely related. In fact, latest research has put them in the same genus: Dracaena (although most people are more familiar with the older classification that puts snake plants into its own genus - Sansevieria)  This means that they are as closely related to each other as wolves are to domestic dogs!  How can this be?

The relationship is not obvious at first sight, although a close up examination will show the similarities.

First, take a look at the leaves.  These are long and strappy and have a very similar structure.  Those of the snake plant are certainly fleshier, and somewhat succulent, but they are essentially the same.

Next, the flowers are very similar.  You probably won’t see the dragon tree flower indoors (it happens sometimes), but the snake plant is more likely to flower in your home.  The flowers are small, white, fragrant and produce quite a lot of sticky, sweet nectar.

The biggest similarity, however, is the stem.

Stem? You might rightly ask where the stem on a snake plant is.  It is actually underground, and if you ever need to repot a snake plant, you will be able to see how the leaves emerge from the underground stem, and spot the close similarity between it and the stem on the dragon tree.

Stems of Snake Plant and Dragon Tree

Snake Plant underground stem (L) and Dragon Tree stem ( R )

By Kenneth Freeman

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