Elephant creeper


Creepy crawler: Plant an elephant creeper where vertical covering is needed.

creepy kind of Elephant

Elephants are mega-cool. I know that today, of course, having been here in Thailand for a while. The elephant is even one of the many symbols of this country – it’s so important here, it used to be on the national flag.

Apart from being the largest terrestrial animal on earth, second in height only to the giraffe, did you know that elephants have knees, as we do, but on both their front and hind legs. Despite this, they’re one of the few animals that can’t jump.

Outside elephant trekking, I’m not sure if there any elephants still working in southern Thailand, though there are plenty farther north. Depending on the size of the elephant, they can actually lift 200 to 400 kilograms, believe it or not. That’s nearly half a ton. Not bad at all. Isn’t it good that you can sound just a little bit like David Attenborough by typing “www.google.com” into a computer.

Oh, and the term “Jumbo” comes from the elephant Jumbo, who after living in Angola, France and England, was sold to PT Barnum of The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the US. Jumbo died on September 15, 1885, crossing railroad tracks in St Thomas, Ontario. The collision derailed the train.

And if you care, September 22 is Elephant Appreciation Day.

While enjoying a cold beer at Cok Chang, an elephant trekking-cum-watering hole with resident gibbons in the hills between Rawai and Kata, I once noticed a male elephant which, as I try to put this in a way that will offend as few people as possible, had become somewhat “aroused”.

Maybe he’d just been flicking through the pages of Hot Elephants Weekly or considering unseemly elephantine frolics with Mrs Elephant that night. Those trunks are useful appendages, after all. Whatever the cause of his rising to the occasion, the result was more than a little scary. At least the name of the establishment now makes complete sense.

I heard a pearl of artistic wisdom recently, by the way – how to sculpt an elephant. Apparently it’s not particularly difficult. What you do is first get a huge block of marble, then you chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

Elephants aren’t exactly lightning fast – although they can run at speeds up to 30 kilometers an hour; I certainly wouldn’t want to be running away from an unhappy charging elephant – how often have you seen an elephant creep? They’re not known for their stealth or subtlety, and are hardly likely to walk up behind you on tiptoe and shout, “Boo!” In fact anything that refers to elephants and creepers in the same sentence has to be pretty bizarre.

Now we finally get to the point of my inane ramblings – a unique plant known as the elephant creeper. Some people call it silver morning glory or woolly morning glory. If you are Thai you would call it a phak-rabaat.

This native of India and Burma is amazing for one big reason – I’ve never seen anything grow as quickly. Never ever. It could well be just my imagination, but when I first brought one of these home, I’m sure it extended itself by an inch or two daily. Nearly as impressive as a certain elephant I once witnessed.

But it wasn’t always as enthusiastic. I first spotted it at a local garden center and jumped on the motorcycle Thai-style with it precariously gripped under one arm. By the time I got it home, it was looking a little less magnificent. In fact it looked pathetic; rather like a snake whose backbone had spontaneously turned to jelly. I thought I’d killed it. Shift of location? Wind? I had no idea. It certainly wasn’t particularly happy. This lethargic state didn’t last long.

By the following morning, I realized that this plant is merciless to all in its path. Tendrils shoot out continuously from the main stem like some kind of Jurassic python, coiling around whatever is in their reach. The jelly backbone had been transformed into something very different.

It is best to try to guide it away from anything you don’t want it to throttle to death, as it will strangle and smother anything that gets in its way. Mine decided that the fence it was growing near should become its domain; the fence didn’t get the chance to argue. The best surprise comes with the flowers, which appear without warning. When the plant is mature, big, dramatic blueish-mauve trumpet flowers bloom repeatedly.

The large leaves, unsurprisingly, are shaped a little like elephant ears (at last we get to the elephant connection). They’re green on top, with silvery white hairs below, which grow profusely from low down on the stem. The underside of the leaves feels rather like the velvet in your grandmother’s jewelry box.

The elephant creeper can be grown from a pot or from the ground in rocky, sandy soil. The tendrils can grow up to around 10 meters. It doesn’t need that much space – just something to attach itself to. Like its namesake, it’s hardy and is quite content in either direct sun or shade. It needs plenty of watering but doesn’t like standing in water.

In India, both the seeds and the roots of the elephant creeper are used for their medicinal properties. They are used to aid the nervous system, as a geriatric tonic and a mild aphrodisiac. The plant reportedly also has purifying, antiseptic properties, and is believed to help maintain healthy joints for people suffering from arthritis. If you crush the leaves and mix them with water into a paste, you have a perfect treatment for skin wounds. Or so they say.

There are supposed to be psychoactive ingredients in both the seeds and roots that some claim to have aphrodisiac qualities. I can’t say that I’ve actually tested this theory myself, but if there is anyone that wants to put the theory to the test, then fill your boots. As it were.

This vine really is a bit on the outrageous side, and deserves a place in any garden or even balcony, if for no other reason than entertainment value. It’s great for covering roofs, walls and posts or shooting skywards up a tree. It may need a little pointing in the right direction every now and then, but it’s easily trained.

I’m not sure that you need to worry too much about creeping elephants, but if one ever does creep up behind you, just remember my theory on where Cok Chang got its name, and start to panic. The plant will probably be there first, though, but is less likely to be distracted by Hot Elephants Weekly. I have the feeling I’m going to regret this…



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