Moses in a boat



COVERING A LOT OF GROUND: Moses-in-a-boat, also known as the spiderwort, will look after itself.

A growth divine

I have never been religious. I suppose I get bored too easily. I get a little impatient with religious fanatics of any variety, and try put as much distance between myself and them as possible. Personally, Iím quite content to wallow in a sea of disbelief.

Itís probably because there are so many fruitcakes around. I could be wrong, but wasnít there some evangelical TV preacher bloke a few years ago in America who was disgraced when he was caught providing a little surreptitious night-time ďpreachingĒ to one of his secretaries?

He was then discovered funneling off church funds to keep her quiet, then got done for fraud, I seem to remember. The best part was that at this stage he appeared on TV in tears, and told the eager nation that God would forgive him if they sent him more money. I believe that this particular appeal raised around two million dollars. Some people really wanted to save him.

How many wars around the world have been waged in the name of religion? The vast majority, surely. Too many people seem to want to make life difficult for other people, to put it mildly, and spout religion as their just cause. Sorry for getting all serious for a paragraph. Iíll try not to let it happen again.

Jehovahís Witnesses. Bless. They mean well. They traipse around towns for days on end, knocking on numerous doors and handing out leaflets. They donít have Christmas or birthdays, they donít recognize flags or national anthems, and arenít allowed to associate with non-witnesses. They canít even have blood transfusions. Theyíre a strange lot, but in common with Seventh-Day Adventists, they always look jolly smart.

Before I first came to Thailand, about the only link I could make between gardening and religion was those over-enthusiastic old ladies who insist on raiding the vicarís garden, hacking off every flower in sight so that they can tastefully arrange them in various corners of the church. They were dead within a few days (the flowers didnít last much longer). I always wondered why they couldnít just leave the flowers where they were in the first place. Most of them would probably have outlived the old ladies had that been the case.

Thankfully, generally speaking there are few intrusions from the world of religion into the world of gardening. Apart from Moses, of course. You know, that chap with the huge white beard and the long stick who did that sea-parting thing. One of the more common varieties of ground covering plants in Thailand is known as Moses-in-a-boat, or waan hoi khraeng in Thai.

Also known as spiderwort, itís an odd little plant really. It consists of a spiky rosette-shaped cluster of leaves with a purple-green hue. The leaves look quite normal if you look at them from the top; the strange thing is that the underside is a deep maroon color, for no particular reason.

It has quite a short stem, and doesnít usually get much taller than about 30 to 40 centimeters. It gets its name from the fact that tiny white flowers appear from the base of the leaves near the stem. I suppose that if you have a few Heinekens (or Beer Laos, as Iíve recently discovered), and squint with your eyes half-closed, that in a certain light, the shape does slightly resemble a boat containing a white blob. Quite how this looks like a bearded baby bloke in a papyrus basket, Iím not sure.

This is certainly not the user-friendliest of plants, as all parts of the spiderwort are poisonous. Any contact with the sap may cause some stinging and your skin to itch. Attempt to eat this unassuming little shrub, and a severe burning in the mouth and throat will be the result. This is not the ideal plant to chew on.

If you have a patch of ground in your garden that youíre just tired of looking at, and want to cover in the easiest way possible with the minimum of effort, this plant is the one. Once it is established, it will require little further input or effort from you. It will be less enthusiastic if itís too shaded, but with plenty of sun, it will continue to cover more ground quite contentedly.

You can encourage more growth and help it on its way by simply splitting plants and replanting them elsewhere, but I wouldnít bother Ė itís quite happy to do that for itself. Although it prefers soil with plenty of organic matter (composty-type soil), the spiderwort will grow in sand or even coral rock; frankly, it doesnít really care.

Although here in Phuket, the spread of Moses-in-a-boat is something that we would actively encourage, as thatís precisely what we want it to do, in other parts of the world they donít share our enthusiasm.

In Florida for example, life is so suited for the spiderwort that itís actually become an ďinvasive exotic speciesĒ. It roots from any small, broken piece of plant, and the seeds are wind-dispersed. As a consequence, it turns up in all sorts of places over there.

Here in Phuket it seems to behave itself, and be happy to grow on the ground as normal. In Florida, you can even find it as an epiphyte growing on city buildings. Itís also causing problems in forest areas, creating a dense groundcover that prevents native plants from germinating on the forest floor. Luckily weíve seen no such takeover bids here.

Even though technically itís poisonous, the flowers of the Moses-in-a-boat are used medicinally in South China, to treat ailments such as dysentery. Found commonly around the ancient Mayan sites in Guatemala, Yucatan and Belize, it was probably cultivated for use as a cosmetic, though Iím not sure why anybody would want to smear this stuff on their face
Moses-in-a-boat isnít your average plant; the leaves are different colors on both sides, the whole thing is poisonous, it has tyrannical tendencies, and a rather daft name. Thankfully, you can be pretty sure that it wonít bonk its secretary and then plead for cash, or knock on your door to offer you a magazine and salvation.




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