Variegated crepe ginger


This individualistic ginger plant has enough fur in all the wrong places to warrant some questions...

Gender benders in the garden

There are a lot of confusing people in the world. Glaswegians (hailing from Glasgow, in Scotland) are probably near the top of that list. They possess the unique ability to utter several sentences within a few nanoseconds. The problem is that unless you grew up on the same street as they did, you havenít the faintest idea what theyíre talking about.

Cockneys, from London, even create confusion deliberately, for no other reason than to elicit the reaction ďWhat the heck are you talking about?Ē from those not of their ilk around them. They choose to invent clauses to describe the most abstract of things. Apples and pears = stairs, whistle and flute = suit, Alan Whickers = knickers, Barnet fair = hair, butcherís hook = look Ö and the list goes on.

Whatís the point? Iíll just never get it. They are from the south of England, I suppose, so much of what goes on in the nether regions of the country is largely confusing to folk from the north. We tend to leave them to it, mostly. Itís for the best.

There are people in Thailand who are perplexing, too. Policemen at roundabouts probably claim the top prize. They have an amazing knack of causing complete chaos by waving cars through and stopping others, seemingly at random and generally slowing things down to a snailís pace crawl. What is frustrating is that they make an appearance only at peak traffic times, when they can cause maximum disruption.

Another source of confusion on the island is katoeys. For readers that have just stepped off the plane, a katoey is the Thai word for a gentleman that rather thinks that heís of the female persuasion, and would like the rest of the world to think so, too. Some katoeys are stunning, and thatís the confusing part Ė there are plenty of them that even the most red-blooded males of would describe as gorgeous. Scary.

Things are certainly not always what they seem. Paul Hogan got it right, in that daft film from the eighties, Crocodile Dundee. Having made the mistake once of trying it on with one of these ďgorgeousĒ blokes, through no fault of his own, he took matters into his own hands next time he was in doubt. He made sure in the most obvious way possible, with a quick grab of the key area.

Once the womanís gender had been definitively established, he winked knowingly at the hapless lady. ďJust checking,Ē he said apologetically. Iím certainly not advocating that method next time youíre approached in Patong, as it may well not be appreciated, but itís certainly worth a thought in an emergency.

There are a couple of things that usually give the game away. The first is the Adamís apple thatís very hard to hide. The second is those furry chins, a bit like your Great Aunt Daphne. Particularly unattractive.

In the plant world, the closest thing weíve probably got to a katoey plant is a member of the ginger family Ė the costa speciosus variegatus. Itís a ridiculously long and complicated name for a plant that is otherwise known as the variegated crepe ginger, or huang mai-naa in Thai.
The French got at least something right when they assigned genders to everything. A palm tree is masculine and a rose is feminine, but the variegated crepe ginger hasnít chosen which side of the fence itís on, and so itís all down to its furry feel. It kind of needs a shave, but hasnít quite decided whether it wants to or not.

Itís a curious plant. From a distance, it looks much like any other plant with variegated leaves (having more than one color). Up close, itís a different story. Both sides of the soft, 10-centimeter-long leaves are covered in a layer of fine fur.

The leaves of this tropical evergreen appear on stems that are sometimes maroon-red, emerging directly from the ground. Each leaf has a narrow white strip along each edge with occasional light streaks through the blade of the leaf. They kind of spiral around the stem, forming arching clumps that can form some fairly elaborate and bizarre shapes.

They can grow to over a couple of meters tall, and the tallest stems can occasionally fall over and collapse on the ground. This is another katoey aspect of the plant. It pretty much does what it wants, and does its best not to conform to the usual rules of the plant world, and really doesnít care what the rest of that world thinks.

Most members of the fauna side of the evolutionary scale take the easy, predictable route and reach skyward the most direct route possible. If thereís more light in one direction, they turn that way in order to follow it.

Not the variegated crepe ginger. Sometimes it will form weird spiral shapes, almost as if it wants to take its time getting there. Often it will change direction as if purely on a whim. It has to be one of the most non-conformist plants around.

Attractive, white, five-centimeter-diameter flowers are produced when it feels like it, appearing on the tips of branches. The leaves are spectacular; the flowers are a bonus.

For the best results, this plant should get some hours of direct sunlight daily, but not be out there all day, baking. This plant has feelings, after all. But if you put it in fertile, organic, moist but well-drained soil, it will be particularly content. It does enjoy its water.

All members of the crepe ginger family grow from thick, fleshy roots Ė rhizomes, similar in appearance to the ginger root that you would buy at the local market. Most people take the easy way out and buy them as a pre-potted plant, but even if you start out with bare rhizomes, they are still easy to grow.

Plant the rhizome two or three centimeters below the surface in a sandy loam or clay soil that has been improved by some of that coconut husk-based compost you see in those white sacks at every garden center. A single rhizome will produce new shoots and increase to a fairly big clump quite quickly.

A plant with feelings? Not quite sure which direction to turn? Fur on the oddest parts of its anatomy? No wonder itís confused. Though Iíd bet it would be an improvement to have it directing traffic at Chalong Circle.


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