The caladium is confusing. Real or fake? Sometimes, you'll never know.

Plastic fantastic

People like all sorts of things. Each to his own, I suppose. There are people that have a penchant for songs that go ďmai ya ee, mai ya oo, mai ya ah, mai ya ah ahĒ. Weird. There are even those among us that like plastic. Iím not one of them. I hate the stuff. Itís nasty.

I went round a brand-new condominium development in Phuket town the other day, and was amazed to see that the architect had specified the most ugly, hideous, curly-in-all-the-wrong-directions light fittings to sit in the centre of the ceiling. The worst thing was that these things were made of plastic. And they looked it. Yeuch.

So what is it with plastic? It has to be one of the most unfortunate materials ever created. Anything made of plastic is decidedly unattractive, non recyclable, and generally not something youíd publicly want to admit to owning.

I will concede that there are actually two inventions created from plastic that are simply superb. Iíd even go so far as to say that theyíre works of truly brilliant minds; not surprisingly theyíre both involved with the consumption of beer.

The first is those amazing plastic mugs you but upside down in the freezer, with that freezing gel stuff that keeps your beer cold for just long enough to drink it, without having to resort to the barbaric and frankly uncivilized practice of putting lumps of ice in beer.

The second is, to be honest, one of the most brilliant inventions of the modern world. Forget the telephone, the steam engine, the electric light bulb, the computer, the printing press and all those things we can live without. Iím referring of course to the truly remarkable beer tower.

Imagine the genius of the man who realized that he could make it possible for a simple man such as myself to have his own, one-meter high individual beer dispenser sitting there on the table in the pub. Whatís more, this incredible invention would keep his beer constantly cool, due to the inner compartment full of ice. True genius Ė Iíll thank you forever, sir.

Okay, so plastic does have its uses, but letís be honest here Ė most products produced from the stuff are pretty rubbish.  Personally, Iím not a huge fan of plastic shoes or those ever-so-shiny nylon trousers and shirts, and am still waiting for one of those plastic belts that come with a new suit to last more than a week.

Itís ideal for septic tanks, storing water and washing-up bowls. Itís perfect for three-year old girls that want jewelry just like their mumís, or for boys that are looking for a doctorís set to kick-start their medical studies before they even start school.

It was never intended for plants. Plants grow, and do all the other biology stuff that living things do, so why does there seem to be an obsession with making plastic versions of them in this part of the world? Itís not exactly as if weíre living in the harshest environment on the planet Ė that title would obviously have go to somewhere in deepest, darkest Manchester, in northern England.

Plastic plants are becoming increasingly convincing Ė surely there have been occasions when youíve looked at a plant in a hotel or shopping centre and wondered if it was real? Often these things will never look anything other than poor plastic replicas; take away the difficult bits Ė the flowers Ė and with only leaves remaining, the difference between the plastic plant and the real thing becomes more difficult to distinguish.

The caladium is one of these. Itís a spectacular plant that doesnít have flowers as such, or even a stem Ė itís just a load of brightly-colored leaves growing straight out of an underground tubor. The dramatic arrow-shaped, paper-thin leaves are mixtures of bright reds, white and green, in striking combination. The leaf markings are more than a little showy, and almost look like the product of a bored artist with a little too much time on his hands.

Itís a much-replicated artificial plant, which I will admit looks a lot much more convincing than your Aunty Gertís plastic daffodils that have been gathering dust on her sideboard for the last fifty years.

Iím not sure if theyíre still there, but if you used to look up from the lobby in the Meriden hotel near Patong, you could see dozens of these lined up. They looked impressive, but were they real or not? Who knows now.

Originally from South America, the caladium has a number of aliases - angel wings, heart of Jesus, and alocasia, among others. Thais probably have their own word for it, but I haven't got a clue what that would be, unfortunately.

Thai caladiums are somewhat different to their relatives elsewhere on the globe. While all the caladium species are originally from elsewhere, the hybridizing of them in Thailand has taken a bizarre but creative turn from the Ďstandardí versions.

Plant breeders in Thailand havenít focused so much on the larger leaf sizes, but gone more for unusual leaf shapes and bizarre color combinations. Produce a few leaf deformations, and throw in a few weird variegations (hopefully, that is a word) and you have the Thai offering to the caladium world. There are now hundreds of hybrids here that are virtually unknown outside Thailand.

Like so many plants in this region, the caladium is poisonous. Apart from minor skin irritations, it will also cause major problems if itís eaten, so khao pat sai caladium is probably not the best idea. Having said that, there are those who would argue against the health warnings, and suggest the caladium as a vaccine. Believe it or not, the caladium is actually listed as a preventive measure against bubonic plague. Supposedly.

This is also yet another plant that you donít have to work too hard at to encourage it to grow, as itís quite accepting of most conditions. Just about the only thing that it will complain about is direct sun. The delicate leaves will just scorch, so it should always be planted in the shade. This is where the caladium is often seen in the wild Ė theyíve escaped the gardens where they started and are now contentedly thriving in the shade of a tall tree, or in a damp wooded area.

As it grows from tubers, it even possesses the ability to Ďdieí for a few months. If thereís an extended dry period, it will retreat gracefully underground, re-appearing when itís a bit happier with the water content of the soil. If it gets plenty of water year-round, it should continue to grow and spread.

The next time you see a caladium at a restaurant or hotel, try to resist the temptation to investigate its authenticity. At best, youíll be disappointed that the otherwise fine establishment canít be bothered to look after real plants. At worst, your skin will itch for hours. At least you stand a vague chance of not contracting bubonic plague.

Time for a tower.



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