The mussaenda plant of
Phuket is a surprisingly confused
shrub, with colored leaves bigger than
its flowers and a unhealthy complex
about its dull, washed-out colors.
Put this plant on
wish I could explain to people more clearly that I
actually do like Americans.
Unlike the way they describe us Brits, I wouldn’t
claim that they were “cute” or “quaint”. And I know
for a fact that they don’t have lots of “those neat
Bless ’em. You almost want to pat them on the head and
send them scurrying off on their way, describing
everything as “like, totally awesome”. Not that we can
teach them much in the art of condescension. Call any
American answering machine and you’ll get a
computerized voice that sounds as if it’s addressing a
five year old, telling you that after leaving your
message (“please wait for the tone” though), “you may
hang up or wait for other options”. Gee, thanks. Glad
you were there to explain that darn machine.
They also have a knack of inventing new words, with
the assumption that the rest of the world needs these
additions to the English language. It’s almost become
an art form over there. “Surveilling”, “obsessing” and
“dissing”. “Burglarize” or “dove” instead of “dived”.
Come on, please.
Even the simplest verbs aren’t safe from the
ever-present transatlantic tendency to create words
for no good reason. Since when did the simple word
“confess” become “’fess up”? Are they just bored? Do
they feel that these inanities are really necessary?
Then there’s the old “trousers” versus “pants” thing.
Perhaps a good way to help both those of American
English and of the Queen’s English visualize this
conundrum properly is by way of Superman. To the
average Brit, it’s clear that Superman, for some
strange reason, wears his pants on the outside when in
superhero outfit mode; but to Americans it’s obvious
that Superman only wears pants on the outside when in
Clark Kent mode.
Language disagreements aside, Americans are a strange
lot. For the most powerful nation on the planet, an
extraordinarily large number of them seem to have
“issues” that they need to mull over with their
therapist. They want to “know themselves better” and
“get in touch with their inner beings”.
The mussaenda, probably an American, also has
“issues”. The problem is that it does not know what
color it is – it simply can’t decide. Perhaps several
thousand dollars worth of therapy might encourage this
confused plant to come to terms with its identity.
It has a number of alternative names, from lady
flowers to the virgin tree.
In Thai, it’s known as donya. There are hundreds of
hybrids of the mussaenda, but all have the common
theme of the rather pale, hairy, boring-looking leaves
topped off by a huge splash of color that seems to
come from nowhere.
The colored areas aren’t even the flowers, which is
where the plant’s personal identity crisis comes in.
These brightly colored areas are in fact just colored
leaves that want to grab a bit of attention. It’s
almost as if they’re in competition with each other.
If these were seventies disco dancers, they’d be
comparing medallion sizes.
The colorful bracts come in dozens of hues, but are
mainly shades of red or white. My Thai is far from
proficient, but many of us can figure out that in
Thai, they’re donya daeng or donya khao. The flowers
themselves are much less showy. If you can find them,
they’re small, yellow, white or orange flowers at the
center of each bract. This system of colored bracts is
the same system used by other tropical plants, such as
heliconia and bougainvillea.
The various varieties are often named after famous
ladies from this corner of the globe. There’s even a
famous cultivar named after Imelda Marcos, the “Dona
Imelda”. There’s one that’s ripe for psychoanalysis.
The mussaenda can be a rather small shrub, or can
become a small tree, up to about 10 meters tall.
Some commercial nurseries often train mussaenda to
look more tree-like, so that they can be used for
landscaping. Their natural habit is to produce many
stems, so it can tend to be a bit of a rambler.
This is one that needs a firm hand when it comes to
pruning. Like their lady namesakes, give them an inch,
and the mussaenda will take a mile. It will quickly
become straggly unless it’s pruned quite ruthlessly.
This will help to shape it, as well as produce more
branch tips, which means more flowers and more color
All it wants is a fair bit of drainage, along with
consistently moist soil, without being “claggy” (I
think I just invented that word myself. My apologies
to dictionary writers). Sandy soil is fine.
It will enjoy full sun to partial shade, but the best
bract colors will appear if it gets plenty of sun.
It’s a bit of a balancing act in this regard, as the
Phuket sun in the height of the dry season is probably
a bit too much.
There are many plants that will stop you in your
tracks and take a closer look. Many plants give
displays of color so vivid that you’d almost imagine
that they’d been tampered with by some manic painter
who had only DayGlo colors in his paintbox. The
heliconia and bougainvillea are a couple that stand
Unfortunately, the mussaenda isn’t one of them. Walk
past this and you’ll be decidedly underwhelmed, as its
colors are positively washed out in comparison.
Perhaps this is really the source of the plant’s
problems; it’s just not very exciting. Perhaps it’s
not an identity crisis or a problem of not being able
to get in touch with its inner feelings at all. It
probably feels that it just can’t compete with the
likes of the bougainvillea. What it really needs to do
is get to know itself. Maybe it does have issues after
Anyone know a good therapist?