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 a couch

I 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 old castles”.

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 bracts.

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 out here.

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 all.

Anyone know a good therapist?


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