Sanchezia speciosa


Very veiny: The leaves of the sanchezia speciosa are its main feature, far outshining its small, tubular flowers.

Living skeletons

The human body is weird. It’s full of stuff that we’d rather not see; oozing gooey lumps, traily stringy bits, moist, glistening tubes and pulsating blobs all over the place.

They all have their job to do, and they’re all hidden away inside us. There are many people that would prefer them to stay that way, and not to have to witness these things under any circumstances.

Personally, I used to love TV shows like Your Life in Their Hands – operations filmed in great detail with the surgeon providing a running commentary on what he was cutting, splicing and sewing back up again. It was a bit like modifying an engine, with less grubby oil and a lot more blood.

So why is it that everything red and oozy inside the body has the ability to make people quake in their boots at the mere thought of it, yet as soon as all that nastiness is taken away, leaving just the bare bones, the result is somehow the complete opposite – most of us find skeletons rather amusing. Or maybe it’s just me.

Perhaps it’s the blood that does it – maybe that’s what puts so many people off. Surely most of us find those live X-Ray films from the 1950s fascinating? You know the ones – some bloke with a dodgy hair parting operating a machine that showed all the bones in his hand twiddling his fingers.

Apart from the obvious hair faux-pas, we weren’t put off at all. OK, we know now that the hapless soul probably popped his clogs a couple of years later due to the massive radiation poisoning brought on by his amazing machine, but as it was only bones we could see, with no yucky red bleeding bits, everyone is happy.

Skeletons are actually rather comical. On TV, Steptoe and Son used a life-sized skeleton in a number of occasions I seem to recall. They were a couple of sad, grubby rag-and-bone men from London who... Sorry – I have the feeling that this will never sound even vaguely funny, no matter how hard I try, if you’ve never seen it.

Okay then – how about those rather dated Doctor movies from the ’50s and ’60s that had more than their fair share of comedic skeletal escapades. You remember them – they were about plummy-accented trainee doctors and their various capers, all of them living in fear of a character called Sir Lancelot Spratt. Anyway, one common theme was pranks involving human skeletons. Well, they were funny at the time.

Even skeletons that were never supposed to be in the least bit amusing end up being hilarious – the film Jason and the Argonauts being a case in point. Were we really supposed to be crawling under our cinema seats with fear when those pathetic, weedy, limp-wristed skeletons appeared? Monsters are supposed to be at least a little bit intimidating, but these things made a daft little rattly sound when they moved, then fell into a pile on the ground when they got hit. Pitiful.

I suppose I should make some attempt at mentioning something in gardens, strangely enough with a bit of a skeleton twist. Do you remember skeleton leaves? We used to think they were incredible as kids, when we used to traipse through the woods and collect these long-dead leaves so that we could take them into science class the next day. “You can see inside, and everything, Miss.”

There’s actually a plant around in Thailand that is almost as impressive as those skeleton leaves I used to show to my science teacher. The tropical version is the gold vein plant, or the Sanchezia speciosa. The Thais call it ua-ang thong.

Unlike most plants which are reared for the bountiful supply of flowers and blooms they produce, the gold vein plant is present in most gardens due purely to its leaves. They’re not that big, about three inches in length, but they’re certainly striking.

They consist of a pale green background, with bright, skeletal, lemon veins, seemingly sprouting from the center like snakes’ ribs. They seem to create a kind of stained glass effect.

I recall the first time I saw one, sitting in the long-forgotten corner of a garden center.

I saw this plant sitting there on its own, different from the rest, not doing a great deal. It’s a while ago now, but I recall very nearly being given the plant by the little man that worked there – he certainly couldn’t bring himself to charge me a huge amount for this forgotten plant in the corner.

I’m not sure if it’s because I knew it would be cheap or that I just had to give it a go. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but it went home with me anyway. I discovered that like so many other plants here, it was pretty difficult to abuse.

It needs absolutely nothing except daily watering. Put it in the shade and it will sprout new shoots with glee. Give it maximum sun and it will beg for more like an over-enthusiastic puppy. Like many other colorful-leaved plants, the more sun it gets, the more vivid the color of the leaves will become.

Forget its daily water ration, and it will remind you very quickly, by wilting pathetically and looking generally forlorn. Leave it for a couple of days without water, and it will inspire feelings of guilt brought on by few other plants. It likes its water like a gardening writer likes his daily beer requirement.

I was quite happy with the lemony-veined leaves of the gold vein plant. They were all it needed to do. It wasn’t until it had been residing in a pot in my garden for a couple of years, having doubled in size, that I noticed something over the top of my beer. Small, tubular flowers had appeared.

They’re nothing to write home about, I’ll admit. In fact they’re pretty laughable when compared to many of the other variations of flora that are available in Phuket. But they were flowers. Apparently, flowers don’t appear on the Sanchezia speciosa during its first couple of seasons – they save that surprise until later.

The gold vein plant can grow to a couple of meters tall eventually, but that can take a while if you want it to look presentable. Frequent trimming is the best way to encourage it to look its best, and the ideal time to cut it back is just after it’s flowered. It tends to sprawl a bit, so you might want to be fairly ruthless with the pruning shears.

Most of us have now realized that skeletons in black-and-white films starring awfully correctly-spoken Englishmen just aren’t funny any more. Perhaps they never were, but at least the nurses were cute.

We also tend not to produce skeleton leaves for science class nowadays, either. We’re over ten, with kids of our own. Next time, save them the effort of tramping through the woods and just point them in the direction of that Sanchezia speciosa at the bottom of the garden. Give them the hose while they’re there.



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