Most lucky leis contain two or three white flowers – buds of jasmine and Indian milkweed (calatropis) plus a pair of creamy magnolias (champaca) for good measure.
Moreover, the white spectrum is equally well represented in the average Phuket garden – from the pure white of the day and -flowering jessamines, the boxwoods and bauhinias, to the creamy-tinted flowers of brunfelsia or buddleia paniculata.
And it is a blessing that so many of these flowers are fragrant, almost as though Mother Nature decided that their pallor needed something extra to attract the attention of pollinating insects or nature-loving humans.
To illustrate the point, over the years, the two most-perfumed plants in my garden have been the racemes of buddleia and fiddlewood (citharexylum spinosum). Both are relatively insignificant visually, but the scent of the tiny flowers is rich and intense, especially in the morning. A word of warning. The fiddlewood is sometimes sold as a buddleia, but a buddleia it ain’t. It has distinctive, bright green leaves (the buddleia’s are grey-green and rough to the touch), and it grows rapidly.
I have a couple bought in containers a year ago and one is already outdistancing all the other shrubs. Unless you want a specimen tree or some rapidly acquired shade, it is not for the cottage garden.
Other white bloomers are more tractable. Take the gardenia (Cape jasmine or put chin). A member of the madder family (rubiaciae), it is beloved of florists worldwide, because of its large, scented blooms and glossy, evergreen, leaves. Its tubular or funnel-shaped flowers are usually creamy white and exist in any number of cultivars, which range from semi-double varieties such as “Magnifica” to the double blooms of “Mystery”. Preferring rich, acidic soil, the gardenia is a good choice for a substantial pot, since it is a shallow rooting plant and in the tropics will need some protection from the sun. And it will take readily from cuttings.
The tabernaemontana (put farang) has flowers that superficially resemble those of the single gardenia. Five-petalled and curved, they remind me of propellers and look as though they should be revolving in the breeze. This evergreen shrub has small, shiny leaves and will, given the right conditions – which means regular watering – flower for much of the year. Need I add that it is fragrant, especially at night. Also easy to propagate from seeds or cuttings, it is, like the gardenia, available at most garden centres.
Equally famed for their perfume is the family of jasmines. The common version, jasminum officinale, was hardy enough to thrive in my London garden. It is a vine which can, if unchecked, reach 30 feet in height. But it is not really a shrub for the tropics, and its relatives do better here. I am thinking of jasminum sambac (Arabian Jessamine), well known in Thailand as mali son. Its white flowers are star-shaped and appear in clusters all year round. And unlike most varieties, it is tolerant of dry soil. Other jasmines you can try are jasminum multiflorum (star jasmine or mali phueng) and rex (royal jasmine or pan yii). Both have evergreen foliage, both are climbers, both need moisture at their roots and some support for their branches. Given these favourable conditions, they will bloom for most of the year. The royal jasmine produces two or three white flowers at the end of each vine; multiflorum has eight-petalled blooms which are covered with fine yellow hairs.
The favourite variety here is probably the orange jasmine (murraya paniculata or dok kaeo). It is not a vine and thus needs no support. In a couple of years, it will grow into a neat, tree-like bush some four metres high. It has a spicy fragrance which attracts butterflies, and it will tolerate semi-shade. While I am not a fan of the Thai propensity for pruning and clipping shrubs into symmetrical shapes and hedges, the orange jasmine will tolerate such treatment and for this reason is widely grown in Phuket.
So too wrightia religiosa (mok baan), a white flowering shrub from the apocynaceae family. It is a familiar plant here, usually grown as a hedge, or arranged as a front line of earthenware pots. I confess I am a little perplexed by this vogue, since the flowers are of little consequence, pendulous and bell-shaped, but miniscule. Moreover the light-green leaves are pretty insignificant and the whole plant has a very open structure. To its credit, it is evergreen, and it does bloom for much of the year. And, dare I say, it is yet another of those white shrubs that smells divine.
Maybe I should change my opinion…
Patrick has been writing for 10 years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at email@example.com.
Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at Wordpress: Green Galoshes.