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Green Thoughts: More ornamental shrubs well worth cultivating

Green Thoughts: More ornamental shrubs well worth cultivating

This month opens the ‘last chance saloon’ door to a few more multi-coloured foliage shrubs. Two or three are consistent performers and might rightly feel miffed if not given a mention.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 11 August 2019, 03:00PM

MAIN: Excoecaria cochinchinensis’ two-tone display. Photo Magnus Manske. TOP RIGHT: Sanchezia, a fast grower. Photo: Ryan Somma. ABOVE RIGHT: The tolerant dracaena fragrans. Photo: Forest & Kim Starr

MAIN: Excoecaria cochinchinensis’ two-tone display. Photo Magnus Manske. TOP RIGHT: Sanchezia, a fast grower. Photo: Ryan Somma. ABOVE RIGHT: The tolerant dracaena fragrans. Photo: Forest & Kim Starr

Sanchezia nobile

Sanchezia nobile prompted an enthusiastic Floridian to write on the web as follows: “Does anybody know about this plant? I saw it here in town and I just had to get a cutting.” I don’t know if he found one, but the good news is that not only will it grow readily from cuttings but it is available in plant nurseries here.

Sometimes confused with the codiaeum (croton), its leaves are quite similar, since sanchezia has similarly deep green, oval foliage with pronounced yellow or white veining. Glossy and leathery, the spectacular leaves, produced in opposite pairs, are comparable in size to those of the croton – up to a foot long in the right conditions. And the right conditions mean good soil, a consistent supply of water and full or filtered sun. Potted specimens, for example, will wilt rapidly if the soil is allowed to dry out.

While it does not have the spectrum of colours possessed by the croton, this tropical American native, named after a certain Dr Sanchez, has other compensations. It is a fast grower, makes a sizable bush (up to three metres) and has quite showy yellow flowers with bright tubular red bracts. Right now, it is blooming away in my patch.

Our Floridian friend said these blooms looked like hibiscus flowers, but I put that observation down to an aberrant memory – or an excess of enthusiasm. But the shrub is well worth a try and makes an unusual addition to your flower bed. If you want a bushier plant, remember to pinch out the growing tips.

Excoecaria cochinchinensis (lin krabue)

The next plant comes with a health warning. Its common name, the blindness tree, affords a clue – the sap is toxic and may be injurious to eyes, though it does also have medicinal uses. The shrub in question, excoecaria cochinchinensis (the latter epithet an old word for Vietnam) is a bushy, woody shrub up to a metre or so with masses of shiny leaves.

What make what Thais call lin-krabue so distinctive is that the upsides of the leaves are dark green (sometimes with white or pinkish variegations), but are deep maroon underneath. It is becoming increasingly popular here: one cultivar, Firestone, has strongly contrasting leaf colouration. Its dense habit means it can be used as a hedge or border plant and will tolerate clipping. Distinctly useful.

Polyscias guilfoylei or panax (lep krutbai-yai)

Polyscias, sometimes referred to as panax, is another shrub that can be brought into service as a hedging plant and is often employed in this fashion by Thai gardeners. Strictly speaking it is more a two-tone variegated plant than a multi-coloured one, rarely deviating from green and white patterned foliage.

Quercifolia (oak-leaved), the commonest variety here, has smallish, wavy-edged foliage and a vertical habit. If you intend to use it for a barrier or border you will need to put the young plants close together. Trim the top growth if you want a bushier specimen.

Polyscias is hardy and will tolerate low levels of moisture. Moreover, it is evergreen and there are increasingly attractive varieties available. Marginata, for example, has dramatic blotches of bright yellow on the leaf edges. The shrub has achieved a new lease of life as a house plant,, especially in America, where there are many cultivars with varied leaf shapes. “Ruffles”, “parsley” and “spinach” should give you a clue.

Dracaena fragrans or corn plant (wassana)

Dracaena is a single-stemmed shrub, African in origin, but common throughout Thailand where it pressed into service as a hedging plant or often as a pot plant. Sometimes, and because of its acceptance of low light levels, it is employed as a house plant. When young, it has a rosette of leaves and more foliage sprouting from the stem: if the plant is cut back, it will produce branches below the cut. It has terminal panicles of short-lived flowers.

Tolerant to the point of surviving near total neglect, dracaena looks best in variegated forms such as mass cane or massangeana (this variety is also known as the corn plant) which has a bright yellow stripe down the centre of its long, spathe-like, drooping leaves. Reflexa can grow into a substantial tree.

At the other end of the scale, a dwarf variety, compacta, is small and consequently better suited to indoor cultivation. Grow from segments of old stems put in moist soil. If half-submerged horizontally in the ground, a length of stem will normally produce vertical shoots.

Patrick has been writing for thirteen years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at 

Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at Wordpress: Green Galoshes. Patrick will shortly be publishing ‘The Tropic Gardener’, an indispensable guide to Southeast Asia’s flowering plants, based on his experience of gardening in Phuket.

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