Friday, 2 July 2010

Country & Western Singer or Port Star?*



I’ve been waiting for a chance to talk about this plant that sounds like a country and western singer, or porn star, or both.

Misty Plume Bush is actually an African plant with a spectacular flowering display - fountains of mauve confetti? Just about everyone who walks by takes a photo when it’s in full bloom.

Like may other members of the mint family, it has aromatic leaves – the smell is described as ‘soft and herby’. In fact its original botanical name, Iboza, is from a Zulu word name referring to its aromatic and medicinal qualities.

It’s said to relieve chest complaints, headaches, stomach ache and even malaria. Leaf extracts have been tested and found to inhibit some disease-causing bacteria and to stimulate muscle activity. The quantity taken is very important and there are documented cases of overdose leading to death.

Botanically, it’s now known as Tetradenia riparia (rather than Iboza riparia), with the species name a nod to one of its natural habitats, on river banks. I don’t know what its new genus refers to, but presumably glands or swellings (‘aden’s) in groups of four… There are half a dozen or so other species of Tetradenia in Africa.

We call it the Misty Plum Bush, for its showy flowers, or the Musk Bush or Ginger Bush, presumably for its perfume that doesn’t really smell like musk or ginger.

The great thing about this plant besides its prolific blooms and soft and herby leaf odour is that it flowers in winter when most of the garden (except perhaps for camellias) is in hibernation.

Apparently male and female flowers are produced on separate plants, although when I look at these flowers they very much like they have both male and female bits. The mail spikes are said to create a more misty show while the female flowers are reputedly more compact. Our bush is quite misty.

In Africa it is pollinated by a native moth that flies around at night, which is why the colours are soft white to lilac – attractive to moths in the evening light. There are various clones in cultivation, some with stronger coloured pink flowers.

Here in Sydney the misty lilac plumes attract lots of different insects and, I expect, insect-eating birds.

*This Passion for Plants posting will also appear on the ABC Sydney website (under 'Weekends' or search 'gardening'), and is the gist of my 702AM radio interview with Simon Marnie on Saturday morning, between 9-10 am.

Image: The Misty Plume Bush in full flush at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens

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