Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Showy Crepe Myrtle, pride of the tropics


Pride of India is a species of Lagerstroemia (Crepe Myrtle) from China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. As you will have noticed, not from India, although there are numerous references (logically with a common name like this) to it growing in that country.

More reliably perhaps, a scientific paper on the reproduction of the species specifies its range in India as 'across the Northern Himalayas and Western Ghats'.

The increasingly commonly planted Crepe Myrtle in southern Australia is Lagerstroemia indica, definitely from India in this case - plus a few other nearby countries - although there are other native and exotic species available in horticulture. Most of them are bursting into flower across Melbourne as I write. All up there are about 55 species of Lagerstroemia, growing naturally in Australia, eastern Asia and through into Japan.

We don't grow Pride of India, Lagerstroemia speciosa, in the Melbourne Gardens but there is (or was) a specimen in Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden, and it is commonly grown in the tropics. You will see more often around Melbourne cultivars of Lagerstroemia x matthewsii, a cross between Lagerstroemia speciosa and Lagerstroemia indica, and various mixes and selections of this hybrid and the species. My pictures of the Pride of India are from outside a church in Darwin, Northern Territory.


The species name 'speciosa' means showy or spectacular. The leaves are big, for the genus, and the flowers certainly grab your attention. They are big and in a prominent flowering stem.


The petals are crumpled, as they are in most of the family Lythraceae - a family which also includes the Victorian (apparently) native, Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), a vigorous plant of wet areas in both our Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria sites.


You might also notice this picture the many stamens - the male parts bearing yellow anthers full of pollen. Reputedly each flower has 130 to 200 stamens.

The fruit is a capsule, splitting to released winged seeds.


The wood of the species seems to be something of which we should be particularly proud. In India, where we'll say it's native, the wood is used for construction of furniture, buildings, boats and rail sleepers. The wood is tough, durable and water resistant.

Other parts of the plant have more transient uses such as the leaves being used to make a tea, leaf extracts being used as a insulin-like treatment for diabetes, and the fruits used - somehow - to cure mouth ulcers. Take care with this plant though - some parts are 'astringent', others are poisonous.

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