Rare Chinese plant, flowers no longer wanted

Late last year I was with a group of botanic gardens directors, and the like, taking a tour of the South China Botanical Garden in Guangzhou, China.

Admitedly a plant-nerdy group, but every one of us stopped to photograph and interrogate this particlar plant in their nursery. I'd seen it out on display, at the same botanic garden, ten years earlier (next picture). Again, photographing and oohing and ahing.

It's Tigridiopalma magnificaa 'rare and critically endangered herb endemic to China'. It belongs to the plant family Melastomataceae, often characterised by leaves with three or more veins running from the base to the tip, with ladder like connecting veins between them. A more familiar example would be Tibouchina, but you can see it quite clearly in my feature plant.

There is only one species in the genus Tigridiopalma, discovered and described in Guangdong Provence in 1979. Back then it was already restricted in distribution but fifty years later it is under greater threat due to human disturbance and loss of habitat. It's estimated only 2000 individuals existing in the wild today, so the propagation work at South China Botanical Garden has more value than impressing a passing botanic garden director or two.

Happily for its conservation, Tigridiopalma magnifica has great potential as an ornamental plant. It tolerates shade well so may be good for indoors. In nature, it grows on wet rocks, heavily shaded in forests.

Unhappily for its conservation it is difficult to propagate from seed. Researchers in China, though, have now successfully used tissue culture to generate material for reintroduction and for horticulture.

So a very attractive leaf with that distictive patterning, along with these wonderful stout, red hairs on the new growth.

The flowers are typical of the family. It's closest relative, a genus called Phyllagathis, has flowers with four rather than five petals. Indeed original collection of Tigridiopalma was of leaf material only, and is annotated 'Phyllaganthis, flowers wanted'.

So armed with flowers, and presumably some of these chunky flowerbuds (below), Dr Chen described the stunning plant as a new species, in a new genus. Again you can see the family resemblance when you compare these to the flowers of a Tibouchina or Melastoma (both sometimes called Lasiandra).

The flowers were essential for its classification and do add to its showiness, but the vegetative plant will be what sells it in the nursery.


Katherine Wagner-Reiss said…
TY. Love the title, love the photos, love the story, love the clue on how to identify Melastomataceae!