IIt’s always fascinating to me as a botanist that, of the estimated 400,000 plant species on Earth, humans have become so obsessed with a certain number. We have spent generations ingeniously cultivating them in new ways and have devoted millions of acres of land and untold resources to growing them, all for the sheer joy of admiring their appearance.
What’s particularly wonderful is that this obsession with specific plants is often culturally bound. While the Japanese have centuries-old nurseries growing cultivars of moss, in Britain the only thing you can buy from a garden center with the word “moss” on it is a moss killer. Yet one of the great benefits of globalization, largely fueled by the Internet, is that it opens up horticultural wonders that we have long ignored. One of my recent rediscoveries is the desert rose, Adenium obesum.
Adeniums are beautiful succulents from the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. They have glossy leaves and wonderfully puffy ‘mini baobab’ trunks – all crowned several times a year with dazzling trumpet-shaped blooms in a vast array of shades. For centuries, the peoples of Southeast Asia have associated them with wealth and longevity. Their rounded trunks – like full-bellied Buddhas – and their tendency to form natural bonsai trees create the appearance of ancient trees, even on young specimens. When I was a kid in 1980s Singapore, they were as ubiquitous to me as pampas grass was in the UK. Objectively very pretty, super easy to grow, and yet so unremarkable that they seemed to blend into the background.
When they started popping up on amazing Thai and Indonesian Instagram accounts recently, I was amazed at the miracles that have been done with them over the past 30 years. Far from waning, interest in them seems to have peaked. This created a huge array of dazzling new flower shapes (which to me are a bit flashy), but also some amazing pruning and training techniques to maximize their quirky bonsai shapes, like real Pokemon.
The simplest technique, which I have tried with success, is to remove the plant from its pot and gently wash the compost from its spiraling, swollen roots. These can be replanted in bonsai soil, exposing the top half to give it a Mandrake-from-Harry Potter to see. This will quickly re-root from the buried section, with the dug up section turning green within a week or two. Most Southeast Asians position these roots apart like the spokes of a wheel to create a neat, symmetrical look, but I love how tangled and primitive they look, so twist them more.
With the growing interest in succulents and caudex-forming houseplants, some of which have been illegally poached from the wild, adeniums are a perfect sustainable alternative that’s easier to grow, cheaper to buy – and which has marvelous flowers. Why these aren’t even more popular here, I have no idea.
Follow Jack on Twitter @Botanygeek