Plant Profile: Strophanthus boivinii

I started this blog with a clear personal ambition to preserve what I already knew about plants and to encourage further learning. It was as simple as that. Looking back this sounds like a selfish mission, but there was always an intention to share that knowledge, otherwise I may as well have written my thoughts in a notebook and stashed it under the bed. I’ve learned so much through sharing, fuelled by the encouragement given to me by my followers. Over time I have reached out and explored the worlds of garden design, travel and fragrance, but have always returned to my fascination with plants as the main driver for my existence in the blogosphere.

It is over ten years since I visited Madagascar on a tour that took me all over the ‘Red Island’. It was an unforgettable experience. I visited spiny forests in the south; rainforests in the north and east; dry deciduous forests in the west, each environment bursting with fabulous biodiversity. Even then it was plain to see that these unique habitats were but mere fragments, pale shadows of what they had once been, but of global importance nevertheless. A flight from the bustling capital to the west coast of Madagascar laid bare the effects of rampant deforestation and severe erosion. A livid landscape of raw, desolated, deeply-scored hills stretching to the horizon is a vision I shall never forget.

On the BBC news this weekend we heard that Madagascar’s natural environment has arrived at the Last Chance Saloon. It’s almost closing time and the landlord is ready to pull down the shutters. Madagascar’s natural riches teeter on the brink of disaster, with many species facing extinction. No-one really knows if they can be saved and what has already been lost forever. Madagascar is a poor country and the communities that live there must feed themselves. Whilst many Malagasy people understand that healthy forests are essential for medicines, shelter, clean water, fertility, soil stability and even tourism, few are in a position to do anything to save them. A change of leader offers faint hope that matters could improve, but recent history provides little encouragement.

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Uncarina grandidieri, photographed in Madagascar in 2008

My visit to Madagascar came before I started writing this blog, but every so often I encounter a plant that I recognise from that adventure. One such is the mouse trap tree, Uncarina grandidieri, a curious plant which possesses barbed seed pods capable of ensnaring small rodents. I originally came across this endemic tree in the car park at a visitor centre in the southern-most part of Madagascar, and was reacquainted with it recently at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami. More on that encounter another day perhaps.

Today it’s a tree that I didn’t encounter in its native land that I wish to write about – the wood shaving flower, Strophanthus boivinii.

Looking for all the world like a relative of our winter-flowering witch hazel (which it isn’t), the wood shaving flower is named in honour of its spiralling, burnt-orange, yellow-edged flowers. Each corkscrew petal appears as if it’s just curled elegantly from a carpenter’s plane. The flowers are borne in clusters, maybe two or three times each year, on trees that can reach up to 100ft tall. In common with other trees from Madagascar’s dry deciduous forests, Strophanthus boivinii will drop its handsome, laurel-like leaves during times of drought or stress, refoliating when conditions improve. In favourable conditions the foliage remains evergreen. Although the tree is used to prepare treatments for gonorrhoea, colic, wounds and itches, all parts are considered toxic if ingested by humans or other animals.

Strophanthus boivinii, The Kampong, Miami

The fine specimen photographed here was found growing at The Kampong in Miami, part of a collection started by David Fairchild, one of America’s great horticulturalists. It had made a low, domed canopy in a lawned area and was just coming into leaf and flower, giving the whole tree an appealing, zesty freshness. There’s no doubt that the wood shaving flower would make a splendid ornamental tree in the right situation and an eye catching addition to a floral arrangement. Suited to climates in USDA zone 10 or above, this tree is too tender for UK gardens, except perhaps the Isles of Scilly. I can find no evidence of any examples in botanical collections here, although the obvious starting place would be Kew. There are a few sources of seed online, including rarepalmseeds.com, an outfit with a mouthwatering selection of exciting plants to choose from so worth a visit in any case. If you felt inclined to grow from seed, the wood shaving flower might tolerate life in a large, well-ventilated, frost-free greenhouse. It would certainly impress your gardening friends. TFG.

N.B. The future of thousands of little-known plants such as the wood shaving flower is under threat. Not at some later date, now. As well as looking pretty, many of these plants have little known or untapped medical potential in addition to other economic benefits. One day they could save our lives. The best way to preserve these precious resources is in their natural habitat, as part of the complex ecosystems they’ve evolved within. There are several conservation organisations working to preserve Madagascar’s biodiversity, one such being Madagasikara Voakajy. You can read more about their work here and in a recent BBC report by Victoria Gill.

Strophanthus boivinii, The Kampong, Miami