Gardening: A hint of the tropics

If you go on holiday, you may as well make the most of what you experience – the tastes, sights, sounds, people, places and plants of foreign climes.

Give a warm welcome to Mussaenda philippica, known as the Virgin Tree or Tropical Dogwood.

So, this week, having just returned from a few weeks away from the cool of an English spring, I am making the most of Mussaenda philippica ‘Aurorae’, a tropical shrub which originated in the Philippines but which has since found a home in many a similar site and situation.

Fortunate are those people who can grow this shrub in their gardens or who can look at their neighbour’s plot and see the white Mussaenda, (aka Tropical Dogwood, Virgin Tree) showing off its wonderful foliage and bright little flowers; butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and all sorts of insects are also drawn to it for its abundant supply of nectar.

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Sadly, Mussaenda philippica ‘Aurorae’ (named after Dona Aurora, wife of a former President of the Philippines) wouldn’t like the British climate. This is a shrub of the tropics where it can luxuriate in plenty of sunshine and plenty of warm moisture, although it seems to do best in a well-drained loamy soil.

In its ideal habitat this marvellous shrub can grow to 10 feet in height, although many people prefer to train it to half that size or contain it even more by cultivating it as a pot plant.

It’s the showy, greatly-enlarged sepals (bracts) of white or off-white that demand attention; the flowers are relatively inconspicuous but they twinkle light miniature orange fairy lights. In that sense, the plant is very similar to the poinsettia which sells by the million every Christmas.

In its own backyard, where the sun shines and the humidity is high, the Virgin Tree is often grown as an ornamental in parks and public gardens or along roadsides.

It’s also popular with landscapers, but to appreciate it at its best, it needs to be grown in a garden.

It’s best to prune the Mussaenda philippica after blooming to get a bushy plant, although the lower stems tend to become bare however much you prune.

The bracts colour best in full sun and need it to flower continuously, though 
in very hot spots they prefer filtered mid-day sun.

If you like what you see and you want to grow Mussaenda philippica in this country, try it in a conservatory; success isn’t guaranteed, but it could be fun trying to cultivate an exceptionally beautiful shrub.