Friday, May 2, 2008

Native Plumbago in Franke Scrub

Plumbago zeylanica
We were delighted, at our working bee on Wednesday, to find this plant still in flower. We first noticed it in January.
This pretty dry rainforest plant may once have been quite common in the Toowoomba area, but is now rare here in the wild. It is an international species, growing also in Asia (including Ceylon, as the name “zeylanica” implies). You often see it described as “white-flowered leadwort”, but the local variety is pretty shade of pale blue.
Plumbago plants are traditionally called leadworts, a name which comes from a traditional use of a European species. Beggars rubbed the sap on their skin to raise nasty-looking, lead-coloured blisters - sick-looking beggars were more successful at their trade!
The juice of our local species might produce similar results, though it seems to be no problem with ordinary garden handling. The children’s game of making dangling “earrings” - attaching the sticky flower-bases to their earlobes - does them no harm.
P. zeylanica is also native in Africa, where its juice was used in traditional tattooing. A root extract is still used as a medicine for a variety of diseases in Asia. (Overdoses are deadly, however.)
If grown in full sun, (as seen at Peacehaven Botanic Park at Highfields), this plant makes a very successful, dense, under-knee-height groundcover. It spreads by underground roots.

In a shady situation it grows more thinly, making a rather inconspicuous, light understorey plant. In a garden, it can be left to spread at will amongst shrubs, where it is hardly noticed until it produces its flowers. They are very similar to those of its introduced South African cousin, the common garden “cape” plumbago, P. auriculata (P. capensis), which a much larger plant - a scrambling, sprawling shrub popular for its flowers and its ability to survive without attention from a gardener. Not everyone loves it, though, as it spreads vigorously and can be a nuisance to you, as well as to your neighbours and the local bushland. It can be distinguished from the local plant by its little “ears” - (actually stipules) on the stems, just where the leaves join onto them. (See photo at right). Note that the leaves are also a different shape.
A native butterfly called the “plumbago blue” breeds only on these two plants. Butterflies of all kinds are attracted to sip nectar from the flowers.

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