Friday, January 24, 2014

Burny Vine

Trophis scandens (Malaisia scandens)

It’s fruiting time for the burny vines. These plants are very common in our local rainforests and scrubs. They are in the same family (Moraceae) as figs, but the relationship is not at all obvious, except perhaps in their white sap – though even this can be sparse and not obvious, especially in dry weather.
The male flowers, on their 2cm spikes do look a bit like mulberries (another fig-relative). The female flowers are hardly recognisable as flowers. They cluster together in tiny (4mm) green globules, with red whisker-like styles hanging out in the hope of catching some wind-blown pollen from a nearby male plant.
The globules turn pink, as shown in the photo above, where fruits have developed from the fertilised flowers.
These fruits are said to be edible, but I sometimes wonder how these reputations arise. I tried this one and found it unpleasant and very astringent.
The plants themselves are scrambling twiners.

They put out vigorous, long young stems, which are covered so thickly with rough lenticels that they feel like cat’s tongues, and have the same tendency to grip. The grip is a one-way thing. If you run your fingers along a stem you notice that they only catch as you move in the direction of growth. This is the plant’s first climbing technique. The fast-growing young stems grip just enough to prevent them from slipping backwards and falling down, as they reach  for a suitable place to begin twining upwards.  These distinctive long stems tend to be the first thing noticed on encountering the plant in the bush. If encountered at speed (such as by a rider on horseback)  the result would be a burning experience – the source of the plant’s common name.
Failing something to climb on, the plants form large thickets, providing shelter for wildlife, and food for birds and butterfly babies.
I have several in my garden, and have found them to be slow-growing for the first few years. They are speeding up as they acquire size.  I’m not sure about their long term future, though. Grown as a thicket they would need rather a lot of space, especially if it is to contain plants of both sexes. As climbers, they would need the support of well grown trees or a sturdy pergola. I’m not sure whether my 30-year-old trees are up to it.

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