For a start, its showy flowers bloom in the mornings and only last a day, writes Elaine Yim
THERE are some fascinating plants with common names in English or Malay that are related to a cat’s anatomy. These include cattail (Acalypha hispida), cat’s claw creeper (Macfadyena anguis-cati), mata kuching or cat’s eyes (Dimocarpus longan), and cat whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus), as well as lidah kucing or cat’s tongue (Turnera subulata, T. ulmifolia), which is the focus of this week’s article.
The two species of Turnera have flower centres whose texture is similar to a cat’s tongue. They are also known as bunga kembang pukul lapan or bunga delapan because their flowers open at about 8am and close by noon. During rainy days and cool weather, the flowers may open for longer but they last only a day.
These Tropical America (Florida, Central America, the Caribbean islands and South America) natives adapt well to our climate. While the two species share many similar features, they can be differentiated by their flowers.
Turnera is named in honour of William Turner, an English doctor, naturalist, botanist and theologian from the 16th century. He was also known as the Father of English Botany.
Common name: White buttercup, white alder, sulphur alder, politician's flower, dark-eyed Turnera.
Subulata is derived from the Latin word subula for awl, a pointed piercing tool, in reference to the shape of the leaves. The flowers are creamy white or pale yellow with a yellow halo and dark brown centre.
T. subulata can be found growing in the wild like weeds in sunny fields and vacant lands, waste dumps, by the roadside, the edge of drains and even among the cracks of old concrete walls. Its flowers woo bugs, wasps, bees and butterflies. This brings to mind a beautiful bush of turnera I saw growing in a public park near my housing area a few years ago. It never failed to catch my attention whenever I passed by. In the mornings it would be full of charming blooms and swarmed by bees and butterflies flirting from flower to flower. What a mesmerising sight, to see nature's symphony in action. And by noon, with the flowers withered, a return to calm and quiet.
But what puzzled me most was how it could attract so many types of wildlife and yet not be adversely affected by pests!
Common name: Beach buttercup, yellow alder, yellow buttercup, Cuban buttercup, sage rose, sundrops, West Indian holly.
Ulmifolia is derived from the Latin word ulmus, as the leaves resemble that of the elm tree. The flowers are buttery yellow but without a dark centre.
T. ulmifolia is grown as an ornamental plant here. It tends to get leggy, so trimming and staking are required.
In Hawaii, it is grown near papaya trees so that fruit flies will swarm its flowers and not the papayas. In Mexico and the Caribbean islands, it is a host plant for the larvae of the Mexican Fritillary butterfly (Euptoieta hegesia hegesia). And in Malaysia, I have seen it play host to tawny coaster butterflies.
Dense and compact, these evergreen perennial shrubs can grow up to 1.5m.
The dark green leaves are hairy on both sides and oval-shaped with toothed margins. They are aromatic when crushed. The stems are highly branched.
They bloom throughout the year. Their showy flowers attract bees and butterflies.
HOW TO GROW
Turnera can be grown as:
• A landscaped border or bedding plant in mass planting (60cm-90cm between each plant)
• A bush, in mixed borders, as a formal or informal hedge
• A ground cover along slopes to prevent soil erosion
• A container plant
STEP BY STEP
• Propagation: By seedling, herbaceous or semi-hardwood stem and tip cutting. For beginners, start with a young plant from the local nursery.
• Sunlight: Grow in full sun.
• Soil: Slightly sandy and well-draining. For containers, add river sand to the potting mix.
• Water: Twice a day during hot weather. Established plants are drought-tolerant.
• Fertiliser: Apply a well-balanced fertiliser fortnightly.
• Pruning: To maintain a neat shape and to encourage new shoots and more blooms. Cuttings can be used to grow new plants.
• Pests: T. ulmifolia is susceptible to leafminers, so remove damaged leaves by pinching or cutting them off. It can withstand harsh pruning.
Some varieties produce longer-lasting flowers. Check with the local nursery. If there are ants and wasps on the plant, there's likely less caterpillar attacks and more buds and seeds.