Saturday, April 13, 2013

A miracle plant with a cure for everything?

Species name: Ixora coccinea

Common name: jungle geranium, flame of the woods

Location: Dominican Republic

The jungle geranium is an incredibly popular ornamental species in tropical locations because of how easily it's pruned into shapes. In tropical resorts, it's often the plant that makes up the "thou shalt not pass" barrier between the walkways around the resort and the grass and gardens beyond the walkways. It is native to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where it is said to be one of their holy plants.

One of the best characteristics about this plant that makes it so ideal as an ornamental species and even a houseplant is that it can tolerate hard pruning and it flowers on old growth, the previous year's growth, and new growth. This is often a problem for some plants like hydrangeas and hibiscus, where they only flower from the previous year's growth and so if you prune this off in the spring or fall you don't end up getting any flowers. Many gardeners get around this by giving the plant a hard prune once every 5 years or so and just sacrificing the flowers for a year (it will still grow up with green leaves, but just none of the showy flowers). It also flowers almost continuously during the year, but just at different intensities; the most flowers appearing just prior to and just after the rainy season. As an indoor plant, this species is often grown as a cultivar with orange or yellow flowers, or even flowers that change colour as they age. I have seen these plants in garden stores here in Canada and always been amazed by the flower colour-changing ability but never been interested enough to try to keep one alive. Maybe I'll give it a shot next time I see one!

This plant isn't just loved for its ornamental value; it's also an important plant in traditional Indian mediciine called Ayurveda. The flowers, leaves, roots and stem are all used, often as a tonic or a tea, and consumed to treat a big list of ailments. The fruits of this plant are also edible but (from what I understand; I've never tried one or even seen one) don't taste very good. Biochemically, this plant has incredible amounts of chemicals that are believed to have some sort of health-improving effects: lupeol (anti-inflammatory), ursolic acid (used in the cosmetic industry but also inhibit cancer cell growth), oleanolic acid (antitumor and antiviral properties), sitosterol (a plant sterol that can reduce blood levels of cholesterol), rutin (blood thinner and anti-inflammatory), anthocyanins (anti-aging), kaempferol (analgesic), and quercetin (antiviral, anticancer, anti-inflammatory). While none of these chemicals have been shown to have these effects on large-scale human trials (most are at either the mouse testing or cell-line testing stage), so far all research has been shown to be promising. While this certainly is not an endorsement to go out and eat kilograms of this plant every day, perhaps Ayurveda is really onto something with this plant. We'll have to wait and see.