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A spectacular but uncommon garden ornamental

April 2, 2011

The large, fleshy and bell-shaped blossom of Witt’s bell gardenia (Rothmannia wittii, Rubiaceae) is rarely seen in Thai gardens. It is a native, and the Dokmai Garden specimen displays it flowers for the first time ever right now! We had R. sootepensis too, but that one seems adapted to more evergreen climate, so unfortunately we lost that specimen. We shall search for a new one, and put it in a more moist climate. R. wittii did very well on our dry hill, and the blossom compensates for the work in keeping tall grass away. Simply behold the picture below!

The genus name ‘Rothmannia‘ was created by Carl Peter Thunberg in 1776 in honour of Göran Rothman (1739-1778), both Uppsala biologists (Sweden) and disciples of the great Linnaeus. Rothman performed scientific expeditions to Tunisia and Libya in 1773-1776. Rothman also translated texts of Voltaire as a contribution to bringing enlightenment to a Swedish population blinded by superstition. Judging from today’s secular Swedish society and its success in education, welfare, female liberation, science, industry, economy and democracy, that struggle worked quite well.

Witt’s bell gardenia is only known from Thailand. Since it grows into a small tree (4-10 meters) and is adapted to deciduous woodlands, it should deserve a place also in small Chiang Mai gardens. The wood and roots have been used to cure fever and venereal diseases.

Being a member of the gardenia family, the English name ‘bell gardenia’ is sometimes used for the genus Rothmannia, sometimes for certain species. Since the family is huge, the Flora of Thailand project has not yet published a key to the species, but meanwhile you can use Christian Puff’s excellent website.

Eric Danell

Witt’s bell gardenia (Rothmannia wittii) is now in blossom at Dokmai Garden.

P.S. Some copies of our book ‘Fruits and vegetables in Southeast Asian markets’ had a problem with the binding, due to the use of a new printing company. The publisher White Lotus has now generously rebound all books and you can now buy this book at Dokmai Garden or in most other bookstores in Southeast Asia.

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