Instead of Rhododendron
Many foreign settlers here in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand wish to grow Rhododendron (Ericaceae) like at home. Although there are wild Rhododendron in Thailand, they are high elevation plants (usually above 1500 metres) and will do very poorly here in the hot valley at 300-350 metres.
A nice tropical substitute for some violet Rhododendron is the local native Melastoma malabathricum (Melastomataceae). Both foliage and colour resemble some rhododendrons. Most visitors to Dokmai Garden do not know this plant at all, a minority of the visitors make a qualified guess that this is South American Tibouchina of the same family (Melastomataceae), but Tibouchina have dry capsules while fruits of Melastoma are fleshy. The Asian genus Melastoma is usually lacking in western tropical garden floras. This is probably because modern tropical garden floras are mostly American, and they focus on nearby South American plants.
‘Melastoma’ is Latinized Greek and means ‘black mouth’. This is because the fruits, which taste like raisins, make your tongue black. I hereby dub thee ‘Malabar black mouth’ in English!
(This is an expanded version of an earlier blog, now with a picture of the flower, English name and additional comments)
Text & Photo: Eric Danell