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Glorious Gloriosa

August 1, 2012

The glorious flowers of the ‘gloriosa lily’ (Gloriosa superba, Colchicaceae) can only be seen during the rainy season, which is now. The flowers are incredible, and the scientific name which does not need any comment was coined by the Swedish physician and naturalist Carl Linnaeus in his world famous book ‘Species Plantarum’ from 1753.

Glorious indeed, but there is a reason Dokmai Garden keeps it in the lion cage with the other dangerous plants. When the dry season begins, the plant withdraws all its nutrients into a subterranean bulb while flowers, vines and leaves above ground disappear. The bulb contains all the nutrients needed for next year’s vines and flowers. Being nutritious in nature is dangerous. You need claws, fangs, rapid legs or camouflage to avoid hungry predators. This plant is left in peace due to its poison. The bulb is packed with colchicine which kills any cell by destroying its chromosomes. Only 0.006 g is enough to kill an adult. Eating a bulb would lead to stomach and intestine poisoning followed by kidney and liver failure and heart arrest. Due to its lethal chemical defence, the bulb or seeds are common suicide weapons in India where it is native too. Apart from some fruits the signal to vegetarians is clear, plants do not like to be eaten, either.

Due to this year’s unusually dry weather, we irrigate in the middle of the rainy season, and this perfect darling needs some help too. July had only 50% of the normal precipitation and the climatologists say there are signs of an emerging El Niño, which would imply a terribly hot and dry 2013. We hope Thailand can fill up the water reservoirs in August and September which are the rainiest months, normally.

About 85 % of our visitors come during the cold dry season (November-February), but they will not be able to see this fantastic native vine. Note the tendril-like leaf tip for climbing, and that the leaves are untouched by insects due to the poison colchicine.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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