Is it tea?
‘Cha hokkien’ (hokkian) is a favourite plant for making Thai topiaries and bonsais, and if pruned when young you can create a dense hedge, which is cheaper and nicer than an unpainted concrete wall. The dark green leaves are glossy and sometimes pointed, sometimes with three teeth. If it gets too dry it may shed its leaves.
The question for any serious gardener is, what is its international scientific Latin name, so that I can read more about it?
‘Cha’ is often translated into ‘tea’, and indeed leaves of real tea, Camellia sinensis (Theaceae), are often also referred to as ‘cha’ in Thai. There are at least 20 other species named ‘cha’, but real tea and ‘cha hokkien’ are not even members of the same plant family. The plant at hand is Ehretia microphylla syn. Carmona retusa (Boraginaceae). In the Dokmai Garden collection, this is the only member of the borage family.
An English name? ‘Fukien Tea’ and ‘wild tea’ are commonly used, but since it is not even a member of the tea family I think these are poor names. Fukien or Fujian is a province in southern China where the plant occurs in the wild. Although Tem Smitinand claims it is an exotic species, it has been reported from Eastern India to New Guinea and Queensland in Australia. Holttum & Enoch wrote in 1991 that it has ‘recently’ been introduced into Malaysian and Singaporean gardens (Gardening in the Tropics, Timber Press).
What about real tea from the camellia family? We have tried it at Dokmai Garden without success. It seems to be too hot in the Chiang Mai valley (altitude 350 m). Nice Thai tea plantations can be seen at high elevation, such as in Mae Aw (1200 m) in northern Mae Hong Son province.
The tiny flowers reveal their affinity with the borage family. The Medieval Latin name ‘borrago’ for Borago officinalis may be derived from Andalusian Arabic ‘abu huras’ which translates ‘father of roughness’. A feature of many plants of the family is the presence of stiff hairs of the leaves and buds.
An illustration from 1799, downloaded from www.plantillustrations.org
Text & Photo: Eric Danell