Wednesday, 4 February 2009

the costus

There are a couple of things in life that I am rather bullish about. One of them is my take on what the property outlook is going to be like over the course of the year; downward spiral. The other, is the fact that I’m probably one of Singapore's most enthusiastic costus collectors.

The Costaceae is a family of pantropical monocots belonging to the order Zingiberales. (other members include Musaceae, Zingiberaceae and Heliconiaceae. The Costaceae comprise approximately 120 species in five (to 8) genera that are primarily native to the tropical regions of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Some of these include the Costus, Dimerocostus, Monocostus, Tapeinochilos, Cheilocostus.

Botanically, Costaceae are separated from Zingiberaceae in three ways. First, the Costaceae have leaves that are held in a spiral upon the stem, whereas in Zingiberaceae, the leaves are always held distichously, i.e. in 2 vertical rows on opposing sides of the stem. Second, in Costaceae, the staminodes (Modified stamens) are fused into the labellum, whereas in Zingiberaceae only the inner staminodes are fused into the labellum, with the outer pair remaining visible, often as petal-like structures. Finally, the Costaceae lack the aromatic essential oils that are present in all of the Zingiberaceae. The flowers of the Costaceae are generally solitary or aggregated in inflorescences and they can be arranged either as basal blooms or in a terminal head. The rhizomes are generally fleshy with tuberous roots.

Although members of the Costaceae family are generally now regarded as separate from the Zingiberaceae, the Costaceae are, nevertheless, still very much thought of as gingers. The Costus is, with at least 70 species, the largest and most significant genus of the family.

However, the costus is generally not very popular in Singapore and this is evident from the lack of visibility in public areas. So far, only a few species such as the C. woodsonii (French Kiss), C. osae (Red Rose) and C. productus/curvibracteatus have either made their way into the horticultural trade or are employed in streetscapes. Other species such as the C. stenophyllus are slowing gaining popularity amongst gardeners and landscape architects.

So far, the largest collection of costuses can be found in the Singapore Botanic Garden’s Ginger Gardens. You do not generally see them in public parks or private gardens other than the usual ones. I suppose not a lot of people are into costuses. Many regard them as bland and well, green. and boring, and plants which are only used to "fill" voids with lush greenery. Perhaps the photo montage below might help change their minds produce very beautiful and interesting blooms of various shapes, sizes and colours.

I like costuses primarily because they are easy to grow, a breeze to cultivate and relatively fuss-free and pest resistant. Also, the lush foliage makes them an ideal "filler" plant which would look great in any garden. I also think that their spiralling form can make them interesting table-potted plants.

So far, I have managed to amass a collection consisting of about 30 or more costus species. Not all have flowered but it is a matter of time before they do. I do hope to collect more but one has to be patient, given that there are only a handful of costus growers around the world. Dave Skinner has quite a varied collection, but his inability to obtain phytosanitary certificates is an impediment to the import process into Singapore.

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