Malpighia coccigera: Miniature Holly

The Malpighiaceae family, comprising about 800 species native to Central and South America, is not very well known even to connoisseurs. Most are lianas, one of which — ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi), dubbed the ‘liana of death’ – is doubtless not unknown to those who are interested in ‘herbal medicine’.

Malpighia is a low, barely 1-m- (3-ft-) high shrub from the Antilles, where it grows in mountain forests as well as in sandy soil round the mouth of water courses.

The leaves are odd-pinnate, the leaflets deeply incised, with tiny, extremely sharp spines on the edge. The foliage is decorative in itself but the chief reason for the plant’s popularity are the small flowers (about 1 cm [1/2] in) and the attractive, colourful fruits — bright red drupes.

Malpighia has slender, flexible branches that are easily bent and shaped and can be pruned without harm. This is an ideal plant for the contoured shrubs of east Asia’s parks and gardens (a somewhat unaccustomed sight for the European). The way plants and flowers are used naturally depends on many factors, such as the national culture and tradition, the general atmosphere and the architecture. In Vietnam, for instance, one may see shrubs trimmed to look like vases, birds and animals.

Botanical gardens also contain other very similar species, such as M. glabra with slightly sour, edible fruits, and M. uteris with sharp spines.

All malpighias can be grown with ease in a warm room. The substrate should be a mixture of sand and peat (either in equal parts or with sand predominating); older plants should be provided with slightly richer soil containing leaf mould or loam. Propagation is very easy — by means of cuttings inserted in a warm and moist propagator at any time of the year. Plants start producing flowers when they are quite small — barely 25 cm (10 in) high.

15. November 2011 by Dave Pinkney
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