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Edible and medicinal


HERE are two specimens from the plant kingdom that are useful to man in many ways.

The first, Musa, is what produces our edible banana. These evergreen giant herbs spring from rhizomes, flower, fruit and die and then regrow from a sucker.

The growing point is an inflorescence that is present in the middle of the pseudostem and which emerges from among the leaves. Most edible bananas have pendulous inflorescences (called Vazhapoo in Tamil) and are usually a dull maroon. The fruits are called berries, the clusters "hands", and each fruit a "finger". Bats are the usual agents of pollination.

About half the 250-named cultivators of the Musa are hybrids and edible raw fruits, while the other half are plantains rich in starch and dry, suited for frying or making plantain flour.

At the Singapore Botanical Gardens, there are two beautiful hybrids, unusual in that they have lovely violet and orange bracted flowers that grow erect, instead of having the common maroon bract in the usual hanging position. Imparting an unusual ornamental touch to any tropical garden, the deep green of the leaves and the contrasting flowers need a large space of their own, to establish themselves.

Every part of the plant can be used — the stem yields fibre, the leaves are used as material for roofing and serving and packing food. The plant itself serves as a shade crop for coffee and has a number of edible forms — as banana fruit, raw plantain, edible flower, banana wine and beer. Dried banana, when ground, serves as a powder for confectionery while the ripe fruit is used in dessert.

The banana is an auspicious plant in India, a sign of prosperity and fertility, and occupies a prominent part in the traditional decorations in any function.

* * *

The marigold (Calendula officinalis) is a lovely annual that can be propagated easily. Once called Mary's Gold and Sun's bride because of its tendency to follow the sun by day, the plant's medicinal properties have been documented since the 12th Century. Common illnesses (it was even called the "measle flower" as it was used to treat the problem) and gynaecological disorders were treated using the marigold. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a dye in place of the expensive saffron, while in the 19th Century, it was used to treat skin ulcers and eczema. The plants were dried and stocked in apothecaries and grown in medicinal gardens.

Though a native of Mexico, marigolds have numerous strains and are essentially divided into the African (or American), French and now Afro-French types. Tagetes erecta, the African strain, is between two to three feet high and is a glorious double-petalled powder puff-like flower. It varies in size in warm and cold climes — medium in the former, to large in the latter. The Marigold erecta, in orange, lemon, golden yellow and a rare white, is a good potted plant.

The French variety, Tagetes patula, is a dwarf (eight inches to a foot high), in a single bloom and primarily double-petalled. It comes in the same range of colours as the African one, but also delights the eye in its mahogany red and double-shaded forms. The colours are intense and the blooms retain their colour for at least a fortnight.

The Afro-French crossed specimens are medium-sized plants and flower like the French type, with slightly larger blooms.

The marigold is easy to grow, with the dwarf varieties suited for the borders in gardens.

Collecting dry blooms must be done with care as they may propogate with unruly abandon. As such, dry leaves mulched into the soil help fertilise the plant as well as keep it moist.

Text and pictures by RUPA GOPAL

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