The mother of all blooms
Growing your own jasmine can be a bit of a balancing act, but the rewards are well worth the trouble.
I used to give my mum a white rose on Mother’s Day, which is celebrated on the second Sunday of May in the Philippines, where I grew up. Now that I am a mother and grandmother, I get jasmine instead.
Jasmine was chosen over roses as the symbol of Mother’s Day in Thailand, which coincides with the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen, the mother of the nation. It stands for the pure, unconditional love that only a mother can give, so if you are buying a flower for your mum on Mother’s Day this Wednesday, make it jasmine.
There are at least 200 species of jasmine, several of which are grown in Thailand. Jasminum multiflorum, commonly known as star jasmine, or mali puang in Thai, Jasminum adenophyllum, or maliwan, and Jasminum auriculatum, or putachat, easily come to mind as among those grown here. The Mother’s Day flower, however, is the double-petalled cultivar of Jasminum sambac.
Like most flowers grown in this country, it is not a native species. It originally grew wild from Persia, now known as Iran, to Kashmir in India. The common variety with single petals, known simply in Thai as mali, was brought to Thailand and the rest of tropical Asia from northern India through Szechuan in southwestern China. The double-petalled cultivar, known as Arabian jasmine, but which Thais call mali sorn, came much later, but both have been grown here for so long that they have been naturalised. Both are grown for their exceptional fragrance, but the one with single petals bears more flowers nearly all year round, hence it is more widely cultivated, not just in Thailand but in other countries as well.
Jasminum sambac is the source of jasmine oil, which, along with rose oil, is the most expensive oil used in perfumery. This is not surprising because it is said that it takes 8,000 flowers to obtain one drop of jasmine oil. The Chinese use jasmine flowers to lend aroma to tea and the essential oils in aromatherapy. In the Philippines, where jasmine is called sampaguita, the flowers are strung into leis and used to welcome dignitaries, or sold in front of churches as religious offerings.
In Thailand, jasmine is used to lend an aromatic flavour to the summer favourite, khao chae, or to the coconut milk and sugar palm concoction used to lace some Thai
desserts, like lod chong. Buying jasmine as a food flavouring is not advisable, however, as Thai commercial growers often use pesticides, which makes growing your own flowers a safer option.
Jasmine belongs to a group of plants which can be either vines or shrubs; that is, it will grow as a vine if provided with a support. Thais like to plant it near the house, where the lush green leaves provide a welcome respite for the eyes and the white flowers lend a gentle fragrance to the air when they open in the early morning.
Jasmine is sold in pots at plant markets, but it thrives best when planted in the ground, in soil mixed with compost or leaf mould and decomposed animal manure. When planting, dig a hole 20-30cm bigger than the plant’s root ball to facilitate the growth of the roots. Line the hole with the soil mixture and ease the plant from the pot into the hole. Fill the hole with soil, making sure that the plant is buried no deeper than it was in the original pot, then water thoroughly.
Like the other members of the Oleaceae family, to which it belongs, jasmine requires regular watering while growing but needs full sun and fairly dry soil in order to bloom. If your jasmine dries out and dies even when it is well watered, perhaps it is getting too much water. Excessively wet soil crowds out the oxygen needed by the roots, and the roots cannot support the leaves that produce food for the plant if they do not have oxygen.
If the only option is growing it in a pot on the rooftop, make sure to grow several plants together to provide humidity. Water the plants every day, because the air is usually drier and the sun hotter on the rooftop than on the ground. Water preferably in the early morning before the sun is hot, as watering in the evening sometimes makes some plants susceptible to disease. And make sure your jasmine does not outgrow its pot.
It is not necessary to apply commercial fertilisers if the soil is enriched with animal manure. However, if your plant only has lush green leaves but no flowers, it could be getting too much nitrogen so give it a fertiliser rich in phosphorus and potassium, like NPK 8-24-24, to induce flowering. On the contrary, if the plant is not getting enough nutrients, manifested by stunted growth, give it a balanced fertiliser (NPK 16-16-16) every six weeks and change to 8-24-24 when you want the plant to produce flowers.
Jasmine has few insect pests but should you see mealybugs or holes on the leaves, do not panic. Examine the plant and see if you can crush the mealybugs with your hands. If not, spray the affected parts with a soapy solution of water and dishwashing detergent. This should suffocate the insect pests; repeat the process if they do not all die in a day or two.
The safest way to control insect pests is to examine your plants regularly and remove any caterpillars or bugs that you may find before the infestation becomes severe.
Popular: star jasmine is just one of several species of jasmine grown in Thailand.
Prized: the doublepetalled Arabian jasmine is the symbol of Mother’s Day in Thailand.