Sunday, March 25, 2012

Strange Gardening: Monkey’s Hand Tree

All things must change to something new, to something strange. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Blossoms of Monkey's Hand Tree. Photo: J.G. in S.F., Flickr ccl
Here is something very strange, and new, to me at least. The scientific name is Chiranthodendron pentadactylon, otherwise known as the Monkey's Hand Tree – for obvious reasons.

Photo: Tatters:), Flickr ccl
I was looking at Chiltern’s Seed Catalogue (from the UK and fantastic) when I spotted an entry for this oddity. A more strange, beautiful, creepy (you name it) flowering tree I don’t think I have seen. It must be absolutely stunning in full height and bloom.

So I just had to share it. I think others describe it far better than I ever could so here we go.

From Chiltern’s catalogue:
If ever a plant justified its common name, this is it! The Mexican Indians once regarded this strange tree with superstitious awe and it was the focus of a religious cult. Once you see the extraordinary flower it produces, you can't really blame them. There are no petals but the five leathery sepals form themselves into a maroon cup containing an abundance of honey. And now comes, as it strikes the writer, the creepy bit: from this emerge five, three-inch, red stamen columns arranged just like a thin-fingered human hand, each finger ending in a lethal looking claw. 

Photo: Tatters:), Flickr ccl
The picture is completed by the matching red style at their base just like a thumb - give the whole thing a felt nib and it could well start writing you messages on the wall! This is a very rare, fast growing tree from Central America ideally suited for cool conservatories, although our supplier suggests trying outdoors in the very mildest parts of the country. (Note - that's the UK)

Although you will have to wait for five years or so for your first flowers, from then on it will bloom continuously from April to October. In the meantime, you will have an attractive and unusual foliage plant with its leaves green on top and covered with brown, fuzzy, wool-like hairs below.

From Wikipedia:
This species is native to Guatemala and southern Mexico. The unusual appearance of the 'hands' has stimulated cultivation in gardens around the world, primarily in North America where it grows well near its native range. The leaves are large and shallowly lobed, with a brown indumentum on the underside. The distinctive flowers appear in late spring and early summer; the five stamens are long, curved upward, and bright red, giving the distinct impression of a clawed hand.

It was originally described from a single cultivated specimen grown in Toluca in the Toluca Valley, well outside the native range. The Aztecs revered the tree, and picked every bloom annually to prevent it from reproducing.

Intergeneric hybrid
It is closely related to Fremontodendron, sufficiently to produce an intergeneric hybrid x Chiranthofremontia lenzii Henrickson, which has yellow flowers and a reduced form of the claw.

Photo: J.G. in S.F., Flickr ccl
Monkey’s Hand tree flowers from April through September in its native habitat. At maturity its height can reach 20-40 feet (7-14 metres).

Now for the sad part for me. Monkey’s Hand tree is only hardy in USDA Zones 9-11. Pockets of Nova Scotia are Zone 6 at best. So if you’re not in the proper zone it is only able to be grown as a conservatory tree, or put out in a pot in the summer and brought inside for winter.

That’s not as difficult as you may think if you have the room. It won’t reach full height of course, but you’ll probably get a lovely short tree that blooms. I have successfully kept a bay laurel tree (for culinary use) inside before for many years and it’s Zones 8-10.

There’s also a garden centre in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia that sells fig trees. They’re Zones 7b-11 so would have to be brought inside. I’ve also heard of success outdoors by “tipping” (burying in the ground) to overwinter with so-so success. But I wouldn’t try that with anything Zones 9-11.

So if I ever live anywhere with large, bright windows I may just try this. It’s certainly worth a shot!

Where to purchase?
$6.76 for a packet of 5 seeds (seed is scarce)

Their catalogue is absolutely amazing and a necessity for any serious gardener. 

Go buy one from their website – seriously. I don't know what I  would do without it. Where else can you get this extensive a collection of exotic and unusual seeds for your gardens? There’s no pictures, just pages and pages and pages of well described, amazing flowers, herbs, trees, shrubs, vegetables, etc., from all over the world!

Photo: Wiki CC

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