Curcuma alismatifolia

Siam tulip


Curcuma alismatifolia

Gagnep. 1903

pronounced: KER-koo-muh al-iz-mat-ih-FOH-lih-uh

(Zingiberaceae — the ginger family)


common name: Siam tulip

Curcuma is from the Arabic kurkum, meaning saffron; alismatifolia is from the Greek αλισμα, -ατος (alisma, alismatos) a name for a water plant used by Dioscorides, perhaps Caldesia parnassifolia; source for the species name Alisma by Linnaeus; and the Latin folium, a leaf – with leaves like Alisma.

Curcumas are herbaceous perennials from Indochina, South-east Asia, the Pacific Islands, and northern Australia. The local species is Curcuma australasica, or Cape York Lily, whose flowers range in colour from light pink to purple. Members of the Curcuma genus mostly have 6–8 broad lanceolate-shaped leaves with a pseudostem formed from leaf sheaths, and small brightly-coloured flowers which emerge from large bracts. These flowers range in colour from white to pink, orange and shades of violet. The best-known member of the genus is Curcuma longa, whose bright orange rhizomes are used to make the spice turmeric, and for dyeing cloth. The plants die down in winter and re-emerge in spring. Curcumas are commercially grown for cut flowers in the Darwin region of the Northern Territory, and in North Queensland, and are also sold in pots by nurseries and garden centres. They can also be grown in gardens as far south as Sydney.

The Siam Tulip is a native of northern Thailand and Cambodia. Despite its common name, it is not related to the tulip, but is a ginger. It can grow as an indoor plant, and is also used for cut flowers. Probably the most famous wild field of Siam Tulips is in the Pa Hin Ngam National Park in the Chaiyaphum province of Thailand. I understand that this field, and also cultivated fields, look from a distance very like the tulip fields of Holland and East Anglia.

The plants photographed are ‘Thai Magic’. This grows to a height of about 50 cm, and has pink flowers and stiff lanceolate leaves. The variety grown most in Thailand for the export of the rhizomes is ‘Standard Pink’. It is grown by the millions in Thailand, and is also a very popular plant in other countries, particularly Holland and Israel, where it is grown for cut flowers and pot plants. This variety can reach about 80 cm high.

Curcumas are vegetatively propagated by division of the rhizomes after the plant has died back and become dormant. Care must be taken when dividing the rhizomes not to break off or damage any of the tuberous roots attached to the primary rhizomes. They are what store the nutrients that provide the energy for the plant to re-grow. Some species do set seeds, but the seedlings may be variable.

A major pest of Curcuma is caterpillars, that can cause severe damage to the plant and inflorescence if not controlled. Grasshoppers may also chew the leaves, and ants may chew the edges of the inflorescence bracts. Rhizomes are prone to bacterial rot if the soil is not well-drained, or if the rhizome is regularly watered when dormant.

The stem of the inflorescence and surrounding leaves are usually cut at ground level to thin out the clumps and allow more light into the beds.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2011
Page last updated 5th December 2018