Sunday 12 September 2004

China Doll

China Doll (Radermachia sinica) in red plastic potI never realized, until I bought a new indoor plant this week, that in England someone with a natural ability in growing plants is said to have “green fingers”. In Australia I’ve only ever heard the American equivalent: “green thumb”. But this morning, while writing an essay in Japanese about my new plant, I found that the entry for gardening (園芸, engei ) in my Kenkyūsha dictionary included:

園芸が上手である be a good gardener; (米) have a green thumb; (英) have green fingers;

米 (bei) and 英 (ei) are the characters used in Japan to refer to America and England respectively; so that 米国 (beikoku) and 米語 (beigo) mean the United States and US English respectively—although アメリカ (amerika) is most commonly used to refer to the country—while 英国 (eikoku) and 英語 (eigo) mean England (or Great Britain) and the English language—similarly, イギリス (igirisu) is commonly used to refer to England.

And sure enough, when I checked my Oxford Dictionary, I found “green thumb” described as the “North American term for green fingers”.

Dead houseplant in ceramic potIn any case, when it comes to having “green fingers” I’m all thumbs. My backyard looks like a jungle but I can kill off an indoor plant faster than most people can say “fertilizer”. I did manage to keep a bamboo tree alive for several years but this photo gives a fair idea of the usual outcome of my horticultural efforts.

I’d been meaning to ask the LazyWeb for advice about which indoor plants might be hardy enough to survive my “care”. But when I found myself walking past the gardening section in K-Mart the other day, I decided to check out their selection and, much to my surprise, immediately found an attractive plant.

China Doll label showing Chinese girl's face in front of a red umbrellaI assumed on the basis of the cute label that China Doll was a brand but it’s actually the popular name for Radermachia/radermachera sinica.

The Burke’s Backyard website (Don Burke is Australia’s most popular TV garden expert) includes China Doll in a list of the ten best pot plants for shade:

China doll (Radermachera sinica) is a Chinese native with glossy, dark green leaves and an elegant growth habit. It does best as a garden plant in the warmer areas of Australia, but also makes an attractive pot plant. China Doll is readily available in 200mm (8”) pots for around $18.95.

That made me feel as though I’d made a good choice, particularly since K-Mart was having a 15% off sale when I bought my China Doll, reducing the AU$12.99 list price to AU$11.04 (that’s about US$7.70).

The results of Google searches for both “china doll” plant and “radermachia sinica” yield a high number of Taiwanese sites, suggesting that the plant is actually native to Taiwan. This site, 石門國小校園植物網, has a page devoted to the plant—including links to ten photographs showing it at various stages of development (in this one it’s grown into a tree two stories tall). The Chinese name is given as 山菜豆. These characters mean “mountain”, “greens/vegetables”, and “beans” respectively and, in Japanese, the first two characters (山菜, sansai) mean “edible wild plants”. (Hopefully, someone who reads Chinese will leave a comment revealing the Chinese pronunciation and meaning.)

Given the experience of this Texas gardener, it appears that my China Doll might have a good chance of survival:

China Doll is often sold as a small indoor plant at many places. This is what happens when you put one in the ground in Zone 9B of southeast Texas! Produces a beautiful tree that is right at home in any landscape, especially tropical or Oriental. It was used quite extensively in southern Florida during the 1930’s but is almost nonexistent in Texas. The binnate leaves having numerous green leaflets are quite distinctive. It would make a beautiful specimen tree. Had I known this it would have been planted in a more prominent place. The tree pictured is about 18 feet in height and still growing. Quite a few years ago it did die back to about 1 foot above the ground when we had an unseasonably cold winter that reached down to 20 degrees F with an ice storm. The tree revived itself by producing 4 new trunks. This winter it went through 5 periods where the temperature reached 27 degrees F and hardly lost a leaf but the trunks are 3.4 to 4 inches in diameter now and more heavily barked than that previous cold winter. Hopefully this will protect it from future bitter cold.

He adds that his China Doll has recently started blooming: “once they open at night the scent is comparable to Night Blooming Jasmine but not as overpowering”. I’m not anticipating that my plant will bloom indoors.

Given the experience of this Alberta gardener, I might be able to prevent my China Doll from growing too tall by turning it into a bonsai plant (though the idea of using China Doll for bonsai seems to have found little favor in the Garden Web Bonsai Forum).

In a lovely post titled Hard Wired for the Aesthetic, Joe Duemer wrote:

I spent the better part of three hours this afternoon making like an elderly Asian gentleman, repotting & trimming my “bonsai” collection. The first edge of fall has transformed the air. It is dryer & cooler, but the sun is still warm & many plants still insist on putting out last spurts of growth. The new lawn, planted from seed at mid-summer, is still green & lush.

When I was living in Vietnam several years ago, the bedroom window of my apartment overlooked the rooftop of an adjoining building, on which a fairly extensive garden, grown in containers, flourished. Space is tight Hanoi & the population density is high, but the Vietnamese are a nation of gardeners & even in the cities they find a way to nurture plants. My desk was situated in front of that window overlooking the neighboring building & I enjoyed watching while, most evenings, an older man came out onto the roof & did a combination of calisthenics & Tai Che, then tended to his plants. I did not feel I was intruding on his privacy—rooftops in Hanoi are semi-public spaces—but I was clearly watching a meditative practice. A practice based on an aesthetic view of the world, not an instrumental view.

I’ve always seen my inability to nurture indoor plants as a character flaw: although I’ve never experienced any difficulty in taking care of a cat, I guess—as Joe’s post suggests—a plant requires a different kind of attention. In the space of a few days I’ve become quite fond of the China Doll so, hopefully, I’ll figure out (or it will teach me) how to care for it properly.

China Doll (Radermachia sinica) in ceramic pot

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I didn't know this, but I have green fingers. I knew I had a green thumb, but not green fingers. It could be worse -- I could have green ears or green toes. Or even green eggs and ham. For all that I can be a klux on many things, I'm actually quit...

Posted by Burningbird on 14 September 2004


i have only two plants i haven't yet managed to kill. one is bamboo, and i've been told the other is a palm tree, though it's currently only about one foot high. both plants seem to keep themselves alive despite my best efforts to underwater them, then overwater them (to compensate), leave them in undersized pots, and so on. perhaps i'd fair better in england, but i suspect none of my digits are green. good luck with the china doll.

Posted by scott reynen on 13 September 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I'm sure you'll treat your plant better than Roethke did, but I'll post a copy of Roethke's poem "The Geranium" once my site renews itself in the next 24 to 72 hours, Jonathon.

Mostly, though, I was surprised to read that you shop at K-mart; I may have to revise my personal image of the virtual Jonathon Delacour.

Posted by loren on 13 September 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Scott, I don't take any pride in the fact that I was able to kill a bamboo. I'm familiar with all the techniques you mention (underwatering, overwatering, leaving them in undersized pots) to which I'd add over-/underfertilizing. But I'm really hoping I can get it right with the China Doll. (Otherwise I'll have to think about a palm.)

Loren, I look forward to reading Roethke's poem "The Geranium". I learned from Shelley's post about your domain expiring and I'm glad you've been able to renew it. Not sure why you'd be surprised I shop at K-Mart -- there's no point paying $30 for a toaster at a department store when K-Mart offers the same model for $25 (or $21.25 when they're having a 15% off sale). I admit to being curious about your "personal image of the virtual Jonathon Delacour" though. Perhaps you might like to elaborate...

Posted by Jonathon on 13 September 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I guess I'm a little surprised by Kmart because I can't believe Austraila let Kmart in.

Has American Capitalism conquered the entire world?

Don't tell me Austrailia also has Walmart?

The only way you'd ever find me in Kmart would be if Leslie dragged me there. I do all my shopping, what little I do, on the net, not in stores, except grocery stores.

The best part of being a batchelor was never having to go shopping.

Posted by loren on 13 September 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I'm all thumbs (and not the green variety) myself, but I do read Chinese so perhaps I can help there.

The Chinese (pinyin) romanization would be "shan1 cai4 dou4" and pronounced something like "shawn tsai dough" (with a standard American accent, at least, YMMV depending on your accent... just look up a good pinyin pronunication guide!).

As for meaning, I can just guess that it's a traditional name. The last two characters, 菜豆, I learned as "kidney bean" or "string bean," and the first is "mountain." AFAIK 山菜 does not have the meaning of "edible wild vegetables," though given the characters it certainly makes sense.

Posted by John B on 19 September 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Well, a staple of the college crowd is the spider plant. It apparently will grow in just about any pot you put it in, and seeing as how college students have them, they've got to be pretty forgiving as to watering, sunlight, etc. My neighbor didn't water his for about 3 weeks, and it's still doing allright. Maybe you could give that a try.

Posted by david k on 27 September 2004 (Comment Permalink)

David, I've managed to water the China Doll every week so I'm hoping that I won't need to fall back on a spider plant. Thanks for the suggestion, though...

Posted by Jonathon on 29 September 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I am in the same boat as you. I have always said that anything in my house that cannot cry for help will not survive. I do ok with cats and kids, but plants and fish have no chance. It is only recently that a friend decided to help me grow a plant; a little ivy-type that she gave me a start of. It has grown 4" in the 5 weeks I have had it and I got so confident in myself that I went out looking for an additional plant. I found many attractive possibilities and then came across this poor, pathetic little tree whoes leaves were shriveled and fell off when the pot was moved. It was at Walmart (I am in Oregon, USA) listed for $4.97. I talked the manager down to $3 and took it home. After doing some reading, I pruned mercilessly and gave it its first drink in probably a month. The few remaining leaves perked up, and I then transplanted it as it was horribly rootbound. It is now growing about 20 little tiny sprouts, and I am beginning to think I might have a talent for this houseplant stuff after all. I have never posted to a blog before, but I thought our experiences were similar and felt like sharing. You can see my pictorial documentation of the plant at [URL Removed (spam)]. Peace!

Posted by Sabrina on 16 October 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Interesting story, Sabrina. There was, when I checked, no "chinadoll.html" page at the URL you included, which leads me to believe that your comment is spam (although more artfully constructed than most). I've removed the URL.

Posted by Jonathon on 16 October 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour