Tabernaemontana pachysiphon (Apocynaceae)
Kibombo, Giant Pinwheel Flower (Plumeria Family)
Origin: Tropical Africa
An evergreen tropical tree which grows to 40 feet tall, Tabernaemontana pachysiphon has large green leaves and creamy white flowers which are one of the most fragrant in the world. The plant grows throughout tropical Africa and is used in dozens of ways by different groups of people. Many plants in the family have pinwheel-style flowers with the petals presented in a whorl and fruits borne in pairs, and Tabernaemontana is no exception. Here in the United States Tabernaemontana pachysiphon is a rare and much sought-after plant grown by collectors, especially those interested in fragrant plants.
Indole alkaloids make up much of Tabernaemontana pachysiphon’s phytochemistry. More than forty alkaloids have been isolated and identified from the leaves, fruits, stems, and roots. Plants in the Apocynaceae have copious amounts of latex produced from wounded leaves and stems; this latex is rich in alkaloids as well, from opioids to small amounts of ibogaine. The plant is used to cure headaches, aid in lactation, alleviate insanity, help soothe sore eyes, as a wound poultice, a treatment for stomachache and flatulence, a cure for scabies, the list goes on. The mind-boggling array of uses is due in part to the frequent occurrence of the plant throughout tropical Africa. A pantropical genus comprised of over one hundred species, Tabernaemontana species found growing in South America are also very important medicinal plants. The genus is currently undergoing much biochemical research, which may soon yield a new class of painkillers.
Here at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens we have several species of Tabernaemontana in our living collection. Tabernaemontana pachysiphon is planted just south of the path that takes our visitors from the Fern Garden to the Bayfront. It is still a baby of 10 feet or so -- more a shrub than a tree at this point. You can smell it from the Koi Pond to the Conservatory, it’s reminiscent of a gardenia but a bit more of a masculine fragrance. Tabernaemontana pachysiphon should be blooming on and off now through the fall. Don’t let your nose miss it.
Text by David Troxell