Root Awakening

Grow Firebush to attract butterflies.
Grow Firebush to attract butterflies.PHOTO: WILSON WONG
Boil Ramie plant’s leaves to make kueh colouring
Boil Ramie plant’s leaves to make kueh colouringPHOTO: NG CHOON HAI
Fruit of Malay Gooseberry usually pickled.
Fruit of Malay Gooseberry usually pickled.PHOTO: CHONG KIM SWEE
Raw fruit of Buah Mahkota Dewa is poisonous.
Raw fruit of Buah Mahkota Dewa is poisonous.PHOTO: CHUA AI TONG

Boil Ramie plant's leaves to make kueh colouring

Can the leaves of this plant be used to make the black colouring for Teochew black kueh? From what I understand, the dried leaves have to be boiled in order to extract the sap. The filtered soup is then mixed with the dough to get the black colouring. Are there other ways to extract the sap and is it medicinal?

Ng Choon Hai

The shrub is botanically known as Boehmeria nivea. It has common names such as Ramie and Chinese Silk Plant. The plant yields useful fibre that is used to make string and fabric.

For a darker kueh, there are recipes that require one to boil the leaves to soften them, before making them into a paste that is then incorporated into the dough for the skin.

This plant is believed to have liver-protecting properties and is also used externally in folk medicine to treat a variety of ailments such as rheumatism and skin issues such as boils and wounds.

Fruit of Malay Gooseberry usually pickled

I have seen this tree in a few public areas here. It appears to have grown wild. It has small light yellowish-green fruits. I have seen some people picking them. What is this tree and are the fruits eaten raw, or can they be pickled or cooked?

Chong Kim Swee

From the growth habit and leaves of the tree shown in the photograph, this plant is most likely the Malay Gooseberry. It is botanically known as Phyllanthus acidus and it is sometimes known by its Malay name, Cermai.

Even when ripe, the fruit has a very tart flavour and is reportedly candied in sugar or pickled in a variety of ways to make it more palatable.

Various parts of the tree, such as its leaves, seeds and roots, have folk medicinal uses. Its leaves are sometimes cooked and eaten as a vegetable.

Prune infected plant before pesticide use

I love the hibiscus, especially the single-petal ones, and have a few of the plants in my garden, but mealy bugs have caused some of them to die. I have tried various types of organic pest control, but to no avail. What can I do instead of pruning the infested parts or squashing the bugs?

Karen Ho

It is important to grow your plants under the right growing conditions. Hibiscus in general requires full sunlight and soil that is fertile, moist and well-draining. Plants grown under insufficient sunlight and/or overfed with fertilisers will be prone to insect pests such as scales and mealy bugs.

When applying pesticides, ensure that you cover the plant thoroughly. Sucking pests tend to hide in hard-to-reach areas and the infested parts of the plant often curl up, making it difficult for pesticides to reach the pests.

In such situations, it is necessary to prune infested and misshapen parts of the plant before spraying it with pesticides. Also, it is vital to repeat applications.

You may also need to switch your pesticides to avoid the development of pesticide resistance in pests.

Raw fruit of Buah Mahkota Dewa is poisonous

I grew this plant from a seed and it started to bloom within the year. It has small, white trumpet-like flowers all over the stem and branches. Its green fruits turn red. I think the fruits have herbal value such as the Tongkat Ali or Eurycoma longifolia. What is it exactly?

Chua Ai Tong

The shrub is botanically known as Phaleria macrocarpa and its common names include Buah Mahkota Dewa and God's Crown. Do note that the raw fruit and seeds are poisonous.

The plant's stem is reported to be used for the treatment of various cancers and lung, liver and heart diseases; its leaves are used to treat impotence, blood diseases, allergies, diabetes and tumours.

More scientific work needs to be done to ascertain the efficacy and safety of using this plant to treat diseases.

Always consult a practitioner before attempting to use any plant to treat a health issue.

Tip: Grow Firebush to attract butterflies

The Firebush, which has the botanical name Hamelia patens, is a popular butterfly-attracting plant for ecological gardens here.

It is also a popular landscaping shrub due to its low maintenance and satisfactory drought tolerance when established.

Recently, a horticultural cultivar with variegated leaves - different parts of the leaves are coloured differently - appeared in the local nursery trade. This new cultivar retains its floriferous habit, where the numerous flowers help the plant attract butterflies. It also rewards its grower with beautiful golden-yellow foliage.

To retain the plant's bright foliage colours and promote constant flowering, it is important to grow this shrub under direct sunlight outdoors.

You may prune the plant occasionally to encourage a bushy growth.

Do note that constant pruning to shape the plant will reduce the production of flowers, as flower buds are produced on new growth.

•Answers by Dr Wilson Wong, a certified practising horticulturist and founder of Green Culture Singapore (www.greenculture He is also an NParks-certified park manager.

•Got a gardening query? E-mail it with clear pictures, if any, and your full name to

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'Root Awakening'. Print Edition | Subscribe