This Autumn has been long, drawn out and very mild, which has allowed many garden flowers to continue growing and flowering later than usual. This will stop abruptly when we have our first frost, but until then it’s a pleasure to be out in the garden on a sunny day, admiring the last of the summer colour.
I bought a single plant from a lovely plant stall on Great Yarmouth Market back in April, when I was visiting the Aspire Centre. I’d heard of Morina but I had never seen it for sale, so I made an impulse purchase. I’m glad I did.
Morina longifolia starts off as a basal rosette of glossy, spiny leaves, rather like that of a Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense). On closer inspection, the leaves, which are evergreen, are more flexible and have a slight citrus smell when bruised. The smell is strongest in hot weather and barely noticeable at this time of year.
Once in flower, the plant is impossible to mistake for a thistle, with a delicate flower spike with whorls of tubular flowers. The flowers are white at first but soon become pink, darkening to crimson. These are usually produced in June and July but our Morina started to flower in early October, probably taking its time to become established first – it has a long tap root which resents disturbance. The stem grows up to one metre (three feet) tall. The flowers are pollinated by moths and are also self-fertile. The change in flower colour occurs once pollination has taken place and is thought to be a signal to pollinating insects.
Until recently Morina was included in the family Morinaceae, but nowadays this is usually considered to be a sub-family, the Morinoideae, and is considered to be part of the family Caprifoliaceae, along with scabious, teazels and allies (sub-family Dipsacoideae, formerly the Dipsacaeae), honeysuckles (Caprifolioideae), valerians (Valerianoideae), Diervilla and Weigela (Diervilloideae) and Abelia and allies (Linnaeoideae). (Thistles are in the unrelated daisy family, the Asteraceae.)
Morina longifolia comes from the Himalaya, including parts of Pakistan, Kashmir and Bhutan, where it grows at 3000 – 4000 feet above sea level. In the UK it grows best in full sun in a rich, moist but well-drained soil (if such a thing exists). It is hardy to -17 degrees Celsius in ideal soil conditions but it may not survive in less cold but damp winters in heavier soils. Adding grit to the soil and providing shelter from drying winds will increase its chance of survival.
The plant is fairly short-lived and difficult to divide but it can be propagated by root cuttings (taken in November) or from seed, which should be sown immediately it is collected. Seedlings are best left in pots for a year before planting out. The plant can self-seed prolifically.
Morina longifolia does well in the west of England, south-west Scotland and Ireland but It also seems to grow well here in Norfolk, in the Mediterranean Garden at East Ruston Old Vicarage.
Morina longifolia is used in Tibetan medicine, for the treatment of digestive disorders. It is also used to make incense, as a poultice for boils and in the cure of worm-infected wounds in animals. The plant contains a mixture of volatile compounds, including Beta-myrcene, bicyclogermacrene, germacrene D and limonene. Extracts from the plant have strong antioxidant activity.
Morina is named in honour of Rene Morin, a French nurseryman. In 1621 Catalogus plantarum horti Renati Morini, one of the earliest plant catalogues.
The Hob Green and Plant Lust websites have some more photographs of this lovely plant. The flower spikes can be cut for use in flower arrangements and also dry well.