Garden Stories: Collecting Moss Roses

The first time I ever encountered (or registered) moss roses, they were on Mrs. Hla’s front lawn. She was one of my ESL students – a missionary’s wife who sought to improve her English. Twice a week, I would go to her house to teach her and two other Bangladeshi women. I taught high school English in the mornings at that time, and their kids were actually in my classes. During the school’s first PTC, they had approached me to see if I’d be willing to come over to Mrs. Hla’s house and teach them ESL. I readily agreed.

As I approached the Hlas’ home for our first session, I noticed the round fluffs that seemingly hovered above the grass. In the midday sun, their color took on a vibrant hot pink hue. I was utterly charmed and instantly fascinated. When I inquired what those flowers were, Mrs. Hla informed me that they were Vietnam Roses.

The next time I took a trip to a garden center, I got myself a few pots of said plants. Since the name “Vietnam Rose” is a little unwieldy (not really, lol) and some people actually call the flower Mexican Rose, I decided to call it the more neutral “moss rose.”

I don’t remember what happened to those plants. I was still single and living at home, and although I loved plants and enjoyed the garden, I wasn’t really in charge of taking care of anything. I think the moss roses died or they weren’t thriving, so my mom got rid of them. Apparently, plants need care specific to their needs, duh. This is just another one of the many lessons in responsibility and independence that I had to painstakingly learn when I was finally living on my own.

Fast forward to some 20 years later when I was already entrenched in tending my own garden. I wasn’t big on ornamentals and mainly preferred edibles and medicinals. However, like many plant lovers in the time of pandemic, I became a member of a gardening barter community. Shortly after my joining, somebody wanted to barter portulaca cuttings for succulents and pots. Portulaca happens to cover a range of plants, including moss rose and wingpod purslane, which were what the poster was offering. Remembering my lapsed fascination for moss roses, I immediately offered a succulent (a freebie I got from buying herbs) and a hooked pot, which the poster fortunately accepted. We swapped goods via Lalamove and I became the owner of several cuttings that soon gave me multiple pots of portulaca.

Since I have both moss rose (portulaca grandiflora) and wingpod purslane (portulaca umbraticola), I’d better just refer to both as portulaca. Admittedly I’m more partial to moss roses, but I have every intention of collecting wingpod purslane as well. Right now I just have the yellow-flowering kind, but I’ve spotted pink and orange varieties from a neighbor. I’m just biding my time before I propose a neighborly barter.

My collection thus far of moss roses, on the other hand, has given me a funny anecdote. The portulaca grandiflora is a curious little plant; even its names are interesting. Other known names for it are rock rose, sun rose, rose moss, and eleven o’clock. Now, the last one is uncanny because in Tagalog, moss rose is also called  a las diyes, which means “at ten o’clock” (AM obviously), referring to the time when the flowers are fully open. Incidentally, its other name in Tagalog is alembong, which means “flirt.” It’s not a nice name to be called, and I don’t what these flowers did to deserve it, but my mother is having fun calling the plants this.

Speaking of my mother, a huge chunk of my collection actually came from her. One time I found out she was at the garden shop, so I asked her to get me some portulaca. From my own previous visits, I knew that you could get a bundle of cuttings of different colored flowers for fifty pesos. I wasn’t sure if she was in the same shop I visited, but the price range should stay close to that value. Portulaca isn’t expensive at all and is ridiculously easy to propagate; that’s why I have no guilt over collecting different kinds.

My mom got two hanging pots of moss roses. I asked her what colors she got since I had told her to get any color except for fuchsia and peach, which I already had. Mom, however, had no idea. She said the sales clerk couldn’t say either. That sounded promising, so she said she’d just take the plants for herself and I could get cuttings if they produced colors I wanted. That was fine by me.

We waited excitedly to see what color flowers the plants would bloom, but the buds they already had somehow ended up shriveling. The plants looked fine. They weren’t wilting or dying. They just weren’t blooming. They were getting full sun. They were getting enough water. BUT my mother unfortunately does have a record for killing plants, even hardy ones. She has since gotten better at taking care of plants (with some help) and now has a thriving garden. Still, she did have a record, so she told me to bring the plants home before she wound up killing them.

For some reason, within a week of bringing the plants home with me, I got my first bloom. I was thrilled because the flower was a baby pink color I didn’t have yet. A couple of days later, I got another bloom. This time, the flower was white. I reported to my mom that the pots she got seemed hold a pink and white combo. I was thrilled to have two additional colors to my existing collection. Meanwhile, my older peach-flowered plant produced a decidedly darker orange bloom, more coral than the pastel peach ones it gave in the past. That was really interesting to me. One of these days, I’ll muster enough zeal and motivation to look up what was up with that.

And then one of Mom’s plants offered up another shade of pink, this time more watermelon pink than the light pink it used to bloom. I thought, “Oh, I get it now. These pots have a yesterday-today-tomorrow kind of theme.” Yesterday-today-and-tomorrow is what we mistakenly call Mom’s Rangoon Creeper, which has white, pale pink, and darker pink flowers. The real yesterday-today-and-tomorrow plant (Brunfelsia), however, has blooms in different shades of purple.

Anyway, it turned out that the plants were yet to be done with their surprises as a day later, one of them produced a variegated flower with both pink and white on it. I was elated. I admittedly do have a lot of seemingly shallow joys – seeds sprouting from the soil or stubborn ones germinating in damp folded paper towels, plants budding, free new plants from runners and shoots… so something like an unexpected flower color really excites me.

In any case, I was incredibly delighted by my moss roses, and seeing them continues to thrill me. When I get up in the morning and emerge from my bedroom, the first thing I do is to pull the blinds open to reveal the wall of jalousie (louvre) windows facing the garden (our living room has two wall-length sets of jalousies). My eyes are always immediately drawn to the different pots of portulaca.

I only have yellow wingpod purslane thus far, but I hope to remedy that as I mentioned earlier. The moss roses, however, offer different color combinations every day. I’m always eager to see which colors are blooming each morning.

My collection is far from complete. I still need yellow, red, a more vivid orange, and more of the variegated varieties. In time, I’ll get all of them. In the interim, I will attempt the braided portulaca project that somebody in one of my gardening groups shared. It looked really pretty when it started blooming.

As lovely as the portulaca plants are, they contribute more than their beauty to my garden, Since their arrival, I noticed more bees, dragonflies, and butterflies visiting it. In effect, they’re helping my fruiting plants get pollinated. Of course, the insects carry their own charm, and I’m happy just to see them, but seeing the ecosystem at work in my garden is really thrilling.

That’s the story thus far of my portulaca collection. It’s a tale in progress, so I’ll probably post some more about it in the future. Hopefully, this kind of post would be something many readers would be interested in. I once saw a Facebook meme with a guy wearing a shirt that said “Introverted but willing to discuss plants.” I obviously could use that shirt.

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  1. You have better luck with them than I do, I think. There is a wild one here that is one of my favorite wild foods.

    • Wow! Do you have a picture? They must be a different kind or maybe we have the advantage of climate? The ones here are very easy to care for and propagate. We just snip and stick in the soil.

  2. Are those the plants you were calling “alembong” the other day?

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