Men in the Ground

Christmas hog potato and Devil’s potato vines dress up the bush.

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

I drew trees like every other six-year-old drew trees—green lollipops on straight brown sticks dotted quite regularly with disproportionately large, bright red flowers or fruit or something. Who knows what they were—probably apples, but now as an adult and a botanist I can assure myself that there’s no such thing as an apple tree shaped anywhere nearly so well-behaved as those I drew. In fact, there really aren’t any other trees so perfectly spangled in scarlet as those I drew in childhood.

Around November, the Christmas hog potato produces buds that open to bright, ruby-red waxy flowers.

But you have seen them, I’m certain—I have too. Ride up Leeward Highway in December and there will be a conspicuous flash of crimson in the bush passing by—a stout tree flowering so spectacularly that it stands out to anyone, including the most committed plant-murdering non-gardeners around. Several people have asked me about this tree that flowers so brightly and beautifully, looking so cartoonish—or, like a six-year-old’s caricature of a tree—that they want one in their garden.
Indeed though, I reiterate that such a tree really doesn’t exist. These seasonally-dressed trees are merely supports for one of the Turks & Caicos Islands’ most inadvertently famous, yet simultaneously unknown vines—the Christmas hog potato, Exogonium microdactylum. Until very recently classified as a morning glory and named Ipomoea microdactyla, this native of the Caribbean basin, whose species names means “little fingers,” is easily seen blooming during the winter season on nearly all of the larger islands in the country—even Salt Cay has a stunted plant growing up its airport fence.
The Christmas hog potato is a perennial vine—as soon as it grows from a black, auburn-haired seed, it produces a small flush of burgundy leaves and a substantial potato-like tuber underground. Then, it grows upwards as a vine, twining anti-clockwise around other trees’ stems and trunks, invading and spreading through their crowns. The dark-green, nondescript adult leaves hang rather limply and make no significant announcement of their presence. In fact, unless one runs into the small, toothy thorns lining the tough vines, one would be forgiven for failing to notice the Christmas hog potato in its sterile state at all.
But around November, the plant begins to put on a show. It produces bunches of red-tipped buds that swell and elongate and then open to bright, ruby-red waxy flowers of substantial strength and thickness. Severely curving trumpets that flake falling pollen onto visitors, these flowers are a favourite of hummingbirds. Like most flowers pollinated by birds (who in exchange for solid beaks and good eyesight mostly have completely foregone any sense of smell at all) the gorgeous flowers are without any scent. Blooming supported by branches at the top of a tree, the flowers are within reach of pollinating birds and insects and within the eyes of passing humans, explaining why we get to see the red flowers decking other species of trees that have no worldly business dressing so provocatively.

Christmas hog potato seed

The Christmas hog potato’s flashy flowers each last only a day, and if not fertilised by another plant’s pollen, they fall off. But if another vine’s pollen made it to the flower by way of a courteous Bahama woodstar hummingbird, the plant will form a papery brown capsule that blooms into what looks very much like a wooden flower, shedding seeds. The seeds are smooth and black, with an electrocuted mop of soft auburn hair that gives them a look decidedly reminiscent of a 1984 Tina Turner. Once cracked, the seeds will grow quickly into new plants, ready to clamber up trees and decorate them with scarlet trumpets in the right season.

The enormous underground tubers of the Christmas hog potato plant feed pigs on North and Middle Caicos.

The right season is revealed by the plants’ common name. They are called Christmas vines, hog potatoes and Christmas hog potatoes. They bloom from November to February, which explains the Christmas, but where do the hogs come in? Conversations with farmers in North and Middle Caicos reveal the source of this part of the name. In days gone by, the bright red flowers would reveal the location of the plant to farmers, who would follow the vines to the ground and begin to dig. There in the earth, often pressed deformedly between rocks, they could find the often enormous tubers of the plant—which would be dug up and toted home to feed to pigs. The extra food from this plant, becoming visually available in November, was enough to fatten the pigs in time for Christmas ham. Another anecdote reveals that during especially lean times, the Christmas hog potato tubers would be eaten by people, though they apparently left a lot to be desired in the department of flavour.
These tubers provided a good deal of food due to their size—which led to one of their Bahamian common names, “man-in-the-ground.” This name is also shared by a similarly ornamental wild plant, the more soberly-named Devil’s potato. The white-flowered vine Echites umbellatus also forms large tubers underground, but they are completely inedible—that plant’s status as a member of the botanical family that includes frangipani, milkweed and oleander reveals its toxic lineage. The flowers though, resembling pinwheels carved from Ivory soap, throw off a significantly pleasant scent at night in order to attract moths to pollinate them. After pollination, a two-pronged fruit forms, opposite, sharp, straight, hard halves wide open like a set of calipers—devil horns—one source of the common name.

Two-pronged fruit of the Devil's potato.

Otherwise, the plant is anything but devilish; the horns open to reveal seeds that sail away on alabaster puffballs, drifting familiarly through the air as the objects children sometimes catch to wish upon and release. This plant also performs the same show as the Christmas hog potato—it will grow up into trees and flower amongst their crowns; a practice a botanist colleague of mine denotes as “boring bushes dressing in drag.” But is not as picky about where it grows as the Christmas hog potato is, and its seeds are happy to sprout in rock piles, compacted quarry, or anywhere else the soil has been disturbed, such as conveniently along fence lines or where power pole guy wires have been buried, allowing them to grow up nearly anything. They regularly decorate chain link fences with their tough, opposite, downward-curved dark green leaves and blue-grey rubbery stems, with umbels of the sculptural flowers.
Both the fence-dressing Devil’s potato and the Christmas hog potato can be used as ornamental species in almost any TCI garden. They can be container grown but prefer being in the ground to capitalise on their tuberous nutrient-storing nature. They may die completely down to the soil level in droughts, and will come back vigorously with rain. The Devil’s potato blooms year-round, as opposed to the Christmas hog potato’s strictly seasonal visual festiveness. Both tolerate poor soil, full sun and wind; the only things they resent are too much salt and growing in sand. Neither transplant particularly well but both are easily grown from seed, and nursery-grown Christmas hog potatoes can flower in under a year if grown with plenty of water and fertiliser. They will attract hummingbirds, beneficial insects and large moths at night, and they will both hide fences or dress up less-ostentatious trees in the garden without harming them.
That dressing-up-drab-trees habit is a secret you now know. The next time you pass by a ruby-studded tree in the bush, or a cascade of alabaster pinwheels covering a lowly shrub, you will know that those trees have been dressed up by the subterranean-based makeup men of the bush, draping their designer looks onto our crooked trees to put their “man-in-the-ground” brand name exactly where we can all see it. That’s one roadside advertisement to which I have no aesthetic objection.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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