It’s true that the littlest things can pack the biggest punch.

In today’s Tropicalist we look at the humble pinwheel flower (Tabernaemontana diverticata), often found growing wild in Southeast Asia. Unlike the typical tropical peacock, T. diverticata has a rather nondescript appearance that belies its many talents.

The plant is native to the Indian subcontinent, where it is sometimes called crepa jasmine, probably because like the jasmine, it is also a little white flower that emits a lovely, delicate fragrance come nighttime.1

Its similarities to the higher-profile jasmine don’t end there. T. diverticata has been an essential part of the Indian woman’s toilet since ancient times.2 Biologist Suriya Sujan writes nostalgically of hours whiled away as a school girl stringing together pinwheel garlands that were then worn by mothers and older sisters to adorn their coiffures.

In fact, T. diverticata isn’t related to the jasmine at all but to another plant familiar to those who live in this region, the rubber tree. Both belong to the Apocynaceae family of plants, whose members typically produce a milky sap or latex.3

Like many other members of the Apocynaceae family, T. diverticata is poisonous but rich in medical alkaloids. Herbalists have been using its special properties for millennia, treating everything from snake and scorpion poisoning (a popular use for the plant in southern China), to epilepsy and mania.4

Some of these uses have been substantiated in modern scientific experiments, like the one where they fed T. diverticata to mice with obsessive compulsive disorder and found that it had a calming effect on their marble-burying behaviour. (Yes, scientists are an odd lot.)

It was another herbalist in Europe who lent his name to the Tabernaemontana genus: Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern. Jakob Theodor was physician to the Count of the Palatine at Heidelberg, Germany. When his hometown of Bergzabern latinised its name to Tabernaemontanus (“tavern in the mountain”) in order to prove provenance from Roman times, Jakob Theodor followed suit. Diverticata is latin for spread out, referring to the pinwheel like appearance of the flower.

In appreciation of this little flower’s many gifts, the Indians even have a temple dedicated to it. Legend has it that a field of densely growing T. diverticata provided shelter for a Shiva lingam. Later, when the local ruler built a temple around that lingam, T. diverticata became the sacred tree of the temple.5