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How does your garden grow?  By Eric Danell, Dokmai Garden


The odd “Bat flower”

An excellent indicator of rainforest-like habitats in northern Thailand is the bat flower, Tacca chantrieri. Here in the seasonally dry Chiang Mai it grows in evergreen areas, and then only along streams in dark environments. At Dokmai Garden we grow it behind the large forest mango and we help it thrive with misting. In the wild I have seen it in the nearby Opkhan national park and the Mae Khanin Tai area. It is possible these populations are isolated remnants of a wetter period. The species is predominantly reproducing by self fertilization.

Due to its weird flowers which look like nothing else on this planet, it has been placed in its own unique family Taccaceae. There are only ten species in the world, five of which are native to Thailand. Recently it was merged with Dioscoreaceae (the wild yams) based on DNA analyses showing its pedigree.

When we do orchid scouting for the Orchid Ark (i.e. record the natural habitats of wild orchids) we always make a remark if the orchid is found near Tacca, which implies a very moist condition. Is it a rain forest? The original term referred to an ever wet forest, but such forests are very rare on Earth so the term was expanded to encompass tall lowland forests with a minimum of 1800 mm of rain per year, maximum four weeks of drought and no leafless period. With that definition rain forests do not occur anywhere in Thailand. The term is still used of prestige for any tropical forest, but I believe it is better to expand people’s understanding of tropical forests by using the term ‘jungle’ or ‘monsoon forest’ for the seasonally dry and wet forests that surround Chiang Mai.

For the avid Chiang Mai gardener who is looking for something to plant in his shadiest spot, with large, glossy dark green leaves and peculiar blossom, the bat flower is a good choice (if watered generously). If they disappear, do not despair, this local species have the ability to withdraw if it gets too dry and survive as a perennial tuber.

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The odd “Bat flower”