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


Vanilla in Chiang Rai

Previously, I described the cultivation of commercial vanilla, Vanilla planifolia (Orchidaceae) from South America.

A peculiar trait of Siamese vanilla are the fleshy papillae of the flower’s lip. The whole plant is almost succulent in its appearance. It is more sturdy and fleshy than its commercial relatives, and the leaves are much broader and fleshier. This picture was taken earlier this year.

In Thailand there are four species of wild vanillas, of which V. griffithii is explored as a potential indigenous crop. This species grows at Dokmai Garden.

The rarest and so far the only Vanilla enlisted as endangered, is Vanilla siamensis. We have a specimen at Dokmai garden which we bought, but to see a wild strain in nature is exceptionally rare. During my stay in Chiang Rai I explored a site together with a local guide. Due to the difficulties of the terrain we decided beforehand that if it was rainy we should cancel.

Luckily, the rain began when we had already walked a kilometre into the jungle, and there was no point in returning, so we kept sliding forward for another 2 km. Thanks to a massive limestone ridge, land leeches, slippery soil and dense bamboos this location is hard to access. A small strip of land, 20-30 m broad, is protected from the farmers’ fires by two streams. This refuge of original nature hosted, to my great surprise, a massive specimen of this highly endangered orchid, which does not seem to be reported from the Chiang Rai province before. It is restricted to northern Thailand and southern Yunnan (China), not reported from either Laos or Burma.

I believe it is one huge specimen running up and down the tree branches, maybe over 100 meters. It is in perfect condition, with huge broad leaves, very long fruits and thick juicy stems.

It is sad that the large pieces of the vanilla which hang down into the stream, can not be legally collected for conservation, but will succumb when the big rains bring debris which will cut of the brittle vanilla stems.

We have discussed how to best protect this specimen. Alerting local authorities is no option due to corruption. Teaching villagers to show it to tourists for money is no option either, as somebody who does not make any money will steal it. We think we can only work on changing the law to allow salvation picking permits to save a piece of the genotype within the Orchid Ark, and until such a change in the law we keep monitoring it, surveying the area for more individuals.

The area is a national park, officially protected, but since rangers do not get paid in months and since farmers bring dogs, guns and fire, a Thai national park does not offer much of protection. Frankly, fencing off the national parks from cows, dogs and thieves would be the best way to save the flora and fauna.

The Thai national parks constitute a national monument of tremendous value, dwarfing the Egyptian pyramids and London’s Big Ben. Education and eradication of poverty are essential elements to bring the Thais into a stage where they would care for nature. I hope future generations of Thais can enjoy their treasures and make money from ecotourism, but currently this gold mine is wide open to looters. [email protected]


Around Chiang Mai in northern Thailand you commonly see young trees with green trunks and branches. This is the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra, Bombacaceae/Malvaceae).

Dokmai Garden’s kapok is now mature enough to produce its first blossom, at age 3.

Traditionally the silky fibers inside the fruits have been used as a substitute for cotton, and Ketsanee’s mother have stuffed pillows with kapok fibers. According to Mabberley, the Matico indians made arrow-proof jackets from kapok. Young shoots and fruits are edible, rich in protein and an important food for many monkeys.

‘Kapok’ is a Malayan word, adopted by the English. If you say ‘kapok’ to somebody speaking Central Thai, he will be insulted because in this language that word refers to the male genitalia. In central Thai it is called ‘ton non’, while in Esan (a language spoken in the Northeast Thailand) they call it ‘ton niu’, which must not be confused with ‘ton niu’ in northern Thai language, a name for the red kapok tree (Bombax ceiba, Bombacaceae/Malvaceae). By now, I hope you have realized how brilliant it is to use the international scientific plant names to avoid confusion and insults. The scientific genus name ‘Ceiba’ is a Spanish form of a word of the Taino language, spoken by an extinct tribe of Arawak people from the Greater Antilles and Bahamas. Ceiba means ‘giant tree’.

Having an importance for the textile industry, kapok trees were already introduced to India when the first European naturalists arrived in the 18th century. As it turned out, kapok is actually native to South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. In its home environment it can grow to 70 (100) meters tall, and people lost in the African bush learnt that if you walk towards the tallest trees you can see, they are usually kapoks planted near a village. Here in Thailand you rarely see them tall at all, since they tend to break easily. A huge kapok can be admired at the Singapore Botanic Garden. The light wood is similar to that of the related balsa tree (Ochroma pyramidale, Bombacaceae/Malvaceae).

A special feature in January occurs when the stiff flowers which only open at night and early mornings. Ketsanee, the owner of Dokmai Garden, said that as a child she used to suck the nectar from the flowers in the mornings. I followed her instructions and did it in the night. You pick a flower, remove the anthers and the pistil and look down into the flower. Now you realize this is indeed a relative of the mallows (Malvaceae). At the bottom of the flower you will see glistering clear nectar. The fragrance is weak, resembling one of crushed young banana leaves. Suck the nectar with your mouth, do not lick it, suck it in so that the cloud of nectar coats the entire mouth. Your brain will be hit by a lightning of rare flavours and sweetness. A most peculiar sensation, gone in a second, but leaving a memory of a lifetime!, [email protected]

A shampoo tree

One of the most common trees around Dokmai Garden is ‘ton mi’, Litsea glutinosa (Lauraceae). An English name is Indian laurel, and indeed it is a member of the laurel family. In Chiang Mai in northern Thailand it is a deciduous tree during the hottest time of the year (March-April), but right now it is in blossom.

The Indian laurel was once a useful tree for making shampoo and medicine now degraded to a nameless shrub, yielding to South American ornamentals.

The flowers are yellow and carry a fragrance resembling honey or bee’s wax. Many insects, especially flies, like to pollinate this tree. The result of the pollination are small black fruits which attract birds at the end of the rainy season. The fruits are edible but not tasty, quite sharp actually. Ketsanee’s hairdresser in the village told Ketsanee that most Thai people nowadays cut them down, which is a pity since this tree was once the source of shampoo making:

Pound some leaves in water to produce a viscous fluid used as a shampoo. Sometimes water used to clean the rice was used. The leaves contain saponin which gives a foam, and polysaccharides which makes the fluid thick. The saponins protect the leaves from insects and fungi, so adding it to your shampoo may help you with scalp infections. One could add fragrant flowers or peel from makrut lime (Citrus hystrix, Rutaceae) to create a fragrance, and various plant dyes.

The Indian laurel can also be used for liquid soap making:
About 500 g of ash from cooking is collected and boiled in one litre of water. Filter using an old shirt and let the collected lye (KOH) settle over night to remove the last ash particles as a sediment. The lye is needed for saponification, i.e. to break down fat into fatty acids and glycerin. The soap is a salt of a fatty acid. Add 30 g Litsea glutinosa seed oil (lauric acid 85% and oleic acid 15%) to the lye and boil for ten minutes. Add makrut lime for fragrance and to lower the pH. Use red cabbage, eggplant peel or blue chili or blue tomato as a pH indicator (if the anthocyanins derived from boiling these vegies turn red=acid, purple=neutral, blue or green=alkaline). Add a dye of your choice while the soap is still hot. If you need to thicken the liquid, add any thickener including the leaves of the Indian laurel or Aloe vera.

To make a firm soap, exchange the wood ash lye with soda lye (NaOH), but that lye has to be bought unless you have access to ash of seaside soda plants (Salsola and Halogeton, Amaranthaceae spp. in Europe, various mangroves in Asia and South America ). [email protected],