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.
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
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. www.dokmaigarden.co.th.
Around Chiang Mai in northern Thailand you commonly see
young trees with green trunks and branches. This is the kapok tree (Ceiba
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
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! www.dokmaigarden.co.th, [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],