John von Neumann explored the theoretical possibilities to construct self-replicating machines. This is not science fiction. At Dokmai Garden we have self-replicating lawn mowers based on the latest cellular nano-technology. The first flock of three is cheaper than one conventional lawn mower and neither batteries nor electrical cords are needed:
Other news: Last week we learnt that Dokmai Garden will be included in Lonely Planet’s 2014 Thailand Edition. Noblesse oblige; we work frantically to meet the expectations.
Photo: Aree Shettlesworth
1. First of all I wish to report a new bird species at Dokmai Garden: White-rumped Munia. According to literature this is a common bird found in most of Thailand. However, at Dokmai Garden the Scaly-breasted Munia is far more common, nesting everywhere, while the dark chocolate brown White-rumped Munia has never been reported before, in spite of visits by several distinguished ornithologists. We hope this lonely bird was not just passing by. That makes 101 bird species reported from Dokmai Garden.
2. We decided that before we leave for Sweden, we should boost the remaining chicken population with some new genes. We purchased a rooster quite similar to the red jungle fowl (gai pa) from a nearby farm for 200 Baht. It is kept in a chicken dome at the feeding place for ten days just to make friends with our original chicken and the people here before being released.
3. In previous blogs I have mentioned the dream to introduce hair or naked sheep (i.e. non-woolly and more original sheep) to replace the expensive, time consuming, polluting and noisy lawn mowers. The problem was to get hold of such sheep because they are still rare in Thailand. The military north of town keep woolly sheep but they demand frequent shearing which we do not have time for at Dokmai Garden.
From left to right: Young Shrek and the more experienced ladies Fiona and Bee-Bee working as a mowing team.
On the 14th we received two Brazilian Santa Inês ewes and a hybrid ram with South African Dorper genes. The ewes will give birth to lambs in about one month’s time. Although the Santa Inês breed is so beautiful with its slick coat, and is well adapted to tropical climate and parasites, we are afraid of inbreeding due to the limited number of individuals in Thailand. A sheep cross would be safer for successful reproduction. After all, mowing is the aim, not pure breeds, and Santa Inês is already a result of crosses including Italian Morada Nova, Italian Bergamasca and Brazilian Crioula. The Dorper is a South African breed, popular in Australia too. Its ancestors are Black headed Persian and Horned Dorset. The Dorper is well adapted to a hot and arid climate and should therefore be a good choice here in Chiang Mai.
An idea for the future is to import Santa Inês sperm which demands less bureaucracy and costs, but we are migrating to Sweden so I should not get caught too deeply in this project which might be ruined by soi dogs anyhow.
It is estimated that only 10% of the world’s sheep population are hair or fur sheep, and 90% of these occur in Africa. That sheep are rare in Thailand was clear from the crowd of curious villagers encircling the pick-up delivering our sheep. Most villagers have only seen cats, dogs, cows and water buffaloes.
At present the sheep are kept in the former restaurant garden, walking freely to get familiar with people and the area. After about three days we intend to release them into the parking garden but keep their night quarters in the restaurant garden. After that they are ready to graze the main garden. My early observations indicate they eat carpet grass (Axonopus compressus, Poaceae) and sedge (Cyperus leucocephalus, Cyperaceae), but also leaves of bamboo, banana, Wrightia religiosa (Apocynaceae) and Saraca indica (Fabaceae). That means young banana suckers need protection. Unpeeled banana fruits and star fruits were highly appreciated, and so was peeled pineapple. The juicy drupes of the chin of Prometheus (Irvingia malayana, Irvingiaceae) were also appreciated, but the sheep did not swallow the seeds which seem too big for anything but wild boar, elephant and rhino. I tried feeding them the invasive sensitive mimosa (Mimosa pudica, Fabaceae). When I held the bunch in my hand they did not take it, when thrown on the ground they suspiciously tasted some and indeed they swallowed but they walked away before finishing the spiny heap. Tomato fruits and passion fruit were treated in the same way. Our sheep sniffed the leaves of water hyacinth, kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix, Rutaceae) and Mimusops elengi (Sapotaceae) but rejected all. Kaffir lime fruits were not appreciated either.
As night quarters we offer two raised pavilions with rice straw roofs and brick floor, but the first night the sheep preferred sleeping on the bare ground under the Saraca indica tree.
Considering a good Honda mowing machine costs 36000 Baht and demands additional costs for fuel, repair, electric sharpener, additional trimmer, man power and eventually needs to be replaced, three hair sheep with two unborn lambs are cheaper to buy and maintain, and they reproduce rapidly and provide meat and skin. Their mowing is more even and gentle than a rotating blade. Studies show that ladybird populations may decline due to intensive machine mowing but not due to grazing. Since the heavy tropical rains inevitably reshape the landscape a mowing machine sometimes cuts into the undulating soil leaving ugly bare spots. In addition, sheep are cute and add beauty to the landscape while a mowing machine is a necessary evil you stuff away in a shed. A mowing machine at Dokmai Garden may last about five years, a sheep lives 10-15 years.
Tiger, leopard and dhole are extinct in our area and the chance of clouded leopard and Asian golden cat to show up is almost nil. Our only concern are python and stray dogs. The Dokmai Garden fence is 1 km and the sheep night quarter is fenced within the fence, but a defense routine is still necessary. It is almost impossible to prevent access of python but unlike dogs a python would only make one kill. In fact, since dogs are the most abundant medium-sized mammal, it is more likely the python helps us with dog control.
Wild sheep or mouflon (Ovis aries, Bovidae) are native to the arid mountains of western Asia and the Balkan and so sheep are exotic in Thailand. Wild Thai relatives of sheep (subfamily Caprinae) are Southern serow (Capricornis sumatraensis) and Long-tailed goral (Naemorhedus caudaus), both endangered due to hunting. Our initial idea to introduce such species or native deer failed due to lack of interest among governmental institutions. Sheep are still much better than mowers!
Kate and Mika visiting Pong and Kriangkrai at their sheep farm.
Fiona (front) is the leader of the herd and the one who takes initiative. When I saw them at the farm I had only eyes for the dark brown beauty Bee-Bee in the background, but Fiona turns out to be more funny and we seem to have a connection. However, Bee-Bee is the sweet tooth of the herd, the only one who grunts of joy when a fruit is offered and who would run to get it, often before her companions. Unlike Fiona she would not touch tomato or passion fruit. The adolescent Shrek has not developed his character yet, but I can already tell he is more fond of taking a break than the ladies. He is also more adventurous in feeding from shrubs.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell
The orchid Bulbophyllum ovatum (Orchidaceae) opened its first flowers ever at Dokmai Garden on the 8th of September.
The first day the flowers were bright orange, the following days they faded to a pale yellow. The flowers are tiny (a few mm) and only bloom for five days, so it is not strange this orchid has only been known to science since 1979. In addition, hitherto it has only been found in Thailand and here only in the Khao Luang national park in Nakhon Si Thammarat province in the south (there are many Khao Luang mountains in Thailand).
It is not included in the orchid books of the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Nantiya’s ‘Wild Orchids of Thailand’ nor the book ‘Bulbophyllum of Thailand’. Smitinand’s only Thai name is ‘singto phu thong’ which is likely to be a scientist’s name, not a folk name. Ketsanee translates it as ‘the golden lion’s mane’ but all Bulbophyllum are called singto (lion) in Thai, and probably alludes to the tooth-like flowering bud. An English name is ‘The Egg-Shaped Bulbophyllum’ which does not add much to the scientific name and is quite boring.
Although Ketsanee describes this national park as a magic place, truly a part of unseen Thailand, not many tourists come to visit. In the eyes of an innocent Swede, an orchid must be safe if it is inside a national park protected by law. In reality, rubber tree plantations and orchid theft are serious threats. Recently this province has become known for violent protests by rubber farmers. Ecotourism would render sustainable income but that demands efforts; knowledge in English, biologists and educated rangers and guides, guide books in foreign languages, visitor’s centres, trails and hotels. It is easier to chop down the jungle, plant South American rubber trees and then turn cars upside down if the government does not pay enough for the rubber. The alternative is there, all it takes is funding from the government, a population willing to study and a non-corrupt project manager. There are good examples in Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.
A concern expressed among Thai biologists is that if there is money in a nature attraction, it will be transformed into a theme park to attract domestic mass tourism. Nature in itself has little value to the present generations, but rock concerts, golf courses and fields of tulips do. To market a national park with sensibility, the target should initially be foreign tourists and eventually the locals will be curious and try to find out what the fuzz is about. This is like appreciating Dali, Picasso and Magritte when there is kitsch.
A few decades ago the authorities of Queensland in Australia did not appreciate their natural treasures either, but that has dramatically changed thanks to international tourism and new and more educated generations. A facilitating marketing factor is that the Australians already speak English, and Malaysians share the same alphabet, while many Thais need to start from scratch. Those who do invest in an expensive education need to use their language skills to make money in business, not for saving orchids. Free schools in English with true teachers from English-speaking countries, and money rewards to students for passed exams may even out that basic language obstacle. Education does cost money, but if there is a will to invest 7 billion Baht to buy 49 army tanks from Ukraine then money can not be a problem.
To market the national park then its endemic inhabitants need catchy English names, so I propose adopting a shortened version of the Thai name: ‘Lion’s mane orchid’.
The Orchid Ark received this precious orchid as a donation from Ekkehardt Schwardtke who runs the Lanta Orchid Nursery and the Orchid Garden Khaolak in southern Thailand.
My aim was to allow it to settle on its substrate during the rainy season, but when I returned to Chiang Mai in late August it had not. That observation, and the observation that many water demanding plants at Dokmai Garden seemed stressed, hints to me there has been a dry period this rainy season. Local northern Thai species do fine and the nearby jungles are as green as ever, but anything from a wetter climate have had a struggle. In the home of the lion’s mane it rains for nine months. With daily supervision and watering there is no problem, but staff who have never travelled can not imagine that climate can be different elsewhere and so treat all plants as if they were local. The solution is to plant the orchid in a naturally moist area near the gardener’s house and explain this unique orchid’s value and importance to Thai nature.
We also acknowledge the kind donation of Roland Mogg, Chiang Mai.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell
Dokmai Dogma has treated several banana varieties and species earlier, and today we continue with the red banana Musa acuminata AAA ‘Red Dacca’ (‘gluay nak’, gluay dhaeng or ‘gluay krang’ in Thai).
The origin of ‘Red Dacca’, a sterile triploid selected by man, is obscure. Some say India, some say Central America (other vernacular names are ‘Red Cuban’ and ‘Banana Roxa’). ‘Red Dacca’ may mutate and lose the ability to make red pigments, and such cultivars are called ‘Green Dacca’. All wild banana species originate in east Asia and the wild ancestor of ‘Red Dacca’, Musa acuminata (AA) is native to Malaysia.
The leaf stalks, mid-ribs and base of the pseudostems are red too, making a fruit-less ‘Red Dacca’ plant easy to recognize in a banana collector’s orchard.
Unlike the ‘gluay nam wa’ banana which is widely grown in Thailand, the leaves of ‘Red Dacca’ are unsuitable for cooking, wrapping or serving. Until recently the Thai farmers had no cutlery, no chop sticks and no plates. They had to eat with their fingers and serve all food on banana leaves, and so the banana leaves had to be of superior quality. Poor quality leaves may in fact spoil food by contaminating it with unwanted flavours and bitterness. This is one of the reasons ‘Red Dacca’ is not that common in Thailand and is mostly sold at touristic food markets. Other reasons are the peel’s tendency to crack which indeed frequently occurs here at Dokmai Garden and there is a rumour it may cause skin problems. However, it seems much more popular in Burma where one name is ‘shwe nget-pyaw’. The fresh fruit is in fact delicious; its sweet flavour is nicely balanced with some acidity. The fruit can be used as a cooking banana too, although this is not a plantain (which contains Musa balbisiana genes AAB).
To our experience at Dokmai Garden, ‘Red Dacca’ is much more water demanding than ‘gluay nam wa’ and so it should be planted where you can provide some irrigation during the dry season. This is another reason Red Dacca is not common in the dry Chiang Mai valley.
Fruits of ‘Red Dacca’ may be more or less red, orange or maroon. Many people wonder about this high degree of colour variation. Red, blue and purple colours in leaves, petals and fruits are usually due to anthocyanins, but I have not found any literature with actual analyses of the ‘Red Dacca’ banana peel.
In banana plants anthocyanins normally only occur in high quantities in the banana flowering bracts, and the reason most plants seem to produce anthocyanins in petals and fruits is to attract insects for flower pollination and birds for seed dispersal. The red fruits of ‘Red Dacca’ is due to a mutation and being a sterile selection by man the colour has no selective importance or natural function, although one can argue it is an adaptation to man. Although the anthocyanin in ‘Red Dacca’ may not serve any purpose, the regulation of its concentration may still follow the same mechanisms as in plant tissues where it does play a role. The intensity of anthocyanin colour may depend on 1) fruit maturity, 2) degree of sun exposure, 3) temperature, 4) soil and 5) stress.
1) Red on green (immature fruit) makes the fruit look brownish, red on yellow (mature fruit) makes the fruit look more orange and red on brown (over-ripe fruit) makes a maroon colour.
2) Anthocyanin formation is normally induced by light, but too much solar radiation may destroy the molecule. For instance, the attractive red blotches of the leaves of Sumatran zebra banana (Musa acuminata ssp. zebrina) develop best in a somewhat shady environment, but fade in full sun.
3) Low temperature seems to increase anthocyanin formation although there is a complex correlation involving both solar radiation and temperature in combination. This also means you may experience various degrees of coloration depending on which season and altitude the bananas are formed. This article on anthocyanin formation in Merlot grapes is quite interesting.
4) Presence of metals (as a consequence of soil type) in the cell’s vacuoles where the pigment is located, may influence acidity which in turn influence the colour of the anthocyanin. Soils poor in certain nutrients, a type of stress, may also increase anthocyanin production in many plants.
5) Anthocyanins may play a role in osmotic adjustments (cellular water content regulation) caused by fungal infections, herbivores, nutrient deficiency and lack of rain. If the ‘Red Dacca’ fruits can produce anthocyanins then stress may increase the amount of pigment. An interesting observation is that red autumn colours in many leaves is a phenomenon typical of boreal and cold latitudes while a rare phenomenon here in the tropics. However, tropical plants often produce anthocyanins in young shoots which appear red or purple, probably as an adaptation to the strong solar intensity (like building a roof (anthocyanin) before installing the sensitive machinery (the green photosynthesis apparatus)). You can read more in this splendid review of (foliar) anthocyanins:
The yellow pigment of the flesh inside the fruit is due to carotenoids which can be transformed into vitamin A. That makes ‘Red Dacca’ a more valuable source of that vitamin than the cream-coloured flesh of the common Cavendish bananas.
Indeed we shall plant ‘Red Dacca’ suckers in various environments to study variation in colour.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell
Other Dokmai Dogma banana blogs:
In previous blogs I have marveled at the ability of many plants to resurrect. As to bamboos it is a widespread truth that when a bamboo flowers it will afterwards die. Fortunately for home gardeners, but unfortunately for biologists, many bamboos rarely bloom. Reportedly bamboo blossom is also quite exact within a clone, all specimens flowering at the same time.
At Dokmai Garden we have a native yellow bamboo Schizostachyum brachycladum (Poaceae) or ‘pai lueang’ in Central Thai. When it flowered I was of course intrigued, but would we lose it?
The flowers of this bamboo are neatly arranged in dense flowering heads. Photo: Jussi Suominen.
Surprisingly, our two specimens which grew almost next to each other, did not flower the same year. The first specimen bloomed in February 2011. After its apparent death I dug up the root system because the dead stumps of the culms looked ugly. The second specimen flowered the following year in 2012. This time I waited a long time to observe the development of the flowering culms. They eventually looked dead or so untidy I cut them down, but somehow I never got around to dig up the root system.
When I returned from Sweden in late August 2013 the root system had sprouted again! The new shoots did not come from the dead culm stumps, but from the roots. They were not a result of seeds because in that case there would be seedlings everywhere.
As it turns out, this bamboo species does not follow the general saying. That might be true for other bamboos such as the famous giants within the Dendrocalamus genus. The ‘pai lueang’ frequently flowers, sometimes annually, but old flowering culms look terribly untidy and to reset it a cosmetic pruning might be necessary.
The advice to the tropical home gardener on how to handle flowering bamboo is first to collect the bamboo seeds which are a treasure. Sow these as soon as possible since they deteriorate quickly. Immediately after seed harvest cut down the untidy culms and wait patiently for the next rainy season. To compensate for the nutrient losses during the reproductive phase provide a generous donation of cow manure.
…but none of these sources provide information on flowering frequency.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell
When German botanist Joachim Shiermeyer came to Dokmai Garden in February he was well prepared with a list of ‘want to see’ downloaded from our species list. His ongoing quest is to photograph representatives of all plant families in the world.
One Dokmai Garden tree from which he collected seeds was Irvingia malayana (Irvingiaceae) which grows behind the Dokmai Garden laboratory. Some Thai names are ‘gabok’, ‘ma luen’, ‘lak kai’, ‘cha ang’ and here in the north ‘muen’. At this time of the year, I often believe I hear somebody knocking on the door, but it is just the heavy fruits falling down on the roof.
Here are two fresh fruits and two fibrous yellow stones which have been cut to expose the white oily seed. In the middle a brown stone from a decaying fruit.
The fruit contains one large seed and I knew that Nived Seehamongkol likes to roast such seeds and eat them like almonds. I gathered a handsome bunch and proudly gave them to Nived. She smiled and said they are too fresh and so very difficult to open. Normally they are collected in February-March when the pulp is gone and the kernels are dry. The kernels are then simply roasted on charcoal. With great effort she used a butcher’s knife to open a fresh seed to show me.
I asked if they ever ate the pulp of the fresh drupe, but she said the fruits are either too hard or too dirty from fermenting on the ground. It is true they remain hard in the tree and only soften on the ground, where the pulp turns soft and juicy with an appealing plum flavour (I did taste them). The seeds seem tricky to germinate. The tree behind the lab has produced thousands of fruits over the years but not a single seedling in spite of a range of nearby habitats. I have also failed to germinate the seeds in pots, but I used seeds collected in February, also from fire-damaged areas. This is in accordance with germination efforts of African Irvingia species and Kew Gardens include Irvingia in the ‘Difficult Seeds Project’. Maybe the seeds need to pass through the guts of a mammal now in August-September to soften and germinate while it is still wet? Seeds left to dry for six months may never soften enough to open and may succumb to fungi or fire?
The trees may grow into majestic proportions according to Ketsanee. I have seen many trees scattered in the nearby national park, but since most big specimens of most of the local 1100 tree species have been logged we have to wait a millennium for the forests to fully recover from the extensive logging in 1880-1988. Flora of Thailand 2:398 claims the wood is not durable and so the wood of this species has been used for making charcoal. That is surprising since African Irvingia species are reportedly durable and termite-resistant. Irvingia malayana is native to the Asian lowlands and can be found in both dry monsoon forests in India, Burma, Laos and Thailand and in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.
So, what is this strange family, Irvingiaceae (sometimes included in the families Ixonanthaceae or Simaroubaceae)? There are only about ten species and three genera in the world, all native to the old world tropics. A character in common is the long horn-like stipule which encircles the leaf bud. As to the genus Irvingia, only one species is recorded from Asia, and the other five grow in Africa. The most famous might be Irvingia gabonensis which kernels are used for making ‘gabon chocolate’ or more precisely ‘odika’ or ‘dika bread’.
The genus name was coined by the Scottish botanist Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) when he described Irvingia smithii from west Africa in 1860. The name alludes to the Scottish plant collector and navy surgeon Edward George Irving (1816-1855) who collected plants in southern Nigeria while serving on the HMS Prometheus.
At this time of the year, the tree-borne fruits are green and hard and may resemble a lot of other jungle fruits. Some newcomers even think they are small green mangoes and an unfortunate English vernacular name is ‘African mango’ for Irvingia gabonensis. The tip of the fruit resembles a cleft chin, which separates this species from many look-alikes.
An English name? ‘Wild almond’ has been used but since this tree has nothing to do with almonds it is a name as confusing as ‘African mango’ for its African sister. Although the scientific name is its real and precise international name, English names may create an appreciation for the tropical flora outside the sphere of specialists. Therefore this darling deserves a unique and catchy name to show there are more plant treasures in the world than mango and almond. ‘Asian Irvingia’ is obvious but does not add much to the scientific name and remains uncatchy. How about ‘Chin of Prometheus’, alluding to the tree’s mature size (Prometheus was one of the titans), to its (and Prometheus’) friendship with humans, to its (and Prometheus’) association with fire, to Irving’s ship and to the characteristic cleft of the fruit?
Text & Photo: Eric Danell
Do you remember the blog about the flowers of the Thai sindora (Sindora siamensis, Fabaceae)?
This is the time to harvest and cook their one-seeded pods. The pods resemble flattened horse chestnuts, but their spines exudate a sticky liquid which smells like Christmas tree due to terpenoid compounds.
Collect the fruits while still green. Put them straight on glowing sticks or charcoal….
…and open when they turn black.
Dokmai Garden’s Seehamongkol family traditionally eat the green seed while they discard the yellow arillus which indeed is rubbery and sticky. This was surprising to me, because the purpose of this arillus or elaiosome is to attract animals by its nutrient rich oil, and make the animal throw away the poisonous seed, thereby contributing to the dispersal of the species.
The flavour of the cooked seed or bean is faint and so I have never seen this forest treat in the markets. However, in a community with little cash anything edible is valuable. One day sindora seeds, next day tadpoles, then crickets and so on. Beans are usually rich in protein, but one must not eat raw sindora seeds. Nived Seehamongkol said she did when she was a child, and got sick and dizzy. Spines and chemicals protect the embryo from vegetarians, but cooking allows humans to use many otherwise toxic plants.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell