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Smitinand’s book on Thai plant names

March 24, 2010

How many times have you been to a Thai flower market, seen a fantastic plant, asked for its name, and then been unable to get any additional information about it? It is difficult to buy plants in Thailand since Thai flower markets rarely present scientific names or price tags. The problem is not limited to farang settlers, but also Thai people from different parts of the country may have difficulties discussing gardening with each other, as they may use totally different names. Due to the fact that many villagers in Thailand have never been more than 4 km away from their home, local names are preserved, so even people within the same province may have difficulties talking plants to each other, if they ever meet. Many Thais also believe that the scientific names are “English”, but at Dokmai Garden we try to explain that the scientific names are international. They are also very precise, only referring to one plant species, while vernacular names like “cherry” could mean almost anything with a red fruit. A scientific name can be googled and then you can pick any vernacular name you like, in any language, while a village name is often impossible to find in cyberspace. 

One powerful tool to cope with the many Thai names is the book “Thai Plant Names” by Tem Smitinand (The Forest Herbarium, Royal Forest Department, 2001). Although you can only acquire this book in second-hand book stores, or from us, it is worth searching for. It lists most Thai plant species, and an impressive range of vernacular names. It is also good to use the book as a checklist, i.e. you may find a Hoya in a forest, and by checking the genus in the book  you get suggestions of what species you may have found. By googling the scientific names in the book, you can se pictures that may fit your observation.

At Dokmai Garden we have consistently used the central Thai names, in addition to scientific names, in an effort to help establishing a Thai plant names standard. Although the various names may cause communication problems, they also constitute a wealth in cultural diversity. Smitinand’s book preserves that wealth at the same time as it bridges the cultures. Any serious gardener in Thailand should have this book on his book shelf, and we are very much looking forward to future editions.

Eric Danell

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2011 11:08 AM

    I have just now discovered the book “Thai Plant Names.” In searching for a source for this book I discovered your blog and have subscribed.

    Can you tell me how I can obtain a copy?

    I travel from USA to Thailand about six times per year and spend a total of about six months living in Thailand. I am especially interested in medicinal plants. I would appreciate any information on Butea superba.

    Thank you,
    Eddie Smith
    Founder & Chairman of Herb Pharm

    • March 15, 2011 6:00 PM

      Dear Eddie,

      We have one book left, and it seems it will take years before there is a reprint. Welcome to pick it up next time you visit Chiang Mai.

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