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Many, MANY new colourful plants recently discovered in Thailand!

May 18, 2010

On Sunday Dokmai Garden had the privilege of hosting a splendid talk by Dr Piyakaset from the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden. It was such a  relief to meet a gentleman and a representative of the new, well educated, intelligent, young Thai generation.

Dr Piyakaset’s powerpoint-presentation was arranged like a journey, where he took us from Doi Hua Sua (The Tiger Head Mountain) not far from Dokmai Garden, via Doi Chiang Dao north of Chiang Mai to a series of mountains in northeastern Thailand. Many of these peaks have never been botanically studied.

What was a big surprise to me, was that it is still possible to make discoveries of  large, colourful plants, new to science. Indeed the atmosphere was like in an 18th century lecture hall: wooden house, wooden chairs, learned doctor, a small but experienced audience from all over the world, and a rich, rewarding, loud conversation, and presentation after presentation of new and spectacular plants. The spirit of Linnaeus is not dead!

Some highlights: The tiger head mountain, 1800 m, composed of calcareous rock from Ordovicium,  should be visited in October. There is a blue Utricularia babui, previously only found in India, and  a fantastic adorable beauty named Utricularia inthanonensis, endemic to the Tiger head mountain (within the Doi Inthanon national park).

The Doi Chiang Dao is a Permian calcareous mountain, 2225 m, and should be visited now in May. Here you can admire the legendary Impatiens psittacina, the perennial I. kerriae, Rosa helenae (which we grow as an ornamental in Europe), a new snow-white and large  Arisaema sp. nov. and the new species Petrocosmea bicolor (Gesneriaceae), so far only found at the Rock garden at Doi Ang Khang.

A sandstone plateau in the Phitsanulok province is Phu Hin Rong Kla. It should be visited in July-September. Gingers like Hedychium ellipticum and Jirawongsea alba, and a white and red Globba new to science, are some highlights.

At Phu Soi Dao, also in Phitsanulok province, is a sandstone plateau at 2100 m. It was not botanised until 2008. The plateau is very wet, looking like the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Highlights are Satyrium yunnanense of an orchid genus new to Thailand, an unknown Parnassia and the remarkable new species Utricularia phusoidaoensis which actually grows on the culms of living bamboo!!

These are just examples of places and plants. We also discussed the subject of threats to the Thai wild flora:

The tradition of the annual fires must stop, but local politicians and the Thai Tourist Association do not care. The Tourist association calls eco-tourism a niche, and they are stuck in the belief that tourists come to Chiang Mai for “temples, elephants and shopping”, which might be true as the national parks are not promoted.

This is what you can do: express your concern regarding fires as much as you can to Thai authorities, talk to your Thai colleagues, friends and employees, bring up a holistic view that fires are bad for the economy (less tourists), bad for your health (cancer, allergy), bad for the wildlife and flora, and bad for the honour of Lanna (the inhabitants look like retards in the eyes of the rest of Thailand and the world). Emphasise the economical aspects, as this is a decisive factor for most people.

The illegal trade with orchids must stop too. As the corruption in Thailand is severe, there is no way a legal enforcement will occur without a Machiavellian leadership, why the quickest way is massive propaganda against buying orchids from the wild.  Dr Piyakaset told us about a rare orchid which had not been seen in the wild for a hundred years, Phalaenopsis gibbosa, but it suddenly appeared in the illegal markets. Botanists tracking it back found that a village north of Chiang Mai had a population, which the locals completely eradicated in two years. It will take many hundreds of years to restore it, but sadly, if somebody tries now, the locals will just steal them again to buy some more whiskey.

This is what you can do: Do not buy orchids or any other plant from roadside stands. Make sure an orchid dealer has a sound reputation and is certified by CITES. Whenever chatting about gardening with friends, remark that buying illegal orchids is like buying stolen art. We should try to remove the demand by making people feel guilty of extermination. Reporting illegal activities rarely help, that will just result in bribes for the police. Do not feel pity for the locals, there are numerous legal ways to make money. The tricky part is to reach the Asian collectors, as they seem totally unaware of the current mass-extinction.

A third threat, in addition to fires and theft, is the weeds. Some clever minds arrange tours to behold the Tithonia diversifolia, the Mexican Sunflower, in the Mae Hong Son province. This introduced weed covers mountainsides which once were a paradise for thousands of plants, birds and butterflies. Innocent tourists who do not browse the internet beforehand, do not know what to do when they come here, and tour organizers convince them to see the yellow weeds, like making a tour to a garbage dump at a place which previously was “La Louvre”. Since the locals make money on this, local politicians propose that they should replace the forests with more weeds, to show the tourists. Dr Piyakaset showed local politicians endemic plant species as a more learned and sound alternative, but that did not impress the politicians.

This is what you can do: Ask the tour organizers to take you to real national parks instead of weed-watching tours, preferably in the same area (Mae Hong Son). Employ guides, tip them heavily, chat with the national park manager, encourage him, tip him, ask for books and brochures (they never have any, but you create a demand). Go to the Thai Tourism Authority and ask for the boss (the counter is usually manned by uneducated trainees), and explain how much you appreciated the untouched and serene mountains, and express your concern about the threats. Chat with fellow tourists about these matters. A concern raised by Dr Piyakaset is that IF the authorities realise they can make money on a new attraction, they transform it into a Disneyland. That would appeal to many, but kills the monument, like drawing naked boobs on “La Joconde” or add disco drums to Mozart or dip a dove stuffed with truffles in ketchup to attract more visitors/listeners/guests (I think it would, but that is not the aim, the aim is to bring people above the caveman-stage, to make them appreciate and care for supreme art, to massage the brain rather than satisfying basic instincts).

Royalties, business-leaders, actors, sportsmen and other famous people can make a big impact by simply requesting they wish to see the wonders of a national park. A caravan of important people will accompany VIP visitors and pose for photographs, and the important people will not understand the fuzz, but they will understand there is a fuzz, and hopefully start wondering what is so special. The ultimate aim is the survival of the last few fragments of the original supreme creation until we have overcome overpopulation and stupidity.

In conclusion, the audience was allowed raising questions during the talk, which it did indeed! An engaged audience making exclamations, remarks and asking questions is most encouraging, and I think Dr Piyakaset’s personality as a learned gentleman in combination with easy-going manners and pedagogic skills triggered a tornado of thoughts. Afterwards a brave group of devoted plant-lovers walked around Dokmai garden in pouring rain, discussing species and cultivation techniques. We also admired the exceptionally rare Phalaenopsis gibbosa, which we shall try to propagate via seeds to create genetic diversity, and eventually initiate outplanting efforts. This project may take a few decades, and we should keep the plants within Dokmai Garden, for safety. I guess we have to report our collection to CITES now.

Eric Danell

Epilogue: Dr Piyakaset’s talk was actually a milestone, as the Orchid Ark was formed within a year afterwards!

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