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To paint with new colours

November 28, 2010

A garden designer in Europe rarely finds a novel plant species to surprise his clients. He is mostly restricted to making new combinations of already well known plants. Similarly, a painter is restricted to a limited number of colours which he can combine in different ways. What if somebody brought him a totally new colour?

This is the blessing with the tropics. The nearby jungle is full of undiscovered ‘colours’, and at Dokmai Garden we display them in our garden and we use them in our garden design assignments, making your garden very different from your neighbour’s.

Recently we visited a restaurant garden north of town, but unfortunately the owners and the gardener did not know the names of their plants, which were in poor condition. Knowing the names is crucial for finding information about how to give each plant the correct management for optimum growth and flower display.

The aim of this blog is to preserve the knowledge about the new plants we planted at Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient in Chiang Mai. It will help the staff and maybe inspire other monsoon gardeners.

Below are the plants Dokmai Garden used in the renovation, as a response to the wishes expressed by the director Jacques Leider (below referred to as ‘I’). Most pictures emanate from Dokmai Garden, but will give a hint of the future look of the library garden. Of budget reasons and of plant health reasons we planted small specimens in this project:

“I need a tree to hide the ugly building next door”. We selected the jungle parasol, Macaranga siamensis (Euphorbiaceae). Although sometimes present in village gardens as a living parasol, this is probably the first planted specimen within Chiang Mai city – indeed a new ‘colour’. It is native to the nearby Opkhan national park, and was described new to science not long ago.

‘I wish to have a climber on the southern wall to maintain privacy’. We selected shower of orchids, Congea tomentosa (Lamiaceae). This species is known also abroad, but although common in the nearby national parks, it is not often used in Chiang Mai gardens. This fast-growing climber provides clouds of blossom in December-January. Being a monsoon plant, it can stand droughts and tough soils, although we spoilt it with humus rich soil for even faster growth.

‘The garden is too dark and gloomy, crowded with fishtail palms (Caryota urens, Arecaceae) which spread like weeds. I want something to look at from the windows of the new library’. We replaced the fishtail palms with a well known species, the golden dew drop (Duranta erecta, Verbeneaceae). This South American plant is the greatest butterfly magnet at Dokmai Garden, where we have compared nearly 1000 plant species. Fast growing and in blossom all year round are important traits. The golden variety ‘aurea’ grows much more slowly, so that would have been a bad choice for somebody aiming at a grand opening in a year. We also added one specimen of the native sunbird’s love (Firmiana colorata, Malvaceae). It will grow like a tree out of the hedge, and provide red blossom which attract nectar-feeding birds! We have never seen this fast-growing and gorgeous jungle tree in Thai gardens, but it should be planted much more!

To further enhance the presence of butterflies, we planted the native golden birdwing salad (Aristolochia tagala, Aristolochiaceae). This native climber is the host plant for the larvae of the golden birdwing butterfly (Troides aeacus aeacus, Papilionidae) and the common rose butterfly (Pachliopta aristolochiae, Pailionidae).  In addition to butterfly food, it provides peculiar flower morphology and decorative hanging baskets with seeds. We believe that Dokmai Garden was the first designer to introduce this plant into gardens, and now we get requests from all over Thailand.

The virgin spiral ginger (Cheilocostus lacerus, Costaceae) was also introduced to further add blossom in front of the library. This native plant demands a dry period but will reward you with lovely blossom during the end of the rainy season, when there are not so many other flowers. It disappears in the dry season, but for every year there will be more and taller stalks, forming an enchanting patch. Although for sale abroad, we have never seen it in the Chiang Mai gardens. We are happy to introduce it here!

Next to the virgin spiral ginger we added five edible pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius, Pandanaceae). Since the garden already has huge specimens of other Pandanus, we thought the famous and edible pandan should be present too. It is commonly used to give flavour to drinking water, desserts and stuffed chicken. It is native to the spice islands in Indonesia, which is why it needs shade and frequent watering.

In another section we replaced the fishtail palms with Hiptage benghalensis (Malpighiaceae). This native bush provides a glossy green and twice during the late cool season also fragrant blossom. This plant is sometimes used in Thai gardens, but deserves much more attention.

‘What about this gloomy patch surrounded by walls? Can we grow grass or something?’ We selected carpet grass (Axonopus compressus, Poaceae), which has soft leaves and thrives in light shade. To bridge this island of green with the green front, we planted green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum, Zingiberaceae) and lizard tail (Houttuynia cordata, Saururaceae) under a concrete bridge. Both species are edible, and demand shade and moisture. The rock hard and stony concrete-stone soil was softened with compost from teak wood and elephant dung.

The lizard tail has leaves tasting like raw fish and lemon, and can be served in a salad. It also has a reputation of being medicinal (anti viral). It thrives in dark, moist areas. Although native to northern Asia, it is commonly found in the villages of the Chiang Mai mountain valleys.

‘I need something to cover the ugly gap between the ground and the building created by the stilts’. We selected Orange Jessamine (Murraya paniculata, Rutaceae). It is found here and there in Chiang Mai gardens, and over time it creates a massive green with pulses of white fragrant flowers and small egg-like red berries. It is native to central Thailand.

Buddha hand (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, Rutaceae) was planted in a large and old pot by the entrance to the new library. This plant was the symbol of a learned gentleman in imperial China, and we believe the staff and visitors to the library are such gentle people. The fragrance of the peel will clear the mind of the learned scholar. This symbolic plant is a nice addition to the already existing talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera). The leaves of this palm are the classical source of paper for the Southeast Asian temple chronicles.

‘I need something to enlighten the parking, and cover the wall’. We planted the native Gardenia coronaria, Rubiaceae. It produces flushes of yellow blossom which emit a strong fragrance at night. We identify ourselves with scientists working late at the library, in need for inspiring fragrance when walking back to the car at night.

‘I built a ramp to facilitate transportation of heavy book boxes, and to facilitate access for wheelchairs, but people complain the ramp is ugly’. We decided to screen the ramp using different plants. Above is the cobweb leaf Trevesia palmata (Araliaceae). This is indeed a new ‘paint’ on the artist’s palette. This evergreen member of the ginseng family can be found in moist valleys in Chiang Mai, or in local markets where the brown shoots are sold as vegetables. Its large spectacular leaves draws attention.

Another tall Southeast Asian plant used for screening the ramp is greater galanga (Alpinia galanga, Zingiberaceae) in the ginger family. It stays tall if watered, and provides edible rhizomes. The decorative flowers are edible too, but quite sharp.

Although coffee (Coffea arabica, Rubiaceae) is native to Africa, it has been successfully cultivated in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, replacing the opium fields. Being a shade lover and growing into a an understorey bush, it will screen the ramp and provide fragrant blossom and coffee beans.

Another way of drawing attention away from the ramp, was to plant the native giant lily (Crinum asiaticum, Amaryllidaceae). We used the exclusive purple selection for large blossom and fragrance. These lilies will grow big, and further add to the original jungle atmosphere of the garden.

‘When you walk on the ramp, you only see a boring wall’. I want flowers!’ We planted the Rangoon creeper (Quisqualis indica, Combretaceae). It is native to the nearby Opkhan national park, but this is a garden cultivar with more petals. We also added betel pepper (Piper betle, Piperaceae), which clings to concrete and provides a nice foliage. Being an ancient part of Southeast Asian culture as the main ingredient for betel quids, we thought it has a place in a garden associated with a library where many books refer to this use. Seeing the actual plant makes the written stories more alive. The areca palm, Areca catechu, (the second ingredient next to betel and slaked lime) was already present at the entrance to the new library.

‘When you look down from the ramp, you just see a barren ground covered with pieces of concrete, garbage and stone’. I want it green!’ We decided first to cover the poor soil with river sediment mixed with compost from teak and elephant dung. Then we planted Piper sarmentosum (Piperaceae), with the aim to completely cover the soil with this edible leaf. This pepper is common in shady areas throughout Southeast Asia including Chiang Mai. It grows fast, and has glossy fresh leaves, which makes it ideal for a quick ground cover. In addition, we also added the antive dracula plant (Tacca chantrieri, Dioscoreaceae) as a ground cover and black pepper (Piper nigrum, Piperaceae), and South American vanilla (Vanilla planifolia, Orchidaceae) as climbers on nearby trees. All these species demand shade and moisture.

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