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The Star of Bethlehem

April 13, 2011

Happy Thai New Year 2554 since Buddhas Enlightenment! We already got 13 mm of rain today, so this seems like a promising gardening year. Later in the evening on the 13th we had the first serious termite swarm, almost two months earlier than last year (which was exceptionally dry in the beginning)!

At present we have a local tree in blossom at Dokmai Garden: Vitex canescens (Lamiaceae, formerly Verbeneaceae). I looked for English names, but could not find any. One Dutch site refers to it as Chaste Tree, but that name should be  saved for a shrubby European species, Vitex agnus-castus, used as an unaphrodisiac for men and women during Medieval times.  The scientific name Vitex was the Roman name for the Chaste tree, derived from Latin ‘vieo’ which means ‘to weave’ (baskets). According to Mabberley Odysseus’s sailors used it to tie themselves to sheep when escaping the cyclops Polyphemus. The scientific name canescens means ‘greyish’. ‘Grey vitex’ sounds boring. Since the flowers of this tree immediately reminded me of pictures of the Star of Bethlehem, why not use this poetic and descriptive name?

I asked our Esan, Karen and northern Thai staff if they ever used this tree for anything, but they did not know it. Smitinand’s book lists over 20 Thai names, so some locals must use it for something. This relative of teak grows in similar habitats, i.e. in dry monsoon woodlands in Assam, northern Burma, southern Yunnan, northern Thailand and Laos. Like many bamboos it is a pioneer species, and has a moderate size, up to 12 meters. It has somewhat hairy, deciduous and palmate leaves remotely reminding one of those of  horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum, Sapindaceae).

Recent studies show the roots contain ecdysteroids, which are insect hormones (ecdysis=moulting). The compounds disrupt the larval development and are thus pesticides. Some believe they have medicinal value in humans too.

The reason why I paid attention to the tree in the first place was that most of its outer bark had been eaten by termites, including most of the lichens! I agree with our Thai head gardener that this is nothing to worry about. It is like a fish spa for trees!

If you know anything interesting about this tree, please let me know!

Eric Danell

Star of Bethlehem, now in blossom at Dokmai Garden, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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