Skip to content

After years of waiting – finally!

May 26, 2011

When visiting Roi-Et in Esan (northeastern Thailand) I took the opportunity of going to their national museum. This was unusually rich in artefacts and information, well worth a visit. I saw the raw lac, i.e. the scarlet clumps excreted by the insect Kerria lacca (Homoptera/Coccoidae) and used for making shellac as a wood varnish. It has also been used as an important pigment for silk, as a cosmetic, for leather tanning and as a fruit wax. Lac and indigo gave purple colours.

I asked where I could buy it, as it would be interesting to show such a famous and formerly important natural chemical. An experienced Thai lady said with sad eyes that the days of the lac are gone, everything is synthetic now. I spoke to friends about where to find the lac insect, indicating I should like to introduce it to Dokmai Garden for educational purposes. People said that they had seen lac harvesters working in the rain trees (Samanea saman, Fabaceae) on the road to Lampang.

Anyhow, yesterday afternoon when I tied some orchids to a young Shorea roxburghii (a very important and local timber tree of the Dipterocarpaceae family, now much reduced due to logging) I jumped of joy! Here and there I could see scarlet clumps of real lac, guarded by weaver ants!

If you abandon pesticides and fire, and introduce many plant species (currently 1046 plant species) you get many new guests such as fireflies (yesterday evening at 19.30 was spectacular), birds, butterflies and now the lac insect!

Harvested sticklac (the raw lack on a stick) is ground and purified into seedlack (look like grains). Highly purified lac dissolved in alcohol becomes shellac. Lacquer is a totally different substance, based on the sap from the lacquer tree Gluta usitata (Anacardiaceae). Lacquer was a sticky insecticidal substance used to coat bamboo baskets to make them last longer.

Updated on April 1, 2012: Apparently the search function does not include words and names included in comments. I shall contact WordPress about that, but to overcome the problem in this case I here mention that tung oil from Vernicia fordii, Vernicia montana and Aleurites moluccana (Euphorbiaceae) are mentioned in a comment below.

Welcome on Sunday to listen to Pavlos’s talk and to behold the lac, an important industrial product and trading commodity for thousands of years until the mid 1800’s when synthetic chemicals were invented.

Lac production as seen at Dokmai Garden. The sticklac is a protection for the insects. By excreting sugars they also attract the Praetorian Guard (weaver ants, Oecophylla smaragdina).

Lacquerware, here Chiang Mai style, is based on the sap from the lacquer tree which also grows at Dokmai Garden.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Bernard permalink
    June 4, 2011 1:59 AM

    Eric, I enjoyed reading the articles. Keep up the good work.

    Have you heard of Peter Williams operating orchid tours from Chiang Mai?

    Best wishes


    • June 4, 2011 9:45 AM

      Dear Bernard, We are happy you enjoy Dokmai Dogma. Yes, I have communicated with Peter and he has a standing invitation here, but everyone is busy, alas.


  2. June 16, 2011 8:50 PM

    A stunning transformation there. It’s great to trace back daily objects to nature’s origins.
    Is Lacquer a totally different substance? One dictionary maintains that lacquer, aside from being the sap of the lacquer tree, is a liquid made of shellac dissolved in alcohol. So shellac and lacquer apparently are synonyms (semanics :).
    It seems strange that only the animal-based lacquer, and not the plant based lacquer, is used to varnish lacquerware. Is this because it’s stronger varnish?

    • June 19, 2011 3:33 PM

      Dear Sophie,

      It took Roxburgh, who was head of the botanical garden in Calcutta in the 18th century, quite some time to figure out that the source of lacquer came from the tree Gluta usitata. This sap is toxic to workers as well as to insects, which is the reason it has been used to preserve baskets made of more fragile materials, such as bamboo. Lac insects are known from many parts of the world. I agree that the semantics cause confusion, especially since synthetic compounds are also called ‘lacquer’.

      Eric Danell

  3. sabairichard permalink
    March 31, 2012 3:26 PM

    This a great post Eric, thanks for the info, I remember mixing shellac as a kid for my Dad’s many woodworking projects.

    Does the Tung tree grow in this region, I haven’t been able to find Tung Oil anywhere here for my own projects??



    • April 1, 2012 8:53 AM

      The Tung tree is Vernicia fordii (Aleurites fordii, Euphorbiaceae). It has not been found here in the wild but is native to adjacent areas in China and Burma. No record for Laos. According to Flora of Thailand (that is a good book series for identification, but it has a very technical language) it grows in Mae yuak in Lampang and in Nan (Pong). The northern Thai name is ‘ma yao’. It should be considered a temperate species, not suitable for tropical lowlands.

      The relative Aleurites moluccana is better grown here as a source of medicin and oil (surprisingly not mentioned in Flora of Thailand). It is also called ‘ma yao’ in northern Thai.

      The best substitute for the real tung tree is its sister species Vernicia montana (‘ma yao liam’ in northern Thai). The oil is equally good and although not native to here it can grow in hot climate, reported even from Chiang Mai. If any reader finds a seed source, I should be happy to get some. The foliage is beautiful and the flowers are fragrant!


      • sabairichard permalink
        April 1, 2012 12:39 PM

        Thanks Eric, let me know if anyone slips you some seed. Any ideas on how the iol is extracted and from what part of the tree? Cheers Richard

      • April 1, 2012 7:42 PM

        The oil is a nutrient storage for the embryo inside the seed. By pressing the seed you get the oil. There is a Dutch producer of simple, cheap but eminent oil presses, aimed at developing countries. If you find his website, kindly post it here too.

        Cheers, Eric

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: