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An Echo of Paradise

May 30, 2011

Yesterday’s blog on threatened Thai plants received a lot of attention and several people asked me to show pictures of the local threatened tree Stereospermum neuranthum (Bignoniaceae). Luckily, it is in blossom now, so Ruben and I checked out the trees. Unfortunately most of the big ones have been recently logged. Current land developments around Dokmai Garden have increased the pressure on unfenced land, and I can hear the axes in the night when farmers and workers harvest wood for cooking or for making temporary fence posts around their arable lands. Although it felt bad to lose those trees, Ruben and I know another tree just opposite to the Dokmai Garden parking, in a fenced teak plantation. The pictures below are from this tree.

To make a plant wanted and appreciated by the many foreign settlers in Chiang Mai, and not dismissed as a useless shrub, an English name is needed in addition to the more informative but cryptic scientific name. Local names could inspire an English name: The Thai name ‘kae han hae’ used in Simon Gardner’s book is a province name from Lampang. ‘Kae’ simply refers to any tree of Bignoniaceae, ‘han’ means twisted and probably refers to the twisted fruit and ‘he’ is obscure to us. Other Thai names refer to sand or forest, but the Chiang Mai name ‘Khae kong’ or ‘echo bignonia’ is interesting. Before I knew about this name, I played with the English word ‘echo’ too, because to me this spectacular tree is like an echo of the old Thailand, or an echo of himapahn (the Buddhist paradise). The shape of the flower reminds one of a calling mouth of some troll or ancient extinct being with strange lips. I also think of the fantasy flowers created by the artist Karl Axel Pehrson. To make the knowledge of the Thai flora popular, we hereby launch the English name ‘echo of paradise’ (who would cut it down now?).

If you grow such a tree in your garden the cut flowers stay firm for quite some time without water, so you could use them for beautiful dining table arrangements, adding a local and exclusive touch. Since the wood is strong, you or your descendants may eventually harvest the timber, given you have established new tree generations.

The fruits are ripe in December-January, but I actually found one fruit now. It still had seeds, and being adapted to lowland dry deciduous monsoon forests (jungles), the seeds may still be viable. I planted some in a mix of sand and compost – we shall see. In nature the seeds should hit ground and germinate in the early rainy season, which is now. Do not try to dig up small saplings of any lowland jungle plant. Normally they have surprisingly deep roots and you will probably just mortally damage them, unintentionally aiding to their disappearance.

Eric Danell & Ketsanee Seehamongkol

The ‘Echo of Paradise’ has a  morphology more elaborate than any science fiction organism!

Blister beetles (Mylabris phalerata, Meloidae) eat the flowers, and may even attack orchid flowers. The beetles defend themselves by excreting cantharidin which causes dermatitis, so be careful! Cantharidin has been used to treat warts (killing both skin and virus).

Off the flowering season the tree is characterized by 30 cm long compound leaves with a large broad leaf at the tip. The leaflets are slightly hairy. The flower to the right is 6 cm long including the calyx. The dry twisted fruits (left) carrying small winged fruits can reach 60 cm or more.

Updated August 3, 2011: Two seedlings have emerged. Are they the correct species or weeds? They seem woody and young leaves often differ from mature leaves. We wait and see. To the lower left is a cutting I took today. Cuttings of this species tend to be hollow, and such cuttings are usually useless for propagation. To my experience other native members of Bignoniaceae are easily propagated from cuttings, such as Dolichandrone serrulata. The blossom I mentioned in the text above did not result in fruits, probably due to the hungry beetles. I can see a new flush of flowers emerge now, a bit unusual. Eric

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