Visit to Chiang Rai III: Jungle vanilla!
In a previous blog I described the cultivation of commercial vanilla, Vanilla planifolia (Orchidaceae) from South America.
In Thailand there are four species of wild vanillas, of which V. griffithii is explored as a potential indigenous crop. This species grows at Dokmai Garden.
The rarest and so far the only Vanilla enlisted as endangered, is Vanilla siamensis. We have a specimen at Dokmai garden which we bought, but to see a wild strain in nature is exceptionally rare. During my stay in Chiang Rai I explored a site together with a local guide. Due to the difficulties of the terrain we decided beforehand that if it was rainy we should cancel. Luckily, the rain began when we had already walked a kilometre into the jungle, and there was no point in returning, so we kept sliding forward for another 2 km. Thanks to a massive limestone ridge, land leeches, slippery soil and dense bamboos this location is hard to access. A small strip of land, 20-30 m broad, is protected from the farmers’ fires by two streams. This refuge of original nature hosted, to my great surprise, a massive specimen of this highly endangered orchid, which does not seem to be reported from the Chiang Rai province before. It is restricted to northern Thailand and southern Yunnan (China), not reported from Laos nor Burma.
I believe it is one huge specimen running up and down the tree branches, maybe over 100 meters. It is in perfect condition, with huge broad leaves, very long fruits and thick juicy stems.
It is sad that the large pieces of the vanilla which hang down into the stream, can not be legally collected for conservation, but will succumb when the big rains bring debris which will cut of the brittle vanilla stems.
We have discussed how to best protect this specimen. Alerting local authorities is no option due to corruption. Teaching villagers to show it to tourists for money is no option either, as somebody who does not make any money will steal it. We think we can only work on changing the law to allow salvation picking permits to save a piece of the genotype within the Orchid Ark, and until such a change in the law we keep monitoring it, surveying the area for more individuals.
The area is a national park, officially protected, but since rangers do not get paid in months and since farmers bring dogs, guns and fire, a Thai national park does not offer much of protection. Frankly, fencing off the national parks from cows, dogs and thieves would be the best way to save the flora and fauna. The Thai national parks constitute a national monument of tremendous value, dwarfing the Egyptian pyramids and London’s Big Ben. Education and eradication of poverty are essential elements to bring the Thais into a stage where they would care for nature. I hope future generations of Thais can enjoy their treasures and make money from ecotourism, but currently this gold mine is wide open to looters.
Some vanilla stems hang down into the dry stream (left of the centre rock). Old picture.
A peculiar trait of Siamese vanilla are the fleshy papillae of the flower’s lip. The whole plant is almost succulent in its appearance. It is more sturdy and fleshy than its commercial relatives, and the leaves are much broader and fleshier. This picture was taken earlier this year. Due to the heavy rainfall two days ago when I visited the site (July 15, 2011) I was unable to take any pictures.