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Visit to Chiang Rai III: Jungle vanilla!

July 17, 2011

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.

Eric Danell

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Leticia permalink
    August 27, 2011 9:07 PM

    Amazing nature!

  2. kentiopsis permalink
    February 28, 2012 6:15 AM

    Thanks so much for that post, Eric. How do you pronounce griffithii? How many syllables? Some palm society folks pronounced the final double-i of such specific names with two syllables: eee-eye. Others pronounced them as a single syllable: eye. I’d love to get a professional opinion.

    • February 28, 2012 11:58 PM

      Latin is difficult and I am not a language person. As a biology student I initiated extra evening classes for any student interested, engaging the only botany professor at Uppsala University at the time (about 20 years ago) with a reputation of knowing his Latin (the retired Dr Lennart Holm).

      Dr Holm also spoke fluent French, German and English, wrote his PhD thesis is French. As a young teacher he was feared for never showing mercy when someone was wrong. As an older gentleman he became wiser and showed a more generous attitude towards us who had crippled minds. Dr Holm was the man other biologists consulted for writing species descriptions, which until last year always had to be in Latin. From last year the botanical code allows a species description to be written in English. I do not really see the point with this since an experienced taxonomist must grasp Latin anyhow to be able to read the original descriptions. I think the reason for the change is that we can all more or less read a Latin species description, but to write it correctly is terribly difficult, and there are so few masters left to consult. Although wrong, in this case I can not but help thinking of the Roman belief that every generation deteriorates.

      What we consider scientific Latin is based on medieval Church Latin, and not classical Roman Latin.

      In my ears, shaped by Dr Holm, modern English-speaking biologists pronounce scientific Latin as if it was English. I have adapted to that fact, since the main aim is to make people understand the subject at hand rather than cause confusion due to differences in language. When I speak English to visitors, I should pronounce ‘griffithii’ i-eye, but if I meet Swedes or Germans, I should pronounce ‘th’ as ‘t’ and ‘ii’ as ‘e-e’ (almost like the word ‘grafitti’ but with ‘i’ instead of ‘a’ and with a double ‘e-e’ at the end).

      A classical confusing caused by different traditions is the simple ‘Pinus’ (the scientific and Roman name for pine). An American would pronounce the name as if it was an American word (‘pie-nus’), but a more correct medieval European pronounciation would be ‘pee-nos’ which in the ears of American college students would sound like ‘penis’.

      Once I attended a botanical lecture in Oregon held by a German professor. Later the American students told me about their agony; losing concentration for the subject and simply counting ‘penises’ and trying to suppress loud laughter. Dr Holm would have dismissed these students as kindergarten toddlers because the German professor was correct.

      This was a long answer for a simple question. I feel like grandpa Simpson, but I guess that is how old brains work.

      Cheers, Eric

  3. thomas bricker permalink
    July 23, 2013 12:40 PM

    will this produce a vanilla bean like it’s commercial counter part?

    • July 23, 2013 3:14 PM

      Dear Thomas,

      The vanilla capsule is huge! Ongoing research at the Mahidol University will eventually answer the question whether or not it can be gastronomically and commercially utilized.

      Cheers, Eric

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