I taste like king bolete mushrooms and Stevia leaves – what am I?
For a few years I have been puzzled by an edible plant brought to Dokmai Garden by one of our gardeners. The origin is the small village Mae Kanin Tai in the Opkhan national park, 30 minutes from Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
Many distinguished botanists have visited us, but everyone have been equally confused. It is a tall perennial plant, 170 cm, with maroon blossom in May and leaves with the strangest flavour combination: like king bolete mushrooms (Boletus edulis) and the sweetener of Stevia rebaudiana (Asteraceae). A Swedish visitor who came here yesterday remarked that the flavour is a bit like the sweet rhizome of the fern Polypodium vulgare (Polypodiaceae), but I still find it more mushroomy. I eat the leaves raw and the locals use it in their lap, i.e. minced meat mixtures. It is a native jungle plant, but what is it?
Ethnobotanist Pavlos Georgiades collected the plant here at Dokmai Garden and he aims at sending it to the herbaria at Harvard, Edinburgh and Leiden. The other night I met with James Maxwell who is the curator of the Chiang Mai University herbarium, and he and Pavlos Georgiades suggested it is Phlogacanthus datii. Kew Gardens Plant List does not mention this taxon, but 48 other Phlogacanthus, of which 47 remain ‘unsolved’. There is a Cystacanthus datii, also unresolved.
A quick browse on internet shows pictures of similar flowers which are named Phlogacanthus pulcherrimus, also unresolved according to Kew. This means there is an ongoing review of what on earth the original authors meant when they described new species in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Smitinand does not mention Cystacanthus at all and only two Phlogacanthus, but neither fits this plant.
The hard truth is that the botanical science is not really sure what this species is. An English name is needed too, because I am sure the avant garde cuisine of the world will embrace a new sensation for the tongue. We need something short and simple, like ‘basil’ or ‘broccoli’, preferably alluding to something Thai. I propose ‘nived’, after Nived Seehamongkol, the humble herb master at Dokmai Garden who cared for this plant while the rest of us had no clue what it was or how to cook it.
Welcome to the tropics, welcome to Thailand, and welcome to Dokmai Garden, where we can offer a taste of the botanical frontier.
Tall, tasty and adorable – but nived is hardly known outside the jungle villages. What other treasures for the tongue can we find out there?
Text and photo: Eric Danell