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I taste like king bolete mushrooms and Stevia leaves – what am I?

July 24, 2011

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

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2011 1:24 AM

    Let me know if you decide to distribute seed.
    Sounds like it would make excellent lasagna!

    • July 25, 2011 1:35 AM

      I am sure nived will become more common, and we are happy if the world tries out its uses. We got no seeds from the recent flowering, so maybe we lack a suitable pollinator. We shall take cuttings to start with.

      Cheers, Eric

  2. July 25, 2011 9:10 AM

    Please collect some seeds so we can propagate this interesting plant.

    For comparison please check the flickr.com

    photo
    Phlogacanthus pulcherrimus T. Anderson

    Khlong Phai, Nakhon Ratchasima

    • July 25, 2011 10:01 AM

      Dear Ricky,

      Yes, we should hunt for seeds, but so far none. Cuttings may do the trick in the beginning. Yes, I saw that a couple of pictures on the net are very similar to our species, but since the nomenclature is unresolved according to the Plant List we simply have to wait until an authority publishes a treatment of Acanthaceae in Southeast Asia.

  3. Nora Orito permalink
    August 25, 2011 9:43 PM

    It’s a beautiful plant. I would love to taste it myself.

  4. kipsiedoodle permalink
    February 15, 2016 11:49 AM

    At long last I have an ident for this plant that I came across growing on the roadside in a village outside Chiang Rai last year …

    • August 8, 2016 3:05 PM

      Dear Mark,

      It turns out this species is unsuitable to the dry climate of northern and northeast of Thailand. Look for something more drought tolerant.

      Cheers, Eric

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