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A Thai Vanilla without leaves

August 24, 2011

Yesterday Dokmai Garden arranged for a tour to Chiang Dao to visit Kurt Keller and his orchid collection. He and his Thai wife Malee runs Malee’s Nature Lovers Bungalows. Kurt has an interesting background. He was born in Switzerland and in junior highschool he became an exchange student and spent a year in California. One of his classmates was Steve Jobs. Kurt began working within photography and studied the physics of photo chemistry. Kurt’s orchid collection contains some 300 species, the majority acquired just in three years from various CITES certified specialty dealers. The collection helps Kurt identify species in the surrounding Wildlife Sanctuary Chiang Dao. Kurt has also volunteered to become an Orchid Scout, i.e. to share his field observations about natural habitats with the Orchid Ark.

It is always good to study many different orchid nurseries. Kurt’s nursery at 450 meters above the sea level is fairly lightly shaded (less than 50%) because he says he gets more blossom if it is lighter. He keeps the orchids hanging well above one metre to reduce standing moisture which may cause rot. Orchids demanding more shade are hung under orchids which are more light demanding. As to watering, he, like myself, prefers to do the watering himself by hand. This allows for frequent control of what is going on, i.e. control of pests, general health and of course when a flower is about to bloom. Kurt only waters once a day. The textbook recommendation is to water in the morning so that the orchids can dry out during the day, thereby avoiding rot. We both agreed though that at least in this climate following the monsoon must be successful too, i.e. to water in the early evening which is the normal time for the rains to commence.

Kurt’s garden is so well kept that indigenous orchid species like Acriopsis indica show up like weeds, even on the wooden panels of the bungalows.

Among Kurt’s many enchanting species is for example Dendrobium cruentum, a rare and endangered species from the south of Thailand. He said he had never seen any fruits, so we hand pollinated one flower and Kurt generously declared that he would donate the fruit to the Orchid Ark if successful.

Another curiosity is Vanilla aphylla. Although not in blossom, it was most interesting to see an almost leafless Vanilla. This indigenous orchid plant makes most of its carbohydrates via the chlorophyll of the stem, and possibly also derives some via the orchid mycorrhiza fungus. Kurt grows one in the ground which climbs up the bark of a palm, and he keeps two specimens in perforated plastic bags with sand stuffed into hanging baskets. Kurt generously shared this peculiar species with the Orchid Ark, for which we are most grateful.

A surprise treat was a show of 3D pictures of Kurt’s orchids. That was simply AMAZING! Here we could see the flower of the leafless vanilla, magnified to about a meter in three dimensions. It felt as if I hold the flower in my lap! For this you need a normal camera for taking macro pictures, you always take two pictures of the same object from different angles (move to the side about 3% of the distance to the object), you need a special program (Stereophotomaker), you need a special 3D TV and you need high resolution 3D glasses. We discussed this technique thoroughly and we decided to investigate if this could be used by the Orchid Ark as a pedagogic tool to create an interest in endangered but small orchids.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch with home baked bread, and we noticed that in spite of the rainy season (today was a gorgeous day) Kurt and Malee had many guests. We believe the warm and welcoming atmosphere is the explanation. Kurt said that the bird watchers dominate the guests, but I hope in the future the garden world will discover the botanical treasures in the Chiang Mai province. We hope to be back soon and to visit the mountain in late October or early November, just at the beginning of the dry season.

Kurt and Malee grow many other plants than orchids. Here is a fantastic Siamese tulip (Curcuma sp.).

Leafless vanilla (Vanilla aphylla, Orchidaceae). To the left is a reduced leaf. To the right is an aerial root. The main stem is in the centre.

When Paphiopedilum orchids are grown in the laboratory, flasks with nutrient medium is used. In this case Kurt thought the plants looked too nice to be withdrawn, and so he simply cut holes and added new substrate. Quite an artistic result!

The mountain Chiang Dao as seen from the village Chiang Dao. It is a Permian calcareous rock reaching 2225 meters. In January in the year 2000, the temperature at 2100 meters was -8°C! The Dendrobium orchid species at that elevation still survived, which is an important observation to understand that temperature is not the reason why there are no epiphytic orchids in Europe.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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