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Instead of Eucalyptus

May 5, 2012

Eucalyptus plantations are common in northeastern Thailand as a source of cheap low quality wood and fiber for paper pulp. Adjacent farmlands have had problems with a lowered water table and angry farmers have occasionally burnt down such monocultures of exotic trees. The eucalypt leaf litter and water consumption have wiped out most understorey plants creating a biodiversity desert.

The Thai government and researchers have taken this problem seriously. As a result of screening hundreds of tree species (there are 1100 wild tree species just here in northern Thailand) for their fiber qualities and impact on the environment, the government now promotes Anthocephalus chinensis (Rubiaceae):

The tree grows wild in the nearby Opkhan national park, and this specimen can be seen at the Dokmai Garden parking. It can be acquired from many Thai nurseries. Since this has become a commonly planted tree also in gardens there is a need for an English name. How about ‘flash of wood’? The scientific name means ‘Chinese flowerhead’.

It is common in the lowlands of India and Southeast Asia, being a pioneer species after deforestation. It does not stunt other vegetation like eucalypts and is not as water consuming either. Its leaves are appreciated by the edible red ants. Although evergreen it does not provide a deep shade, and the speed of growth may imply this is not a long-lived tree nor a strong wood, so be careful not to plant it too close to buildings.

Eric Danell

14 Comments leave one →
  1. David Cooke permalink
    May 5, 2012 11:04 AM

    Anthocephalus chinensis is apparently a synonym for Anthocephalus cadamba, or even Neolamarckia cadamba known as the Kadam tree. I looked it up on Google as I hadn’t heard of Anthocephalus before.
    I agree about the cultivation of Eucalyptus, even in Portugal the ways of the peasants was changed radically when much of the indigenous forests were largely replaced with Eucalyptus about 50 years ago. A completely silent, hostile graveyard devoid of plant or animal life is the result.

    • May 5, 2012 11:39 AM

      Indeed the nomenclature is very complicated. Simon Gardner et al. (2007) use the name Anthocephalus chinensis and lists A. cadamba as a synonym. Christian Puff who writes the Rubiaceae chapter for Flora of Thailand also uses A. chinensis as the valid name in his 2005 publication (Rubiaceae of Thailand). The Kew Gardens plant list claims Anthocephalus chinensis Walp and Anthocephalus chinensis (Lam.) Hassk. are not accepted but synonyms of Breonia chinensis (Lam.) Capuron and Neonauclea purpurea (Roxb.) Merr. The plant list further claims that Anthocephalus cadamba (Roxb.) Miq. is a synonym of Neolamarckia cadamba (Roxb.) Bosser which they treat as an accepted name. Puff lists Neolamarckia cadamba as synonymous with A. chinensis. Until I get a recent revision of these genera I stick with Christian Puff (2005).


      • David Cooke permalink
        May 5, 2012 11:51 AM

        yup! I have sworn before not to get mixed up with nomenclature, The name Kadamba goes back into Hindu and Buddhist mythology, so on the basis of first come first served, I think that the word Kadamba should be in there somewhere. However I beg not to differ! I must say that the flowers certainly don’t look like Rubiaceae to me, so that shows how much I know.

      • May 5, 2012 12:13 PM

        If A. chinensis and A. cadamba are conspecific then we could absolutely use ‘kadamba’ as an ancient name also in English (similar to ‘santol’, being a Malayan name for Sandoricum koetjape now used widely as the English name). Sometimes I am afraid of using one area’s local name as the English vernacular name, because it may not be representative of its range and because the name might be applied differently in another region causing confusion.

        Selection of the scientific name is regulated by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants (2011). It dictates that the oldest scientific name has priority. ‘Oldest’ refers to the date of the species description (since Linnaeus ‘Species Pantarum 1753’), not to how old the original form of the species epithet is.


      • jan whitehall permalink
        May 6, 2012 8:38 AM

        Much ‘friendlier’ than the eucalyptus, and, according to my Thai neighbours, you can eat the fruit as well. Kadam tree or Kadamba have a nice sound to them.

      • May 6, 2012 1:24 PM

        Edible! The tree suddenly became even more interesting – thank you for sharing this valuable information.

        Cheers, Eric

      • David Cooke permalink
        May 6, 2012 1:48 PM

        my point of view is that if Carl L. had had the information at hand, he would (or should) have included the oldest name available (in this case it would have been Kadamba) in the name. I believe that many pseudo-scientific names were taken from ancient Greek works of people like Dioscorides, who described, in as scientific a fashion as he was capable of, certain medicinal plants. These names were used by Linné’s followers as a source of plant names, they were using the oldest source available to them, a tradition that should be continued I feel. However apparently only nomenclature that has been established post Carl L. are now accepted. I think that this is a small change in the rules. I can’t recall exactly but it does sound like typical botanist obscurantism to me.
        When morphology as a method of classifying plants gives way to DNA phylogeny, the whole plant classification system will be stood on its head and shaken anyway. There will be moaning and a gnashing of teeth, I can tell you!

      • May 6, 2012 4:05 PM

        The eminent DNA technique helps the biologists to create pedigrees of the different species, genera, families and orders. This routine technique has been widely used for at least 15 years already, and indeed in some cases we have had great surprises (such as Taccaceae being part of Dioscoreaceae).

        In many cases a multitude of scientific names have been discovered to be many names for one species, simply because previous authors used very small morphological differences to make a new species description. When such a lumping event occurs, one selects the oldest scientific name, unless a younger scientific name has been used much more than an older name, and then scientists can apply for an exception, referring to reasons for conservation.

        In other cases, a scientific name is in fact an umbrella for many species. Suspected ecological differences may indeed indicate different biological species uncapable of interbreeding, and then the DNA technique helps resolving such questions. This discussion is further explained by e.g. Johannesson et al. 2003.

        As to the scientific naming, it is entirely up to the biologist first describing a species. Since modern biology was invented in Europe most names until very recently reflect that culture, but lately many Asian names have been Latinized (sootepensis for example) which is good, because we are running out of unique names.


  2. Ricky permalink
    May 5, 2012 9:51 PM

    Trees in SE Asia so remote from England do not need an English name .

    They need a name in the local vernacular and a Latin or Scientific name just as Carl Linne and thousands of scientists since have used to good purpose.

    • May 6, 2012 1:39 PM

      When I was a newcomer to Thailand I shared your opinion, but after living here for a few years, meeting settlers and tourists with just a general garden or nature interest, neither a scientific name nor a local village name say much. To create an interest for the native plants and the native ecosystems, we need English names too. That is particularly important for the orchids and their conservation.

      Back in Sweden when we tried to make Swedish politicians excited about endangered plants, moths, lichens and mushrooms, scientific names were as useless as Chinese names! We had to create new and exciting names! Here in Chiang Mai there are at least 800 Swedes, 6000 Americans, British and Germans, and many more settlers from other nations. English names are needed to get a settler beyond the coconut stage, not more strange than English names for Thai birds. Knowing English names may encourage people reporting rare species. Next step is appreciating the ingenious scientific naming system.

      Cheers, Eric

      • David Cooke permalink
        May 6, 2012 4:26 PM

        sorry, I have time on my hands today. It can be vexing, after having taken the trouble to learn the Latin names in order to be able to communicate with botanists worldwide, to be constantly asked, ‘how do you say that in English?’ Luckily we don’t have to invent an English word for things like ‘Iris’ or ‘Clematis’ but people’s minds seem to go numb if you say something like ‘Geum’. (In English, Avens, which is complete nonsense to me as it sounds very much like Avena, oat).
        I wonder what a little Roman child 2000 years ago would have said if you told him a plant was called ‘buttercup’. He would have burst into tears and asked, Mami, what’s that in Latin? Ah Ranunculus, why can’t he say so?

      • May 6, 2012 4:58 PM

        Many Roman names were quite different from the scientific Latin names coined by the scientists since 1753. In many cases the scientists just picked a name from literature without researching what the Romans actually meant. Roman ‘Boletus’ referred to what the scientists today call ‘Amanita caesarea’, while the scientific name ‘Boletus’ is the genus name for cepe. Roman ‘piper longum’ is probably what the scientists today call ‘Piper retrofractum’.

        ‘Ranunculus’ means ‘little frog’ in Latin, but I doubt all Romans used that name, mentioned by Pliny the elder. Like in Thailand today or Sweden around 1830, there were probably many Roman village names, district names and regional names. Botany was a total mess until Linnaeus brought some order, enabling discussions about botany with people outside your home village or home country.


  3. John Hobday permalink
    May 10, 2012 3:52 PM

    All very interesting but what is the Thai name for this useful tree.

    • May 10, 2012 4:03 PM

      A most relevant question: ‘kra thum’ seems like the most common name in northern and central Thai. Smitinand lists 17 other local names but a governmental nursery should recognize ‘kra thum’.

      Cheers, Eric

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