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Blossom in the rainy season

May 6, 2012

This morning I woke up surrounded by the music of rain. An early morning stroll in the garden made me think how amazingly beautiful the rainy season is. The whole landscape has changed colours in just a couple of days. There are all shades of green, from the lightest yellow-green to a deeper maroon-green. A majestic Amorphophallus paeoniifolius (Araceae) is about to bloom, and the rare Firmiana colorata (Malvaceae) has already made new leaves (always looks dead in the dry season).

Unfortunately I slept too well last night, so when I woke up the rain meter was already full (35 mm). If I add those 35 mm to the continuous rain in the morning and lunch we have so far received at least 86 mm. This is not a problem, it is a blessing. The problems appear when we get such amount of precipitation in just one hour, like last year, twice!

This amount of rain will probably trigger termite swarms, frog choirs and in a  few days masses of mushrooms. It will also wake up zillions of butterflies. Many times I have remarked that of the 1000+ plant species at Dokmai Garden the South American ‘golden dew drop’ (Duranta erecta, Verbenaceae) is the main nectar plant for butterflies.  This year, for the first time, I have a native Thai competitor. I observed it in the jungle being surrounded by a cloud of butterflies so I returned later to collect seeds. They germinated easily and one sapling is now mature enough to bloom. This rainy morning I took the opportunity of sitting down with my literature to try to identify it.

Its fringed white petals revealed its affinity with the genus Elaeocarpus (Elaeocarpaceae). This is a tropical family you hardly find in Europe or North America, so only specialized botany professors from those areas would know about them. Llamas eminent book on tropical garden plants and Wikipedia do not treat this plant genus which encompass some 350 species. The Thais know them as ornamentals (Elaeocarpus grandiflorus) or jungle fruits. The scientific name is derived from the Greek word ‘elaia’ meaning ‘olive’ and ‘karpos’ meaning ‘fruit’. However, this plant is not related to the olive trees (Olea europaea, Oleaceae), it is a superficial resemblance used by Linnaeus who described the genus.

The key of the Flora of Thailand 2:409 (1981) is technical, and the species description contains no remarks on ethnobotanical uses. That key demands the use of a dissecting microscope. Still, it is useful to consult several different keys to identify a species, and so I used this key and also that of Gardner et al. (2007). Both keys point at the same species: Elaeocarpus lanceifolius. While Gardner et al. (2007) claim it blooms in June and that it is found at mid elevation 800-1200 meters altitude, that may reflect the experience of the authors. Flora of Thailand claims it is more frequent at 300-450 meters altitude which coincides with where I found it. My plant blooms now which is also in accordance with Flora of Thailand. Its mother site was in the evergreen valley of Mae Kanin Tai south of Chiang Mai, but it may grow even in Savannahs. The worldwide range encompass India and Southeast Asia including Indonesia.

The main features for identification are small flowers (1 cm diameter, 8 mm long petals), mainly arranged in racemes in axils of fallen leaves, below the tuft of young leaves. The leaves are smooth without swollen stalks. The anthers lack a bristle at its apex (aristate).

To me, this is a rare garden plant, because you can not buy it anywhere.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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