Borneo-mahogany in Chiang Mai
If I blogged about one native Thai plant per day, it would take me 32 years to do them all, plus another 4-5 years to do the most common exotic garden plants. If I intended to write a daily blog about all of Earth’s hitherto known flowering plants it would take me 821 years. Still, summarizing a little bit of experience every day stimulates my brain and helps my memory, and hopefully Dokmai Dogma will swiftly introduce newcomers to the plants you find in the Chiang Mai province. It brings me satisfaction that there are more pleasant surprises out there no matter how many decades you spend admiring mother nature.
The Borneo mahogany (Calophyllum inophyllum) is in blossom at Dokmai Garden right now. I have only mentioned it in a previous blog when we visited Krabi in southern Thailand. Although native to the beaches and lowlands of southern and central Thailand, India and Southeast Asia, it grows well here at Dokmai Garden in northern Thailand. The flowers resemble its native cousin Mammea siamensis which we also grow, and in Northern Thai language Borneo mahogany is called ‘salapee (=saraphi) naen’ and Mammea siamensis ‘salapee’. Both are cousins with the native and royal ironwood tree (Mesua ferrea), ‘salapee doi’ in northern Thai language, ‘bunnak’ in Central Thai language.
The white flowers and the glabrous leaves may resemble a Shima or Camellia from the tea family (Theaceae). Unlike camellias the Borneo mahogany, originally placed in the mangosteen family Clusiaceae (Guttiferae), has a white latex and opposite leaves. Modern molecular research (2009) splits Calophyllum, Mammea and Mesua from its old family, Clusiaceae, and puts them in the separate family Calophyllaceae, coined by the Swedish botanist Jacob Georg Agardh already in 1858. I believe this makes sence since Garcinia (mangosteen and 200 other species) flowers are small and stiff, quite different from the flowers of Calophyllaceae.
Although the Borneo mahogany grows slowly, its evergreen glabrous foliage and beautiful flowers are worth waiting for, and the timber is hard and useful. Being salt tolerant makes it a choice tree for beach-side gardens. At Dokmai garden we have a sandy and pH neutral soil, and we irrigate the lawn around this tree all year round.
The fruits from earlier blossom this year are now ripening. They remain smooth and green for a long time, quite attractive too, turning brown with a papery peel. Inside you find a nut which is traditionally used as a lamp fuel and skin medicine. It is also used by Body Shop and other cosmetic producers (Tongan oil or tamanu oil). You can order a simple oil press run by hand (no fuel) from Piteba. Dokmai Garden VIP card holders can pick up some seeds for free.
The genus Calophyllum contains 187 species, mostly Indomalayan. The name was coined by Linnaeus in 1753. It is derived from Greek ‘kalos’ (beautiful) and ‘phyllon’ (leaf). Inophyllum is derived from Greek ‘inodes’ meaning fibrous. The fibrous nature of the leaves is particularly evident from herbarium specimens, and I doubt Linnaeus ever saw a living specimen. I wai a gentleman who names a plant after its attractive leaves, not being solely obsessed by flowers.
Text & photo, Dokmai Dogma blog 791: Eric Danell