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December 31, 2012

Today on New Year’s Eve the Dokmai Dogma blog celebrates 800 posts. This beautiful number, composed of an 8, a symbol of eternity and rebirth, followed by two Indian decimal zeros resembling Dharma wheels, deserves a special blog. I have selected the only sacred tree in Thailand; the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa, Moraceae). In Central Thai language it is called ‘ton pho’, or in more ceremonial situations ‘ton pho si maha pho’ (‘pho’ is pronounced ‘paw’). The tree’s scientific name was coined by the Swedish gentleman Linnaeus on page 1059 in Species Plantarum from 1753.


According to legends, Siddartha Gautama sat down under a Bodhi tree, declaring he would not arise until he had found the cause of life’s suffering and the method to find peace. After 49 days of meditation he reached Enlightenment, the answers to his questions, and became a Buddha. As such he would never be reborn, blessed from pain and suffering in a stage called ‘nirvana’ in Sanskrit, ‘nibbana’ in Pali and ‘nippan’ in Thai. At first he concluded people were greedy, hateful and ignorant and so impossible to teach, but luckily he changed his mind and spent the remainder of his 45 years teaching his method. The place of his Enlightenment was Bodh Gaya in the Indian state Bihar, and it happened 2600 years ago.

It is believed that seeds and cuttings from the original tree were transferred to other Buddhist temples in India and then to Sri Lanka (3rd century BC). From Sri Lanka theravada Buddhism reached pre-Thai speaking Kingdoms (located where Thailand is today) such as Dvaravati in the 8th century AD. It became a state religion in the Thai kingdom Sukhothai in the 13th century AD.

Since Dokmai Garden aims at introducing a visitor to the nature and culture of northern Thailand, such an important tree has to be grown in the garden. It spreads easily by seeds and grows in cracks of roads and walls downtown Chiang Mai. Ketsanee told me I was not allowed to transplant a seedling but a monk said indeed he could bless its transfer to a safer environment. Ketsanee remarked that this monk had a wrist watch and a cellular phone, and in her orthodox eyes therefore not a ‘real monk’. Since you’d better obey your wife or face eternal wrath I figured we could simply direct visiting guests to the nearest temple.

One day the tree was here! At first Ketsanee was not pleased at all, suspecting I had disobeyed, but I explained that I would never have planted it in a mango tree where I found it. A bird had probably had a feast on the Bodhi fruits at a nearby temple, and then moved on to Dokmai Garden to have a mango dessert and an overnight stay, and so the seed germinated in a splatter of bird manure.

Ficus religiosa.strangler.22Dec.2012.72

The Dokmai Garden Bodhi tree is epiphytic. Being a strangler fig, it has already begun wrapping its roots around the mango which will be killed and replaced by the fig. I think this is a milestone in the evolution of the garden, since the landscape will look very different when this toddler turns into a giant, wrapped in sacred orange ribbons.

Ficus religiosa.Rhytisma.Dec22.72

What happens to the leaves when they die? Some maintain their beautiful vascular systems resulting in a net-like structure, often dyed and used for making post cards. Some leaves, like this one, develop tar spots due to the presence of a parasitic fungus (Rhytisma sp.). I find the death of the leaf and its rebirth into a fungus (or the recombinations of the carbohydrates and other biomolecules if you want a more chemical phrasing) neatly alludes to the Buddhist legends. I am fascinated by the tranquil beauty of these senescent leaves. The black tar spots (stromata) will crack open and display sticky ascospores later, probably in the rainy season (May). I have not yet seen this tar spot on any other of our fig species. Reports are welcome! Mycobank lists 197 names beginning with Rhytisma of which the majority are legitimate names.

For our foreign readers, it can be interesting to contemplate that most Thais have never even heard of Dalai Lama, treated as the only Buddhist leader by the westerners. There are many branches and sects of Buddhism even within Thailand, and animist Buddha worshippers may also pray to other spirits and Hindu gods. Orthodox and Catholic Christians who pray to Saint Josaphat pray to a Christianized version of Siddartha Gautama. Some Buddhist sects believe Lord Buddha will be reborn like a Messiah, and this Maitreya Buddha is often depicted with the flower of ironwood (Mesua ferrea, Calophyllaceae) in his hand. To some Hindu, Lord Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu (Rama), and so were the Thai kings according to many Buddhists.

Another tree you may see on Thai temple murals is ‘sala’, the tree under which Lord Buddha was born.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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