There is a tree, ’ton kwain’ in northern Thai language, which has lent its name to the 700 years old temple ’Wat Ton Kwain’. This temple is situated near the ’Ton Kwain’ intersection, ten minutes drive north of Dokmai Garden. That tree is in bloom now – but what is it?
I took a look at the temple’s ’ton kwain’ tree, neatly labeled in Thai. Based on its flowers being males only, and based on the absence of petals and alternating leaves with serrated margins, I concluded this is a tree related to the governor’s plum (Flacourtia indica, Salicaceae (Flacourtiaceae)). That tree is native here in northern Thailand and according to the locals the temple was originally situated in a grove of governor’s plum trees.
Another observation was that this tree, like the related Thai willow, was full of wild bees (Apis florea/A. cerana) loaded with pollen, but I saw no butterflies, making me conclude this is not a nectar (honey) source, but an important feed for the bee larvae. The tree at the temple grounds was infested with the Dendrophthtoe parasite and in demand of urgent pruning.
However, the particular tree on display within the temple grounds had much longer leaf tips than the wild male governor’s plum we keep at Dokmai Garden, and so I believe they have the exotic Flacourtia jangomas. ’Same same but different’!
This is a leaf of a real governor’s plum Flacourtia indica from Dokmai garden. Note how blunt the leaf tip is. Its natural range is not clear because it has been appreciated since Stone Age and so been moved around in tropical Africa, Asia and Polynesia. The international scientific name ‘Flacourtia‘ refers to Étienne de Flacourt, a director of the French East India Company and governor of Madagascar in 1648-1655.
The vernacular northern Thai name ’ma kwen’ (also transliterated ’kwain’ or ’makwen’) is applied on both species, although Smitinand uses ’ma kwen pa’ (=forest makwen) for F. indica and ’ma kwen khwai’ (=buffalo makwen) for F. jangomas. The Central Thai name is ‘ta khop pa’ (=forest ta khop) for F. indica and ‘ta khop khwai’ (=buffalo ta khop) for F. jangomas.
Flacourtia jangomas fruits have a nipple at the bottom and the leaves have long tapering tips (photo from June). To get the lovely dark red fruits you need a female tree as well! The fruits can be processed into jams and marmalades and are believed to be potent vermicides. The wood is strong but you never see any trees of impressive dimensions so the wood is mostly good for tool handles.
There is a ‘ta khop farang’ too (=foreign ta khop), much more common along the canal road, but that is the strawberry tree from South America (Muntingia calabura, Muntingiaceae). Superficially the strawberry tree’s small red fruits and white flowers resemble those of the governor’s plum, but the strawberry tree has androgynous flowers with petals. If you come to Dokmai Garden early in the morning, you may taste these delicious fruits before the bulbuls.
A funny remark is that in Lonely Planet’s 2009 edition of the ’Thailand’ travellers guide, the number one traveller’s delight was the traffic jam outside the Doi Suthep Temple in Chiang Mai. Considering Thailand’s amazing national park monuments, interesting architecture, delicious restaurants, picturesque villages and emerald rice fields it seems that the author had not seen much of Thailand but the tourist traps. Due to pilgrims and tourist vans the Doi Suthep Road is the busiest and most jammed road in town, and all locals try to avoid it. Unless you are a pilgrim I suggest you save stress, time and money by avoiding the tourist crowds, and pick a serene temple such as wat ton kwain:
(Precipitation report: on the 2:nd of February we received 5 mm of rain. The storm the other day ripped down Dokmai Garden road signs and shut down our internet, but we are now back in business again. To everyone who had to wait for our blogs and e-mail replies we apologize).