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The mother of a dragon boat

March 24, 2013

The famous Thai dragon boats are made of a native tree the Thais call ‘ton takien’ (Hopea odorata, Dipterocarpaceae). An English trade name for the wood is white thingan. The tree is in blossom right now at Dokmai Garden, and these are the first flowers since the seedling was planted six years ago. For anyone interested in native Thai flowers in general, March-April (the hot and dry season) is the peak.

Hopea odorata leaves and flowers.March23.2013.72The leaves are glabrous and elongated and the flowers small and neatly arranged.

Hopea odorata closeup.72A close-up photograph shows that the flowers are twisted just like in the larger flowers of its cousin the propeller tree (Dipterocarpus tuberculatus). I think of the spirals of galaxies. If you look at a leaf’s underside, you will notice an anatomical characteristic of Hopea odorata; the presence of pore-like domatia in the vein axils. A domatium (from Latin ‘domus’=house) is produced by the plant as a shelter for either guardian insects such as ants, or in this case for pollinating insects such as thrips.

Being a lowland tree and having a valuable timber makes large specimens rare in Thailand and the IUCN declares it is a vulnerable species. It prefers evergreen areas and so is favoured by streams and sheltered valleys. Field observations indicate that fire inhibits regeneration, while research plots without fire shows a rapid and prolific reproduction. Although most modern Thai farmers are afraid of the female spirit ‘pi-takien’ they believe resides in the tree, and which will haunt their house if they use its wood, most large trees have been logged and exported or used for temple sculptures.

The scientific name  Hopea was coined by the Scottish botanist William Roxburgh (1751-1815) and encompass 104 Indomalayan species, 13 0f which occur in Thailand. The genus Hopea was created in memory of another Scotsman; physician and botanist John Hope (1725-1786). The species Hopea odorata, named after its honey-fragrant flowers, was first published in Roxburgh’s book Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, volume 3, page 7 from 1819. An English vernacular name is ‘iron wood’ but that name is very unprecise and used for a range of similar hardwoods worldwide, including Hopea ferrea and Mesua ferrea (the Latin word ‘ferrum’ means iron).

Other lovely trees in bloom right now at Dokmai Garden are Mesua ferrea, Afzelia xylocarpa and Terminalia catappa.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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