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The lion’s mane orchid

September 13, 2013

The orchid Bulbophyllum ovatum (Orchidaceae) opened its first flowers ever at Dokmai Garden on the 8th of September.

Bulbophyllum ovatum.Sept.8.2013.72

The first day the flowers were bright orange, the following days they faded to a pale yellow. The flowers are tiny (a few mm) and only bloom for five days, so it is not strange this orchid has only been known to science since 1979. In addition, hitherto it has only been found in Thailand and here only in the Khao Luang national park in Nakhon Si Thammarat province in the south (there are many Khao Luang mountains in Thailand).

It is not included in the orchid books of the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Nantiya’s ‘Wild Orchids of Thailand’ nor the book ‘Bulbophyllum of Thailand’. Smitinand’s only Thai name is ‘singto phu thong’ which is likely to be a scientist’s name, not a folk name. Ketsanee translates it as ‘the golden lion’s mane’ but all Bulbophyllum are called singto (lion) in Thai, and probably alludes to the tooth-like flowering bud.  An English name is ‘The Egg-Shaped Bulbophyllum’ which does not add much to the scientific name and is quite boring.

Although Ketsanee describes this national park as a magic place, truly a part of unseen Thailand, not many tourists come to visit. In the eyes of an innocent Swede, an orchid must be safe if it is inside a national park protected by law. In reality, rubber tree plantations and orchid theft are serious threats. Recently this province has become known for violent protests by rubber farmers. Ecotourism would render sustainable income but that demands efforts; knowledge in English, biologists and educated rangers and guides, guide books in foreign languages, visitor’s centres, trails and hotels. It is easier to chop down the jungle, plant South American rubber trees and then turn cars upside down if the government does not pay enough for the rubber. The alternative is there, all it takes is funding from the government, a population willing to study and a non-corrupt project manager. There are good examples in Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.

A concern expressed among Thai biologists is that if there is money in a nature attraction, it will be transformed into a theme park to attract domestic mass tourism. Nature in itself has little value to the present generations, but rock concerts, golf courses and fields of tulips do. To market a national park with sensibility, the target should initially be foreign tourists and eventually the locals will be curious and try to find out what the fuzz is about. This is like appreciating Dali, Picasso and Magritte when there is kitsch.

A few decades ago the authorities of Queensland in Australia did not appreciate their natural treasures either, but that has dramatically changed thanks to international tourism and new and more educated generations. A facilitating marketing factor is that the Australians already speak English, and Malaysians share the same alphabet, while many Thais need to start from scratch. Those who do invest in an expensive education need to use their language skills to make money in business, not for saving orchids. Free schools in English with true teachers from English-speaking countries, and money rewards to students for passed exams may even out that basic language obstacle. Education does cost money, but if there is a will to invest 7 billion Baht  to buy 49 army tanks from Ukraine then money can not be a problem.

To market the national park then its endemic inhabitants need catchy English names, so I propose adopting a shortened version of the Thai name: ‘Lion’s mane orchid’.

The Orchid Ark received this precious orchid as a donation from Ekkehardt Schwardtke who runs the Lanta Orchid Nursery and the Orchid Garden Khaolak in southern Thailand.

My aim was to allow it to settle on its substrate during the rainy season, but when I returned to Chiang Mai in late August it had not. That observation, and the observation that many water demanding plants at Dokmai Garden seemed stressed, hints to me there has been a dry period this rainy season. Local northern Thai species do fine and the nearby jungles are as green as ever, but anything from a wetter climate have had a struggle. In  the home of the lion’s mane it rains for nine months. With daily supervision and watering there is no problem, but staff who have never travelled can not imagine that climate can be different elsewhere and so treat all plants as if they were local. The solution is to plant the orchid in a naturally moist area near the gardener’s house and explain this unique orchid’s value and importance to Thai nature.

We also acknowledge the kind donation of Roland Mogg, Chiang Mai.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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