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Songkran in Eslöv

May 3, 2014

During my exile in Sweden I sometimes feel homesick. Luckily there is a Buddhist temple, Wat Sanghabaramee in Eslöv, just half an hour’s drive from my Swedish home. I was invited to participate during the Songkran festivities, and without expectations I paid a visit there. Hundreds of cars jammed the countryside road so nearby fields had to be opened to create more parking lots. Rumour had it the Thai ambassador was inside the temple but it was so packed with people I stayed outside. Indeed I had stepped through a dimension door. The atmosphere was Thai with roaring music, market vendors and loads of delicious Thai food, although not truly spicy.

To my joy a nearby Swedish oak (Quercus robur) was traditionally wrapped with a girdle and offerings made to the tree’s spirit. Oaks (Quercus spp) are not exotic to the Thais. Smitinand lists over 30 indigenous species and many are called ‘ko’ in Thai languages. Unfortunately I never had the time to introduce any to Dokmai Garden, hoping future botanists will fill in that flaw. Quercus brandisiana grows abundantly in the nearby Opkhan national park.

Songkran in Eslöv


Would it be possible to create a northern Thai wooden library?

April 7, 2014

A week ago I took my Swedish arborist students to the library at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp. The aim was to study the 200 years old wooden library.



Larix sp.


Each of the 217 volumes was made from wood of a special tree species. You open a volume like a book, but it is in fact a wooden box containing dried leaves, fruits, seeds, roots, flowers, charcoal samples, bark, pollen and in some cases glass bottles believed to have contained sap. These volumes are not only artistically designed and skillfully made, but are also of great educational value for learning the woods of various tree species. I believe the reason why such wooden libraries no longer are manufactured is the cost as compared to printed books or internet pictures. Still, all 20 students agreed it would be fantastic if they had access to such a wooden library when they studied dendrology (although we booked a guided presentation we could only admire selected volumes behind glass; the bulk of the collection was kept inside a safe).

When I lived in Chiang Mai I investigated the possibilities numerous times to get hold of wood samples of various common indigenous species. Such wood samples would be of great educational value and could perhaps be sold as high quality souvenirs. Although Dokmai Garden is a neighbour of the most famous antique and carpenter street in Thailand, it was quite hard to get more than a dozen of properly identified wood samples. Teak (Tectona grandis, Lamiaceae) dominates the carpentry industry, and a handful of other domestic species are also used, such as Xylia xylocarpa (Fabaceae). It seems the great skills of past carpenters are largely lost today, a consequence of the extensive clear-cutting which in turn led to the logging ban in 1989, making native woods other than imported teak timber rare in the legal workshops.

Establishing Thai wooden libraries at Thai universities seems urgent due to the rapid loss of experienced craftsmen. The immense confusion caused by the inexact meaning of vernacular names, demands a carpenter walking together with a botanist to the forest to select suitable and properly identified trees.

Creating a complete northern Thai wooden library is almost impossible considering there are over 1100 native tree species just in northern Thailand. However, a summary of 200 representatives would still be most useful. The solution to the financial problem in Europe in the early 1800’s were subscriptions. A subscriber recieved a new volume when it was manufactured. An additional difficulty in the tropics is the threat of termites which may turn any wooden collection into powder, while the European collection we studied has stayed almost intact for 200 years.

In spite of the difficulties, I wish the Thai government could invest in a project to preserve, and display, the Thai carpenter’s knowledge about woods. A museum of woods and forests would be a unique and educational venue bridging flora with handicraft and biodiversity awareness.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell, book lover



Quercus robur

The 16th Flora of Thailand Conference

March 3, 2014

Although Dokmai Garden flourishes, tourism suffers as usual during times of political turbulence and embassy warnings. To keep up the spirits I have been asked to write a blog now and then from my exile here in Sweden.

At present I teach botany in Sweden, but a student of mine will spend a few weeks at Dokmai Garden to train his skills as an arborist. As mentioned before, our gigantic forest mango is in need of a tree surgeon to remove parasitic Dendrophthoe parasites.

Another piece of news is that Kew Gardens in Richmond/London will host the 16th Flora of Thailand Conference. I have been invited to give a talk about Dokmai Garden’s Orchid Ark. If more Orchid Arks appear as a result then I can die in peace. Dokmai Garden’s efforts with the Orchid Ark was recently published (Wearn & Schuiteman 2013: Plant Conservation in Thailand: Dokmai Garden and the Orchid Ark. National History Bulletin of the Siam Society 59(1):5-14).

Other reports from Dokmai Garden is that the weather was surprisingly wet this past cool season and fires unusually obnoxious. At present the hot flowering season has just began. The lambs run around as if they own the place and the experiment to keep sheep for mowing seems to have turned out well.

Here in Sweden we have had an unusually mild winter and a very early spring, so I have experienced a most agreeable transition from the tropics to more northern latitudes. Nature displays spectacular views  everywhere you go!

Dalby ring.72

Dalby Söderskog National park, Sweden.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

Self-replicating machines

October 14, 2013

John von Neumann explored the theoretical possibilities to construct self-replicating machines. This is not science fiction. At Dokmai Garden we have self-replicating lawn mowers based on the latest cellular nano-technology. The first flock of three is cheaper than one conventional lawn mower and neither batteries nor electrical cords are needed:

Bee Bee and Michael.72Bee-Bee delivered a healthy boy, Michael, on October 4th, 2013.

Fiona and Malee.72Fiona delivered a healthy girl, Malee, on October 9th, 2013.

Other news: Last week we learnt that Dokmai Garden will be included in Lonely Planet’s 2014 Thailand Edition. Noblesse oblige; we work frantically to meet the expectations.

Ketsanee Seehamongkol

Photo: Aree Shettlesworth

New animals

September 15, 2013

1. First of all I wish to report a new bird species at Dokmai Garden: White-rumped Munia. According to literature this is a common bird found in most of Thailand. However, at Dokmai Garden the Scaly-breasted Munia is far more common, nesting everywhere, while the dark chocolate brown White-rumped Munia has never been reported before, in spite of visits by several distinguished ornithologists. We hope this lonely bird was not just passing by. That makes 101 bird species reported from Dokmai Garden.

2. We decided that before we leave for Sweden, we should boost the remaining chicken population with some new genes. We purchased a rooster quite similar to the red jungle fowl (gai pa) from a nearby farm for 200 Baht. It is kept in a chicken dome at the feeding place for ten days just to make friends with our original chicken and the people here before being released.

3. In previous blogs I have mentioned the dream to introduce hair or naked sheep (i.e. non-woolly and more original sheep) to replace the expensive, time consuming, polluting and noisy lawn mowers. The problem was to get hold of such sheep because they are still rare in Thailand. The military north of town keep woolly sheep but they demand frequent shearing which we do not have time for at Dokmai Garden.

Three sheep.Sept.14.2013.72

From left to right: Young Shrek and the more experienced ladies Fiona and Bee-Bee working as a mowing team.

On the 14th we received two Brazilian Santa Inês ewes and a hybrid ram with South African Dorper genes. The ewes will give birth to lambs in about one month’s time. Although the Santa Inês breed is so beautiful with its slick coat, and is well adapted to tropical climate and parasites, we are afraid of inbreeding due to the limited number of individuals in Thailand. A sheep cross would be safer for successful reproduction. After all, mowing is the aim, not pure breeds, and Santa Inês is already a result of crosses including Italian Morada Nova, Italian Bergamasca and Brazilian Crioula. The Dorper is a South African breed, popular in Australia too. Its ancestors are Black headed Persian and Horned Dorset. The Dorper is well adapted to a hot and arid climate and should therefore be a good choice here in Chiang Mai.

An idea for the future is to import Santa Inês sperm  which demands less bureaucracy and costs, but we are migrating to Sweden so I should not get caught too deeply in this project which might be ruined by soi dogs anyhow.

It is estimated that only 10% of the world’s sheep population are hair or fur sheep, and 90% of these occur in Africa. That sheep are rare in Thailand was clear from the crowd of curious villagers encircling the pick-up delivering our sheep. Most villagers have only seen cats, dogs, cows and water buffaloes.

At present the sheep are kept in the former restaurant garden, walking freely to get familiar with people and the area. After about three days we intend to release them into the parking garden but keep their night quarters in the restaurant garden. After that they are ready to graze the main garden. My early observations indicate they eat carpet grass (Axonopus compressus, Poaceae) and sedge (Cyperus leucocephalus, Cyperaceae), but also leaves of bamboo, banana, Wrightia religiosa (Apocynaceae) and Saraca indica (Fabaceae). That means young banana suckers need protection. Unpeeled banana fruits and star fruits were highly appreciated, and so was peeled pineapple. The juicy drupes of the chin of Prometheus (Irvingia malayana, Irvingiaceae) were also appreciated, but the sheep did not swallow the seeds which seem too big for anything but wild boar, elephant and rhino. I tried feeding them the invasive sensitive mimosa (Mimosa pudica, Fabaceae). When I held the bunch in my hand they did not take it, when thrown on the ground they suspiciously tasted some and indeed they swallowed but they walked away before finishing the spiny heap. Tomato fruits and passion fruit were treated in the same way. Our sheep sniffed the leaves of water hyacinth, kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix, Rutaceae) and Mimusops elengi (Sapotaceae) but rejected all. Kaffir lime fruits were not appreciated either.

As night quarters we offer two raised pavilions with rice straw roofs and brick floor, but the first night the sheep preferred sleeping on the bare ground under the Saraca indica tree.

Considering a good Honda mowing machine costs 36000 Baht and demands additional costs for fuel, repair, electric sharpener, additional trimmer, man power and eventually needs to be replaced, three hair sheep with two unborn lambs are cheaper to buy and maintain, and they reproduce rapidly and provide meat and skin. Their mowing is more even and gentle than a rotating blade. Studies show that ladybird populations may decline due to intensive machine mowing but not due to grazing. Since the heavy tropical rains inevitably reshape the landscape a mowing machine sometimes cuts into the undulating soil leaving ugly bare spots. In addition, sheep are cute and add beauty to the landscape while a mowing machine is a necessary evil you stuff away in a shed. A mowing machine at Dokmai Garden may last about five years, a sheep lives 10-15 years.

Tiger, leopard and dhole are extinct in our area and the chance of clouded leopard and Asian golden cat to show up is almost nil. Our only concern are python and stray dogs. The Dokmai Garden fence is 1 km and the sheep night quarter is fenced within the fence, but a defense routine is still necessary. It is almost impossible to prevent access of python but unlike dogs a python would only make one kill. In fact, since dogs are the most abundant medium-sized mammal, it is more likely the python helps us with dog control.

Wild sheep or mouflon (Ovis aries, Bovidae) are native to the arid mountains of western Asia and the Balkan and so sheep are exotic in Thailand. Wild Thai relatives of sheep (subfamily Caprinae) are Southern serow (Capricornis sumatraensis) and Long-tailed goral (Naemorhedus caudaus), both endangered due to hunting. Our initial idea to introduce such species or native deer failed due to lack of interest among governmental institutions. Sheep are still much better than mowers!

Sheep farm.72

Kate and Mika visiting Pong and Kriangkrai at their sheep farm.

Sheep arrival.72

Dokmai Garden’s Khun Densak (right) receives the sheep, delivered by Chiang Mai veterinarian Kriangkrai, his wife Pong and daughter Moki.

Sheep portrait.72

Fiona (front) is the leader of the herd and the one who takes initiative. When I saw them at the farm I had only eyes for the dark brown beauty Bee-Bee in the background, but Fiona turns out to be more funny and we seem to have a connection. However, Bee-Bee is the sweet tooth of the herd, the only one who grunts of joy when a fruit is offered and who would run to get it, often before her companions. Unlike Fiona she would not touch tomato or passion fruit. The adolescent Shrek has not developed his character yet, but I can already tell he is more fond of taking a break than the ladies. He is also more adventurous in feeding from shrubs.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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

Red bananas

September 12, 2013

Dokmai Dogma has treated several banana varieties and species earlier, and today we continue with the red banana Musa acuminata AAA ‘Red Dacca’ (‘gluay nak’, gluay dhaeng or ‘gluay krang’ in Thai).

Musa Red Dacca.72

The origin of ‘Red Dacca’, a sterile triploid selected by man, is obscure. Some say India, some say Central America (other vernacular names are ‘Red Cuban’ and ‘Banana Roxa’). ‘Red Dacca’ may mutate and lose the ability to make red pigments, and such cultivars are called ‘Green Dacca’. All wild banana species originate in east Asia and the wild ancestor of ‘Red Dacca’, Musa acuminata (AA) is native to Malaysia.

 Musa red Dacca plant.72

The leaf stalks, mid-ribs and base of the pseudostems are red too, making a fruit-less ‘Red Dacca’ plant easy to recognize in a banana collector’s orchard.

Unlike the ‘gluay nam wa’ banana which is widely grown in Thailand, the leaves of ‘Red Dacca’ are unsuitable for cooking, wrapping or serving. Until recently the Thai farmers had no cutlery, no chop sticks and no plates. They had to eat with their fingers and serve all food on banana leaves, and so the banana leaves had to be of superior quality. Poor quality leaves may in fact spoil food by contaminating it with unwanted flavours and bitterness. This is one of the reasons ‘Red Dacca’ is not that common in Thailand and is mostly sold at touristic food markets. Other reasons are the peel’s tendency to crack which indeed frequently occurs here at Dokmai Garden and there is a rumour it may cause skin problems. However, it seems much more popular in Burma where one name is ‘shwe nget-pyaw’. The fresh fruit is in fact delicious; its sweet flavour is nicely balanced with some acidity. The fruit can be used as a cooking banana too, although this is not a plantain (which contains Musa balbisiana genes AAB).


To our experience at Dokmai Garden, ‘Red Dacca’ is much more water demanding than ‘gluay nam wa’ and so it should be planted where you can provide some irrigation during the dry season. This is another reason Red Dacca is not common in the dry Chiang Mai valley.

Fruits of ‘Red Dacca’ may be more or less red, orange or maroon. Many people wonder about this high degree of colour variation. Red, blue and purple colours in leaves, petals and fruits are usually due to anthocyanins, but I have not found any literature with actual analyses of the ‘Red Dacca’ banana peel.

In banana plants anthocyanins normally only occur in high quantities in the banana flowering bracts, and the reason most plants seem to produce anthocyanins in petals and fruits is to attract insects for flower pollination and birds for seed dispersal. The red fruits of ‘Red Dacca’ is due to a mutation and being a sterile selection by man the colour has no selective importance or natural function, although one can argue it is an adaptation to man. Although the anthocyanin in ‘Red Dacca’ may not serve any purpose, the regulation of its concentration may still follow the same mechanisms as in plant tissues where it does play a role. The intensity of anthocyanin colour may depend on 1) fruit maturity, 2) degree of sun exposure, 3) temperature, 4) soil and 5) stress.

1) Red on green (immature fruit) makes the fruit look brownish, red on yellow (mature fruit) makes the fruit look more orange and red on brown (over-ripe fruit) makes a maroon colour.

2) Anthocyanin formation is normally induced by light, but too much solar radiation may destroy the molecule. For instance, the attractive red blotches of the leaves of Sumatran zebra banana (Musa acuminata ssp. zebrina) develop best in a somewhat shady environment, but fade in full sun.

3) Low temperature seems to increase anthocyanin formation although there is a complex correlation involving both solar radiation and temperature in combination. This also means you may experience various degrees of coloration depending on which season and altitude the bananas are formed. This article on anthocyanin formation in Merlot grapes is quite interesting.

4) Presence of metals (as a consequence of soil type) in the cell’s vacuoles where the pigment is located, may influence acidity which in turn influence the colour of the anthocyanin. Soils poor in certain nutrients, a type of stress, may also increase anthocyanin production in many plants.

5) Anthocyanins may play a role in osmotic adjustments (cellular water content regulation) caused by fungal infections, herbivores, nutrient deficiency and lack of rain. If the ‘Red Dacca’ fruits can produce anthocyanins then stress may increase the amount of pigment. An interesting observation is that red autumn colours in many leaves is a phenomenon typical of boreal and cold latitudes while a rare phenomenon here in the tropics. However, tropical plants often produce anthocyanins in young shoots which appear red or purple, probably as an adaptation to the strong solar intensity (like building a roof (anthocyanin) before installing the sensitive machinery (the green photosynthesis apparatus)). You can read more in this splendid review of (foliar) anthocyanins:

The yellow pigment of the flesh inside the fruit is due to carotenoids which can be transformed into vitamin A. That makes ‘Red Dacca’ a more valuable source of that vitamin than the cream-coloured flesh of the common Cavendish bananas.

Indeed we shall plant ‘Red Dacca’ suckers in various environments to study variation in colour.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

Other Dokmai Dogma banana blogs:

What to do when children go bananas 

From which end of the banana do you eat?

Wild bananas around Chiang Mai

An acidic banana

Grandpa’s banana

Too many bananas

A variegated banana

Banana flower

Thai Yai banana curry