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Green Thoughts: The mysterious migration of plants

Because the local climate is so conducive to growth, we tend to conclude that most plants in our tropic gardens originated in Thailand or at least Southeast Asia. Not true.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 31 October 2021, 02:00PM

Sometimes by accident, mostly by design, perhaps half of Asia’s flora has fetched up here from all corners of the globe. Take the chili. This pungent spice was unknown outside America until Columbus made his voyage to the New World towards the end of the 15th century. Ironically, he was searching for the source of black pepper, then a commodity as valuable as gold dust. Chilies and peppers probably came to Thailand much later. One wonders how Thais managed without nam prik for so long… 

The migration of plants has been going on for a long time. The Romans brought plums, walnuts, parsley and even roses to Britain; later, potatoes, pineapples and tomatoes arrived in Northern Europe from America. But the great age of plant collectors was the 19th century; numerous expeditions were mounted with the primary purpose of “discovering” new species, and bringing these exotica to the notice of a wondering and “civilized” world. The development of the glasshouse and – aptly named – conservatory, meant that these exotica could be literally “conserved” – indeed might even flourish in man-made micro climates that sought accurately to reflect conditions in the wild. Kew Gardens in London, which still houses the largest botanical collection in the world, was founded in 1840, the expression of a Victorian explosion of interest in exploration and plant hunting.

Why, one may justifiably enquire? Britain of course was enjoying its imperialist moment, the greatest nation in the world with an empire that reached out to all corners of the globe. How better to demonstrate this tentacular reach, than to display fruits and flowers from these remote lands. Unsurprisingly, it was a period of plant-hunting fever, a frenzy that spawned famous explorers, collectors and collections. And the motives were not merely political or even commercial, but were often the product of a passion for botany and natural history. George Forrest, for instance, was not only the greatest collector of rhododendrons – mostly from China – but also of Camellia saluenensis, a species whose hybrids are now grown in temperate gardens everywhere.

On the other hand, Scottish botanist Robert Fortune, who introduced the Chinese tea plant (Camellia sinensis) to India in 1848, was attracted by the commercial potential of a crop nowadays enjoyed the world over. Employed by the East India Company, he somehow managed to smuggle 20,000 seedlings into Darjeeling. It triggered the birth of the Indian tea industry. But he was not just a mercenary. Many other plants named after him included a euonymus and a mahonia, a celebrated climbing white rose – Rosa fortuniana and Hosta fortunei.

But the most famous plant heist, and one everywhere visible in Thailand to this day, was that engineered by Sir Henry Wickham, who in 1876 stole a huge quantity of rubber tree seeds from their native habitat in Brazil and personally accompanied them to London’s Kew Gardens. Subsequently, these seeds were sent to a number of British colonies including Malaysia. Still regarded in Brazil as a “bio-pirate”, his efforts bore substantial fruit in Malaysia and subsequently in Southern Thailand, aided by the obsessive enthusiasm of one “Rubber” Ridley, and the development of more efficient production methods than Brazil had been able to manage.

To this day, and despite the competition from synthetic rubber and plastic, these Southeast Asian countries remain pre-eminent. Here in Phuket, for example, 60% of the woodland consists of plantations of Havea Braziliensis. By a strange irony, most of these young para rubber trees grow alongside rows of Ananas comosus. The pineapple, let it be noted, had also found its way into Thailand, if more circuitously, from the New World.

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Evidence of this great botanical migration is indeed all around us. Canna lilies, bougainvilleas, heliconias, acacias and allamandas are just a few of the shrubs visible from my window – all of them imports from other parts of the globe. Foreign plants. some as yet without local names, continue to appear in garden centres.

So is this all good news? For the most part it is. Indeed some immigrants do better in their new habitat than in their original environment. But that is in itself a double-edged sword. Some do so well that they become invasive, and require culling. Of course the limelight-catching stories concern animals: in Florida’s watery wilderness known as the Everglades, there are now so many Burmese pythons, cast-off pets or escapees, that the entire local fauna is threatened. Australia now plays host to 56 invasive animals including the rabbit and the cane toad, introduced from South America in an attempt to control beetles in the sugar cane fields. The toad did nothing to control the insects, but eliminated most of the country’s smaller predators. In Thailand, the most serious pest is the hispine beetle, which arrived accidentally from Indonesia, and which is steadily munching its way through groves of coconut trees.

The list of “take-over” plants is smaller. Here in Thailand, gardeners know of the existence of the giant sensitive plant (mimosa pigra), or the Siam weed (chromolaena odorata). But in general they approve of wedelia, a small ground-hugging plant which quickly colonizes waste lots and produces attractive star-shaped flowers. Or lantana, a pest in Australia, but here treated as a decorative perennial and frequently seen in nurseries as a multi-hued hybrid suitable for containers.

In Phuket I would only point an accusatory finger at one plant – the water hyacinth or eichornia crassipes. Originally from the Amazon basin – where presumably it was controlled by native animals who used it as a food source, it has become a pernicious presence in Thailand. Down the road is a large lake now so carpeted with the weed that the water is no longer visible. In Phuket Town and elsewhere, it not only clogs canals and impedes boats, but offers a prime habitat for mosquitoes and kills fish by depriving them of life-giving oxygen. It has commercial applications; these need to be exploited. 

But let’s not end on a downbeat note. As far as garden plants are concerned , the migratory process, man-made or accidental, has been almost entirely beneficial. All our gardens, everywhere, would be the poorer without these visitors who have come to stay.

The information in this article and much more is to be found in my book ‘The Tropic Gardener’. Described in one Bangkok review as the best book on Thai gardening for 50 years, it is available for B500 (half price) to personal callers from 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13 in Rawai (Tel: 076-61227 or 085-7827551).

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