Saturday, August 16, 2008

Bottle trees are dying


Bottle trees are dying

Destroying the natural ecosystem to plant exotic trees is contrary to the aim of conserving our genetic diversity


The moment of truth has come. The Australian bottle trees at the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden in Chiang Mai are now either dead or dying. But then this is not unexpected, for the trees were planted at the wrong site in the first place.

If you remember, five rai of dipterocarp forest, comprising mostly of native Payom trees (Shorea roxburghii), were cut down and the land bulldozed and cleared in July of last year to accommodate five bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris) and five grass trees (Xanthorrhoea glauca) from Queensland, Australia. Visitors wouldn't miss the newly planted trees: Located halfway through the botanic garden, they stick out like sore thumbs and look so out of place standing on a large expanse of land carpeted by lawn grass, with the remaining fog-shrouded dipterocarp forest serving as background.

This lush tropical environment is quite foreign to the imported plants' native origins. During the uproar on the clearing of the forest last year, Barry Rumpf sent me an email from Australia saying that "although the trees are from Australia's tropical North, they are not from a lush tropical North. The natural environment of both species is dry and sparsely timbered. The rainfall is heavy for a few months and then perpetually dry. The characteristic of both species is their ability to endure long periods of drought."

Planting them in a place where precipitation is high, therefore, is like handing them a death sentence.

The grass trees seemed to have adapted all right, but the bottle trees never recovered from the trauma of being uprooted from their natural habitat and transplanted to a foreign land. It did not take long before pathogens attacked the trees, and no amount of paint could save the biggest tree, whose trunk is severely rotten inside.

The green paint is used to arrest the spread of the fungus or whatever pathogen that is killing the tree, but the paint itself is also toxic to the tree. As the photo shows, the tree is still standing, but this is only because it is tethered to the ground.

The remaining trees are infested with insect pests, which bore holes into the tree trunks. The infection, when not treated properly, can also lead to rotting and eventual death of the trees.

In "Green Fingers" of September 30, 2007, I asked several questions which no one bothered to answer. Now I am down to just one question: How much of the people's tax money went into the clearing of the dipterocarp forest, purchase of the Australian trees and lawn grass, and wages of the labourers who did the planting?

This is now all water under the bridge, of course, but as taxpayers we deserve to know how our money was spent. Last year each bottle tree reportedly cost 700,000 baht; a reliable source has just told me that actually the trees cost between 200,000 and 300,000 baht each. If my question remains unanswered and the deal remains murky, could you blame me for wondering where the difference went?

Actually, the QSBG administrator who authorised the purchase of the trees could not be faulted for wanting to have additional attractions that would draw visitors to the botanic garden. After all, botanic gardens are meant to be not only gardens for science but also for pleasure.

What he did wrong was allowing the destruction of five rai of precious forest so that he could plant his Australian trees.

At the time of its establishment in 1992, the botanic garden's stated aims were "to gather information on Thai plants, to undertake research and study of native flora, and to conserve the genetic diversity of the plants of Thailand". In my dictionary, destroying the natural ecosystem to plant exotic trees is contrary to the aim of conserving Thailand's genetic diversity.

In her birthday message last Tuesday, Her Majesty the Queen once again emphasized the importance of trees, and enjoined all Thais to plant as many trees as we can. But planting trees is just the beginning, not the end of the story. Trees take years to grow so we should protect the big trees we already have.

Felling existing trees is not the only thing that I don't see eye to eye with the QSBG administrators. Taking board members on a pleasure trip to Europe in the guise of visiting botanic gardens is, I think, a sheer waste of money. Board members come and go and do not do actual work within the botanic garden; the three to four million baht spent on jaunts like this will be of more lasting benefit to the QSBG if used to send staff for further training, fund plant collecting expeditions, increase the seed bank, improve the nursery, label the plants or build a much needed souvenir shop.

I hear the hunt is now on for a new director to replace the incumbent, who is retiring soon. For the QSBG's sake I hope the new appointee will be someone who has more vision, who has the preservation of native flora at heart and who knows what it takes to make a botanical garden worthy of its name.

Find out more about the QSBG bottle trees saga at the forum. For more information, send email to

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