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Palm collector Chalermchart Soorangura:

I like species that are threatened in the wild”

He earns a living as an IT program manager, but his passion is in plants. Chalermchart Soorangura (39): “When I am crazy about a plant, I can become obsessive. I think of it all the time.” His enthusiasm has taken shape in his Palmetum in the Thai province of Kanchanaburi. There, in a jungle-like resort along the river Kwai Noi, owned by his father, he grows his collection of about 350 species of palm trees. “I used to have 700 species, but half of it didn’t survive.”

Many of those that did survive are grown from seed. Chalermchart: “I like to see the development of a plant, to watch each stage, to see how it changes from seedling to maturity.” Walking through his garden, he talks about every palm tree as if it is a personal friend. He caresses its leaves, points at its fibre and admires its height and width. Origin, history and botanical name of every individual tree pop up easily. All his words and gestures testify of his self-chosen label of ‘palm lover’.

As he has a full-time job in Bangkok, he only visits his distant garden once a fortnight. Much of the care for the trees he has to leave to his gardener, whom he trains in the knowledge of palms, bromeliads, gingers and cycads. Chalermchart, generous in sharing both his passion and his plants, makes sure his gardener fills a box with babies of palms for me to take home.

From top left to bottom right: Pigafetta filaris, Bizmarckia nobilis, Phoenix robelenii, Salacca sp., Raphia farinifera, Raphia vinifera
From top left to bottom right: Pigafetta filaris, Bizmarckia nobilis, Phoenix robelenii, Salacca sp., Raphia farinifera, Raphia vinifera

Chalermchart started collecting palms in 2005, just to landscape his yard in Bangkok. “Originally I wanted to grow ferns, but I soon realized they need a lot of attention and care that I could not give. I looked at the palm trees in surrounding gardens, but they were all very common, whereas I knew there are over 3,000 species. So I started to buy seeds of rare species and within the first year I already had 200 species. I had Thai friends in online groups, who were very knowledgeable. We started exchanging seeds and plants. Then the popularity of palm trees decreased in Thailand. But not in me, I am still crazy about palms. So now I communicate with experts in international online groups, like those of the International Palm Society, or on Facebook. There I meet people with different experiences, from Hawaii, Australia, Madagascar, la Réunion or Guyana.”

Chalermchart: "Many plant collectors that I know have a background in IT. I think it is because we need to get away from the machine, and seek nature.”
Chalermchart: "Many plant collectors that I know have a background in IT. I think it is because we need to get away from the machine, and seek nature.”
When his collection outgrew his yard in Bangkok, his father offered him a piece of land on the grounds of his extensive resort in the village Ban Kaeng Raboet in Kanchanaburi. Chalermchart: “I like to collect species that are threatened in the wild. If I propagate them and distribute the seeds, I help conserving them. I also trade in seeds and plants of about 200 native species.”

The thickly-wooded hills surrounding his family’s resort keep no secrets from him anymore. He has climbed them all and found many palms, gingers and other plants. Sometimes he joins experts in search expeditions to Malaysia, Indonesia or the South of Thailand. But given his IT-job, he says: “I spend more time on research than on the actual planting or growing.”

From top left to bottom right: Pigafetta filaris, Raphia hookeri, Plectocomia sp., Aiphanes minima, Aiphanes caryotoides, Corypha utan
From top left to bottom right: Pigafetta filaris, Raphia hookeri, Plectocomia sp., Aiphanes minima, Aiphanes caryotoides, Corypha utan
To broaden his scale of palm trees, he now and then sponsors collectors who make field trips. Chalermchart: “There are two ways. One is that I pay local people to search in habitat. The other is that I sponsor professionals who search for seeds or seedlings. I don’t need to have the exclusive right to the plants they bring. For conservation it is better to have many seeds distributed among many people. If I get five plants of a certain species, I put them on five different spots to minimize the risk of loss.” Although he keeps record of his plants in different stages, with notes and photographs, he doesn’t publish the results. “I like to share my knowledge, but I have no time yet.”
Chalermchart: "Palms and cycads make a good combination in landscaping. But cycads take a long time to grow, especially since I like to grow them from seed."
Chalermchart: "Palms and cycads make a good combination in landscaping. But cycads take a long time to grow, especially since I like to grow them from seed."
Recently he has picked up a new craving: cycads. “Palms and cycads are very similar. They are ancient plants that share many characteristics. People who grow palms very often also grow cycads.” So now, adjacent to the palm garden, he is creating a cycad garden. When I ask him what will be his next ‘obsession’, he pauses for a long while: “I don’t really know. I think the love of palms and cycads will fill my whole life.”

My question about the top priority on his wish list for palms gets a quicker reply: “Lodoicea maldivica”. That is the legendary ‘sea coconut’ with the largest seed of all palms. In its original habitat, the Seychelles, it has been lost from the wild and now only grows in protected parks. Seeds are not easy to obtain, and certainly not easy to send by mail.

January 2017, by Karolien Bais, video Mijnd Huijser

Experts

What makes people so fascinated by a certain type of plant that they spend their whole life searching for it? Where does their perseverance come from? I have interviewed botanical amateurs and professionals about their lives and passions. Enjoy their stories!


Wanna Pinijpaitoon always had a crush on staghorns. Now her Wangkaset Garden in Thailand shelters thousands of ferns, in pots and bags, on trees and pergolas.


Horticulturalist  Michael Ferrero left his home country Australia in 1987. Ever since, he wanders through rainforests across the equatorial belt in search of new species.


Malaysian botanist Francis S.P. Ng, plant lover, researcher and voluminous writer, described 2,800 species in Tree Flora of Malaya.


Palm collector Poonsak Vatcharakorn is addicted to the jungle. Having combed out the mountains of Thailand, he now explores the rainforests of Vietnam and Malaysia.


People either love or hate durian. Songpol Somsri breeds new hybrids to gain more fans for this smelly fruit.


Annop Ongsakul is a prominent breeder of gingers. But when time and money permit, he is out on plant expeditions with fellow ‘strange people’.


Swedish cycad expert Anders Lindstrom unravels the secrets of all the species of this ancient plant with its bulgy trunk and stiff leaves.


IT-specialist by training, but palm lover by heart: Chalermchart Soorangura, proud collector of palm species. He propagates threatened species for conservation.


Plant collector and landscape designer Surath Vanno treasures all plants as great works of art. And artfully he displays his collection in Bankampu Tropical Gallery in Bangkok.


A black or green water lily? It is now in the making by the Thai expert breeder Nopchai Chansilpa: “I like to experiment.”


It takes patience and a sharp eye to identify a bamboo. Dieter Ohrnberger has it and shares his meticulous work generously on the internet.


In Taiwan he grew up with peony and sweet pea. He even kept a tulip in the fridge. But plant searcher Charlot Teng became gripped by tropical flora. That passion led him to many jungles.