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Charlot Teng, collector of jungle plants:

“In Latin America I am surrounded by new plants”

He is a gardener without a garden, a breeder without a laboratory, a seller without a shop. The renowned plant searcher Charlot Teng is at home in the world’s jungles, from Ecuador to Papua New Guinea, from Brazil to Borneo. His treasures are stowed away on the third and fourth floor of an apartment building in Taiwan. Only the plants that can stand heat and drought are lucky enough to touch the ground and grow in the open. Those he keeps in his nursery in Thailand.

Rooftop of a residential building in Taipei, converted by Charlot Teng into a mini-jungle and nursery.
Rooftop of a residential building in Taipei, converted by Charlot Teng into a mini-jungle and nursery.
When we meet in Taipei, Charlot Teng (1969) is happy to show us his private collection, but first he takes us out for lunch in a Sechuan restaurant. He has just finished teaching a class in taking care of rain forest plants, and he is hungry.

Charlot Teng wrote four books about his search for tropical plants. For those who cannot read Chinese, there is an abundance of pictures to enjoy.

On the table are two of his books: one on tropical plants and one on rain forest plants. His third book is on carnivorous plants, and in the autumn of 2018 his book on epiphytic plants will be published. Unfortunately they are written in Chinese, even most of the botanical names, so all I can do is feast my eyes on the hundreds of photos taken by the author himself.
All his passion goes into plants. “I don’t collect for commercial reasons. I have an income from selling my books and plants, giving lectures and consultancy on plant care. I earn enough to go travelling again!”

The rooftop jungle houses hundreds of tropical plants, collected and grown by Charlot Teng.
The rooftop jungle houses hundreds of tropical plants, collected and grown by Charlot Teng.

Then, after a short walk to his apartment, a big surprise awaits us: the balcony on the third floor, crammed with plants. Every inch, from floor to ceiling, is used for pots and baskets. Charlot Teng, amused by my amazement: “Here I propagate and hybridize.” Although no plant carries a label, he knows name, age and history of all of them. “This one I brought from Ecuador, sold under a wrong name. And this is my hybrid Habenaria with Cattleya ‘Crystelle Smith’. That one is a Promenaea rollisonii from Brazil.”
He leads us to his roof terrace, one floor up. This area is three times the size of the balcony, and again completely filled with the most beautiful varieties of tropical plants and palm trees. There is hardly any space to move around. When I notice his irrigation system, he says: “Don’t worry, the roof construction has been adapted to the weight and the water.”
“I like a wide range of plants,” he says. That is a huge understatement when overseeing his roof jungle. “I don’t understand why one would collect only one species. I meet people who appreciate a certain plant, but dismiss it because it is not the species they are after. To me, collecting only one type is boring.”

In his 'cold store', an air conditioned room, Charlot breeds plants that like low temperatures. Among them special kinds of begonias and orchids.
In his 'cold store', an air conditioned room, Charlot breeds plants that like low temperatures. Among them special kinds of begonias and orchids.

There is yet another unimaginable space in his apartment: an air conditioned side room, solely containing shelves with dozens of breeder cups. “This is where I grow the tropical plants from higher elevations,” Charlot says, lifting lids of cups to show yet more peculiar designs by Mother Nature. “These species and varieties are especially popular among clients from the Baltic countries, Russia and Ukraine.”
On his Facebook page ‘Exotica plants’, Teng shows customers what kind of plants he has available for sale. Some are grown in Thailand. “It is very hard to import plants from Latin America to Taiwan, so about ten years ago I started a nursery in Bangkok. I also tried growing my plants from Taiwan there, but Thailand is too hot and dry! So now I still have plants on two locations. In the summer I remain in Taiwan, because in case of a typhoon I have to bring most of my plants inside. In winter I can go on excursion.”

Growing plants in Taipei means frequent evacuations in the typhoon season.
Growing plants in Taipei means frequent evacuations in the typhoon season.

Charlot Teng has come a long way since finishing horticultural high school at the age of 19. “At that time I envisioned having a nursery of a single kind of plant, like hoya or tomato. Instead I started working in a flower shop, making floral arrangements until I was 33 years old. Only then did I formally start to buy and sell plants myself. I made field trips in Indonesia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. From 2005 on I started to explore other continents. First Madagascar, but that was a great disappointment. People are poor and cut the forest just for making charcoal! Then I made a field trip to Peru that changed my ideas completely. I had always considered Borneo as heaven on earth. I went there three or four times a year. But in countries like Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil I am surrounded by plants that are new to me. That is far more interesting.”
He now speaks and writes Spanish and still has some unvisited countries on his wish list, like Cuba, Guatemala, Surinam and French Guyana.

June 2018, text Karolien Bais, image 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!


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


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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.”


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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.