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Cycad expert Anders Lindstrom:

“My dream is to have a real research lab and staff”

No more hazardous trips into rough territories for Anders Lindstrom, the most renowned contemporary cycad expert. He has had his share, he says: “Malaria, dengue and every other disease, shootings in Africa, capsized boats in Indonesia, I am through with it. I’m getting old.”
He is only 45 though, so there might be other reasons for abstaining from further hardship. Yes, his wife rather has him safely at home. What’s more, there are no new species of cycads to be added to the 330 already recognized. And most important maybe, he is now fully occupied with propagation and conservation.

“For collectors there are never enough species: red, blue, curly. I know, it’s a bit like stamp collecting.”
“For collectors there are never enough species: red, blue, curly. I know, it’s a bit like stamp collecting.”

Lindstrom is the plant curator of Nong Nooch Botanical Garden in Thailand and manager of the cycad gene bank. His tiny office is crammed with seeds, pollen, a dryer and a freezer. Outdoors is plenty of space for the whole collection of cycads and the vast nurseries with thousands of offspring. In his roofless four-wheel drive cart he speeds along rows of cycads from every corner of the subtropical and tropical world, from Mexico to East Timor, from China to South Africa. Judging from the way the workers greet him, he spends more time in the garden than in the office. Being fluent in Thai, he rapidly exchanges instructions, jokes and comments with them.

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Lindstrom is not the first Swedish botanist who is gripped by the cycad. In the 18th century Carl Linneaus gave it the scientific name Cycas and Carl Thunberg collected the native Japanese cycad, described as Cycas revoluta. In the 19th century Alfred Nathorst had the Cycas nathorstii named after him, and in 1997 Anders Lindstrom was honored for his assistance in discovering the Cycas lindstromii in Vietnam.
What is so fascinating about this prehistoric plant with its bulgy trunk and stiff leaves, also lovingly called ‘living fossil’? Better not get a cycad devotee started on that! Lindstrom: “It’s their evolutionary history, the way they grow ─ on rocks, in marshes, in deserts, in rain forests, some even in trees ─, the problem of defining its sex before the cone appears, the toxicity, the presence of collaroid roots that grow upward instead of downward.” The praise of the properties of specific cycads is endless and sometimes hard to grasp for an outsider. But a scientist like Lindstrom happily indulges in unraveling the secrets of all the species, sharing and debating them with fellow experts at conferences or even on dedicated Facebook pages. This year alone, he contributed to ten articles in scientific journals. In September he hosted a cycad workshop in Thailand with participants from twelve countries.

Lindstrom tenderly strokes the leaves of Zamia imperialis from Panama: "It is so huge and nice."
Lindstrom tenderly strokes the leaves of Zamia imperialis from Panama: "It is so huge and nice."

Anders Lindstrom got the feeling for plants on the knee of his father, who was the director of the Bergius Botanic Garden in Stockholm. One day his father was approached by someone looking for a horticulturalist who could grow tropical plants in countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand for export to Europe. Anders, by then a graduated botanist, jumped at it. That was an all-decisive step, 23 years ago. During this assignment, when he was searching for palm trees to export, he met Kampon Tansacha, the director of Nong Nooch Botanical Garden. Kampon, a passionate collector of plants but not an expert, was impressed by the knowledgeable Swede and asked him to come and work for him. Anders consented to what appears to be a lifetime job.
“First thing I did, was bring in my own small collection of cycads that I grew in Bangkok. Then an Australian who wanted to retire offered his valuable collection of hoyas. I was surprised that a Thai garden didn’t possess any fruit trees, so we started collecting mangos, bananas, zalaccas, and so on. After that entered the palms and heliconias.”
Although Lindstrom was the one who decided on the collections of the garden, he did get overruled by the choice of his boss every now and then. That is how the oleanders, not an obvious choice for a tropical garden, arrived at Nong Nooch. Or the collection of aglaonema’s, “a big thing in Holland and Belgium”.

The plant collection of Nong Nooch covers an area of almost 10 hectares.
The plant collection of Nong Nooch covers an area of almost 10 hectares.

Nong Nooch’s cycad collection is impressive in species and numbers. It is also the world’s most important conservation site. These ancient plants are endangered by destruction of their habitat and the harvesting of plants and seeds from the wild. Lindstrom has contributed substantially to the knowledge on taxonomy and horticultural use of the cycads, but he has an unfulfilled dream. “I am the only researcher at Nong Nooch. My office is my research lab and nobody here understands what I am doing. I would like to have a real lab and staff. Until now I cannot convince the management to invest in research. This garden is a public playground for thousands of tourists. It is a moneymaking machine, but this money should have another purpose than just maintaining the collection. Research should be the thing to make the garden known. All cycad researchers want to go into DNA, but they don’t have the plants. We do.”

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October 2016, by Karolien Bais, image Mijnd Huijser
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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.