P1030145

Nopchai Chansilpa, breeder of water lily and lotus:

"It is more an art than a science”

Monsoon rain has been tormenting the area for days. Now, in a short dry spell, the water lilies and lotuses dance in the wind, their leaves sparkling with drops. Although the nursery of Dr. Nopchai Chansilpa has an industrial layout of tanks and pipes, the view is enchanting. It is not hard to imagine why water lily and lotus appear in ancient myths, nor why they have inspired so many poets and painters. The elegant flower rising from the mud on a graceful stem symbolizes purity in Buddhism and Hinduism. The abundant seeds of the lotus stand for fertility.

Legend has it that the seeds of the lotus were once eaten exclusively by Chinese emperors to prolong life.
Legend has it that the seeds of the lotus were once eaten exclusively by Chinese emperors to prolong life.
But Nopchai’s urge to create ever new varieties stems from a worldlier motive. “My father used to have a water lily pond. As a kid I put my fish in his pond, but they damaged the plants. So my father said: ‘Either you find a solution, or your fish will have to go.’ That is when I started to be an expert on water lilies,” he grins from ear to ear. At the age of twelve his experiments began. Fifty years later he is a distinguished breeder, whose new varieties have earned scores of international awards. In 2004, after years of research in breeding water lilies that survive in cold winters, his Nymphaea Mangkala Ubol became a world champion. His creation Nymphaea Wanvisa won the title of Best New Water Lily for 2010. The International Water Lily and Water Gardening Society praised it as a prolific bloomer, and stated: ‘The flower is variegated unlike any hardy water lily in existence. It features a salmon-orange background richly speckled with creamy yellow. The leaves are predominately burgundy-brown with green spotting.’


Dr. Nopchai Chansilpa is a plant pathologist by education. He studied in the Philippines and in Germany, and now teaches this subject at the Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok in Bang Phra, Thailand. It comes in handy to have extensive knowledge of pests and diseases, but his passion is in breeding and hybridizing. A passion that appeared to be so fruitful that he is now director of the Water Lily Institute at Rajamangala University and chairman of the Thailand Network for Lotus and Water lily Research and Development.
At 65, he has surpassed his official pensionable age with five years, and he has signed for another four years. “After that I will stop. I have already realized my dreams; eleven of my plants are prizewinners, which is more than one can aim for. I would like to go travelling, to the Amazon and Madagascar.”

"I just love to see all flora and fauna in their habitat, especially Victoria in South America and water lilies in South Africa."
"I just love to see all flora and fauna in their habitat, especially Victoria in South America and water lilies in South Africa."

Travelling has always been part of his life, as he is eager to find generic material for his cross-breeding. China, a country with some 1,000 varieties of lotus, is one of his favorite destinations. “In Thailand we have only four varieties: single, double, pink and white. China is more advanced in lotus usage, both for ornamentation and for food.” In India ─ its national flower being the lotus ─ he gathered DNA to compare it with the Chinese.I try to cross seeds with Chinese seeds that are already improved. But lotus blooms only a short while. I would like to extend the harvesting time. And I also try to make a different color.”

From top left to bottom right: Nopchai's changeable intersubgeneric hybrid, N. Foxfire, new hybrid, N. Perr's Baby Red, N. Duangtasawan, N. King of Siam
From top left to bottom right: Nopchai's changeable intersubgeneric hybrid, N. Foxfire, new hybrid, N. Perr's Baby Red, N. Duangtasawan, N. King of Siam.

Dr. Nopchai: “I like to experiment. With any property of the plant: the leaves, the color of the flower, the stem, the hardiness, the life span of the flower. Hybridizing is not so much a science as an art. Your imagination is the art; breeding is the technique.”
And thus his imagination has led to water lilies with a striped stem, with flowers that open day and night, with flowers that last seven days, or flowers that change color every day. “You name it, and I can make it,” he says jokingly. But only half-jokingly, because now he is even working on water lilies with green and black flowers. “Well,” he adds, “I cannot make everything, but I do want to be the first to make it.”

From top left to bottom right: Victoria cruziana, Euryale ferox, unnamed hybrid, Victoria amazonica
From top left to bottom right: Victoria cruziana, Euryale ferox, unnamed hybrid, Victoria amazonica.

On the grounds of the university, right next to Nopchai’s nursery, a multistorey-building is under construction. From next year on, this will be his tissue culture lab for water lilies and lotuses, financed by the Thai government. He is excited about it, although he still faces the problem of finding employees with the right expertise.
Nopchai: “Here I can make tissue cultures of plants from all over the world. Tissue culture is a simple technique, but most people cannot do it, because they lack patience. It can take one or two years before you know the result of hybridizing a hardy type of water lily. Some other types take six years.”

His private garden is on the rooftop. “But heavy water tubs on a rooftop are dangerous, so I only grow the small varieties of lotus and water lilies. Most of my other plants I bring to the nursery. I’m here five days a week, so I can enjoy them more.”
His private garden is on the rooftop. “But heavy water tubs on a rooftop are dangerous, so I only grow the small varieties of lotus and water lilies. Most of my other plants I bring to the nursery. I’m here five days a week, so I can enjoy them more.”

June 2017, by Karolien Bais, image Mijnd Huijser

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