P1000929

Palm collector Poonsak Vatcharakorn:

"I want to be the King of Licualas"

Poonsak Vatcharakorn is addicted to the jungle, where he finds rare palms, ferns, begonias and many other plants. Having combed out the mountains and forests of Thailand, he now explores the jungles of Vietnam and especially Malaysia. His wife, companion on many trips, has a good eye for the undergrowth; he himself hunts for the higher plants. Their impressive collection is hidden in an unpretentious nursery in the outskirts of a village in the East of Thailand. No road sign. No nameplate. Just thousands and thousands of plants.

The two palm families that dominate the nursery: in the front Johannesteijsmannia and in the back several species of Licuala.
The two palm families that dominate the nursery: in the front Johannesteijsmannia and in the back several species of Licuala.

Two palm families dominate the nursery: Johannesteijsmannia and Licuala. Of the Licuala, a palm with fan-shaped leaves, Poonsak now has a collection of 90 species. “My dream is to collect all 150 known species. Of about 30 species I know where to find them. The next 30 will be difficult. Some species can only be identified by their flower, so you must happen to be around when they bloom. But I want to be the King of Licualas,” he laughs.

He then points at long rows of seedlings of Johannesteijsmannia magnifica, a beautiful fan palm that grows without a trunk and has a silvery color at the underside of the solid leaves. These 2,000 homegrown samples are his provision for old age: “With my 63 years I am becoming an old man. If I sell these plants now, they bring in 300 baht (about 8 dollar) each. But a full-grown palm can yield over 10,000 baht (280 dollar). So I wait.” However, this mass of seedlings will soon outgrow his nursery. “I’ll have to ask my neighbor if I can put them up in her orchard.”

Poonsak's savings for retirement: 2,000 seedlings of Johannesteijsmannia magnifica
Poonsak's savings for retirement: 2,000 seedlings of Johannesteijsmannia magnifica
Poonsak Vatcharakorn is a self-made man, who wrote the richly illustrated book Palms and cycads of Thailand. He is a know-it-all, unsuitable for a steady job. He is also a speedy fixer; ask him for a special kind of bamboo and he drives around in his rickety million-mile pick-up truck to find you a nice clump. But above all he is a cordial person who willingly shares his knowledge ─ and plants. When I started constructing my garden in 2009, I popped in at his nursery, unaware of the fact that he was the author of the book I was carrying. Surely the palms I had marked were almost all in his nursery. But he did not want to sell them to me: “No planting in the dry season!” As soon as the rains started, he dropped off my desired palms and as a gesture a myriad of other plants.

Born in Narathiwat, in the South of Thailand, close to the border with Malaysia, he spent most of his time in the jungle. It started when he was seven years old and joined his father, who was a surveyor. “I just loved the jungle, I saw beautiful flowers of which I discovered their names only decades later, I liked to swim in the waterfalls, I liked hunting.” After high school, he went to live with his elder sister in the United States. He hoped to earn money as a gas station attendant, but having no working permit the energetic young guy was confined to watching television and learning English from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Soon he was back hunting in Narathiwat.

Poonsak identifying a Licuala species by its fruit.
Poonsak identifying a Licuala species by its fruit.

Luck came his way when one day a researcher from the Nong Nooch Botanical Gardens near Pattaya needed help in finding palms in the mountain ranges in the South. It marked a new era of learning and discovering. For fifteen years Poonsak Vatcharakorn worked on a freelance base with international botanists from Nong Nooch, guiding plant collection expeditions in the jungle. Thus he improved his English, his knowledge of botanical names and the way to identify species.

Some seven years ago he quit working for Nong Nooch Gardens. And again he was lucky. The owner of a golf course ordered from him a bunch of salt-water mangrove worth 15,000 baht. With that money he started his nursery, specialized in rare palms. Whenever he can, he still jumps in his car to hunt for palms, nowadays especially in Sarawak, on the Malaysian part of Borneo. With the help of local friends he knows how to bypass customs.

People from all over the world know his reputation as a collector and find their way to him although he has no e-mail or website. “Even the mobile phone makes me crazy. I have other work to do than talking to people who want to know how to grow some plant.”

In the nineties, Poonsak and his wife went on expedition with the American botanist Donald Hodel. Due to the insurgency in the South of Thailand, they were accompanied by the army.
In the nineties, Poonsak and his wife went on expedition with the American botanist Donald Hodel. Due to the insurgency in the South of Thailand, they were accompanied by the army.

The American botanist Donald Hodel honored Poonsak for his expertise during two years of cooperation in the search for palms and cycads by naming a new species of Licuala after him (Licuala Poonsakii). But official botanical institutions tend to be careful in acknowledging his discoveries because of his unorthodox procedures. More troubling is that Poonsak himself doesn’t keep a database of his tremendous collection and doesn’t take the time to record his knowledge. He knows every detail of plant locations by heart, as he knows the perfect conditions for growing plants. But he has no computer, nor a trainee who could capture his expertise.

Poonsak Vatcharakorn: “I would like to write another book, but I am afraid that people will use it to start digging plants themselves to sell on the market. As they don’t know how to properly dig, the plants will die. Then there will be no such species in the forest left, and neither in the gardens.”

February 2016, by Karolien Bais, image Mijnd Huijser

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