Annop Ongsakul, plant searcher and breeder of gingers:
“We found two new species in five minutes”
“We are strange people who enjoy walking on terrible trails, getting bitten by mosquitoes and sucked by leeches. Plant maniacs like us can walk all day long without seeing anything exciting but are still not disappointed. We are happy to be in nature and chat about the plants we see. Of course we are enthusiastic about finding plants that we have never seen before. And sometimes we do find new species.”
Annop Ongsakul, a ‘plant lover’ as he calls himself, combines two qualities that have made him a well-known man in the botanical field. He is a prominent hybridizer of heliconias and a much sought-after companion in plant expeditions.
In Phuket, the largest island on the west coast of Thailand, he grows tropical cut flowers in his Sulee Nursery. The private garden around his house is dedicated to ferns, palms and ornamental plants like gingers.
But whenever he can afford the time and money, he is out on expedition. In numerous trips he has combed out Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and the Philippines. “We always go with the same people, plant maniacs, not botanists. Most trips we make with four or five persons, sometimes just two. We may be tracking in swamp areas, climbing up high mountains or cruising along rivers. We search in an area that matches the basic requirement of the plants we are looking for ─ shade or sun, sand or clay, slope or land. Actually, we use our intuition and need luck. Often we have found nice stuff, but going back after a while, in the same area and the same period of the year, we found nothing. As if all had disappeared...”
Mr. Annop was born in Phuket 53 years ago. By lack of present-day entertainment like movies, shopping malls or computer games, he and his siblings found pleasure in climbing big trees. “My grandparents had a huge backyard with fruit trees like sapodilla, rambutan and mango. That backyard was our jungle. At the age of ten, I started growing ornamental plants by sowing seeds I bought at the market. I have never thought about it, but now that you ask me, I think this is where my love for plants comes from.”
After studying agriculture at the Prince of Songkla University in Had Yai, he got a job with a company in Bangkok. Annop: “I worked there for ten years, but I got bored with the big city. Meanwhile, Phuket started to be a popular tourist destination. Many hotels needed cut flowers for decoration. In Bangkok, at the famous plant market Chatuchak, I had seen a new plant for Thailand, Heliconia. So I got the idea to produce it as a cut flower and moved back to my hometown.”
Ever since that time, Mr. Annop expanded his stock from heliconias to anthuriums, ornamental gingers, curcumas and costus. He also works with farmers who grow these plants for him between the trees in their orchards.
As a hobby, but also as a new source of business, he hybridizes gingers, especially curcuma. But his passion remains with heliconias. Some he grows to sell as cut flower, some he just grows for collection.
He may be modest in presenting his botanical qualities as a hobby, but his expertise is called in by renowned researchers. The famous Malaysian architect and amateur botanist Lim Chong Keat involved him, about twenty years ago, in his research to compare the pinanga palm in southern Thailand with those in Malaysia. “We found a mottled-leaf pinanga, native to Phuket, that could be a new species. So he came back many times to collect inflorescence and fruit for identification. It was indeed a new species and Lim Chong Keat named it Pinanga watanaiana after the Thai palm pioneer Watana Sumawong. Later we found another new species of palm, Iguanura talangensis from Talang, Phuket. By and by he got interested in zingiberaceae, my favorite field, and we made plant trips to the border of Thailand and Malaysia.”
An unexpected success was his expedition with the American aroid experts Alan Galloway and Petra Schmidt to Laos, leading to the discovery of two new species of Amorphophallus. “As I said, finding a new plant depends on your luck. We went to Laos in 2003, when the country was just opening up and we had no idea about its flora. We drove from Vientiane to Pakse, not expecting anything, just surveying. After a couple of days, we saw a showy red-leaf Amorphophallus on a small hill close to the road. Alan Galloway was excited because Amorphophallus is his favorite. But I was more concerned with finding curcuma and ginger, so I let Alan enjoy his baby and took a walk. But after a few steps I saw a tiny Amorphophallus. I looked closely and I realized it was not a seedling but a mature Am. with very fine leaf. At that time, the smallest known species was Am. pygmaeus, native to Thailand and about one foot tall. Well, compared to this one, Am. pygmaeus is a giant. I was sure I found something new to the botanical world. I shouted to Alan: ‘Hey, forget your red-leaf Amorphophallus. Take a look at a new species.’ That is the whole story, simple as that, just a few steps from the road. We found two new species in five minutes."
June 2016, by Karolien Bais, image Annop Ongsakul
Annop Ongsakul’s hybrids of curcuma and costus
His first curcuma hybrid was Curcuma X Sulee rainbow (top left). Later came Curcuma X Sulee sunshine (top middle), Curcuma X Sulee sunrise (top right), Curcuma X Sulee sunset (bottom left) and Curcuma X Sulee princess (bottom middle). About the costus (bottom right) he says: “I always joke this is plant globalization: a cross-breeding of the African Costus dubius and the South-American Costus scaber, done in Asia. If it would be used as cut flower in Europe, globalization is complete.”
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.
Thai scientist Patana Thavipoke tries to establish the most favorable breeding conditions for wild orchids, as their natural habitat is rapidly decreasing.
Lookfad Panan, specialist in fragrant trees, searches in the forest for unique items. “If I can buy a plant in a shop, anybody can. That’s why I don’t look for plants in nurseries.”