Bamboo expert Dieter Ohrnberger:
“By raising them, I try to identify them”
Some people are born in the wrong continent. Take Dieter Ohrnberger. German by birth, but with a strong inclination to everything Asian − from Buddhism to Chinese porcelain. After surveying several Asian countries, he settled down in Thailand, never to return to Germany again. His decision to swap countries came in 1999, right after having completed the epic task of composing The Bamboos of the World, a 600-page reference work with botanical names, synonyms, geographical distribution and bibliography.
In Doi Saket, a village near the northern town Chiang Mai, he has established his bambusetum, a showpiece of some 200 species. Here he is ‘Khun Dieter’, a man who enjoys the climate at an elevation of 300 meters: “No heater, no airco”, he smiles contented. A man who enjoys the landscape, the flora and the fauna. A man who fills his days with studying his plants in every detail, trying to discern their characteristics and to establish their identity.
In search of bamboos he used to visit countries like China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Laos. Now, at the age of 69 and with a frail health, he limits his travelling to a ride on the motorbike to nearby Chiang Mai. Plants and seeds are brought to him by friends and collectors. Dieter: “I plant them out and I try to grow and describe them. For instance, most seeds I get from China are wrongly named. Not that I know the right name, but by raising them I try to identify them.”
Actually, his collection contains another 100 species, all in pots. As they take up too much space, he houses them at the nursery of a Thai bamboo grower nearby.
Among the collectors who leave their plants in the care of Dieter Ohrnberger is Cliff Sussman, an American ‘bamboo addict’. Dieter: “He collects bamboo from the wild, but to get them through quarantine in the United States is not easy. So he needs a place to keep the plants for a while.”
Why is it so hard to identify a bamboo?
Ohrnberger: “Main problem is in the bamboo itself. For a complete description you need a combination of the vegetative and the reproductive characteristics. But bamboos rarely flower, so many species are described incompletely. This is a big problem. For identification of tropical bamboos another big problem is hybridization.”
Ohrnberger shares his meticulous work generously with anyone interested, through his online documentation of bamboo species in Thailand. His albums cover over 80 species of native and naturalized bamboo and over 120 introduced species. Luckily he is also a fine photographer. His photos show all details of the plant that are meaningful for identification, like young shoots, culm sheaths and leaf sheaths in young and mature stage, culm nodes and branching.
Like the collector Cliff Sussman and the late president of the Bamboo Society David McClintock − who welcomed The Bamboos of the World as a “treasure trove for bamboo buffs” −, Dieter Ohrnberger is autodidact. These men belong to a ‘guild’ of bamboo specialists who won their spurs without formal training in botany or horticulture. Ohrnberger studied urban and suburban planning, and terrestrial geodesy in Dortmund and Munich. “In Germany I worked in traffic planning. My job was to make the integration of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists less dangerous.” Jokingly he adds: “The only connection with botany is the landscaping.”
How does a European urban planner fall prey to a fascination for Asian bamboo?
Ohrnberger recalls his first encounter with the evergreen member of the grass family. He was about twenty years old and it happened in his parents’ garden in Bavaria, South Germany: “A solitary plant, sharply standing out in the snow, caught my eye. A bamboo, green as in summer, so unique. Later I found out it was a Fargesia murieliae.”
He was captivated. “I went to nurseries and botanical gardens, at first to look for the cold-resistant species. I moved to Berlin, mainly because there was a good library where I went once or twice a week. I collected literature on bamboo and built my own library of photocopies. At a certain point I even started an international mailing company on bamboo books. As bamboo is a major plant in Asia, that is where I went to look around and finally settle down.”
When he finished the production of his huge bamboo lexicon in 1999, he sold his books to a library group in the Netherlands and started packing. “During my first years in Thailand, I couldn’t see a starting point about bamboo.” The void was easily filled when he obtained a bigger garden at Doi Saket and started growing the bamboos he came across.
Ohrnberger: “I never had time to study other plants than bamboo. I always thought that after retiring I could start reading all other botanical books. But no!”
From top left to bottom right: 1. Gigantochloa atroviolacea, young green culm in the foreground, still with culm-leaves attached; black culms in the background are older, and most of the culm-leaves have been dropped off; 2. Dendrocalamus asper 'Betung Hitam', slender rudimentary branches piercing through the culm-leaf sheath which often remains attached to the internode of the lower section of culm; 3. Same species as 2, culm-leaf, with its base loosely attached to the initially brown-velvety internode; 4. Cephalostachyum pergracile (syn. Schizostachyum pergracile), in the foreground, a young culm with bluish internodes and an orange-yellowish culm-leaf; 5. Unidentified, and possibly undescribed, species of eastern Thailand, culms erect and unbranched below, and with leafy branches on top scrambling into nearby vegetation; 6. Schizostachyum grande, few years old seedling with unusual vivid light green foliage; typically, the species has dark green leaves.
December 2017, by Karolien Bais, image Mijnd Huijser
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 Orhnberger 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.”