Palm searcher Michael Ferrero:

"A matter of instinct, trial and error, and good luck"

Michael Ferrero is hardly ever found in his native country Australia. Being a ‘global tropical horticulturalist’, as he calls himself, he spends his time collecting palm species in the forests of Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Venezuela or Cuba. By chance I met him in Thailand, still excited about his recent six months’ search expedition to Borneo.

It is fantastic! I went for the palms. Borneo was one of the big holes in my jigsaw puzzle, and I was not disappointed. Botanically speaking it is very rich. Every day I found something new in the forest. Among local people there is not much knowledge about palm species, so it was not easy to get information on where to go searching. Most important is my instinct. Second come trial and error. And third good luck.”

Luck can somewhat be commanded with knowledge of the growing habits of a palm, but for identification the flower and the fruit are essential – a stage that cannot be manipulated by a passer-by. When Michael Ferrero finds a species that is new to him, he exchanges his pictures with other horticulturalists. Sometimes the species is already known, but has not yet been named. “I stress to get it named. ‘Do it,’ I always say, ‘for the sake of the plant. If it has a name, we can describe it and publish it.’ Unless you give the plant the knowledge, it will be lost.”

This palm in my garden is unknown to Ferrero. “Just look at it, the beautiful leaves! Where is it from? I think Laos, or Cambodia. Vietnam, you say? I really must go there!”
This palm in my garden is unknown to Ferrero. “Just look at it, the beautiful leaves! Where is it from? I think Laos, or Cambodia. Vietnam, you say? I really must go there!”

Ferrero was educated as a lawyer. But working at a lawyer’s office was “too boring” for the man whose interest was in plants. His escape from boredom came when an employee of Cairns Botanic Gardens tipped him off a vacancy in the nursery. “In those days it was easy to work in horticulture without proper schooling. I had no experience, but I did know a lot of plants. As I mastered Latin through my law studies, I had no problem learning botanical names.” After a three months’ probation, he obtained a permanent appointment. “I took care of all the plants, expanded the collection, learned how to display flowers for shows and how to organize sales. I even held radio talks on gardening. Somehow, Australians love to listen to gardening programs on Saturday mornings.” The job also gave him a chance to explore the palm species of Papua New Guinea, until then practically terra incognita for horticulturalists. And he did what he always presses other ‘explorers’ to do: he published his knowledge of the species he found in scientific journals.

After three years he left Cairns, never to work in Australia again. It was the American palm expert Donald Hodel who asked him to come to Thailand, to work at the botanical garden Nong Nooch. The following ten years he not only learned to speak Thai, but also enriched the collection of Nong Nooch with about three hundred species of palms. “Many of them I brought from Australia. It is no problem to take plants out of the country – it is nearly impossible to bring them in.” At that time he simply carried plants on the plane, in suitcases or Styrofoam boxes. Now, with all the security measures, that has become impossible. “Carrying seeds is easier, but people also ask for plantlets, which are much more complicated to transport.”

Today Michael Ferrero is an acknowledged horticulturalist, a walking encyclopedia of plant names, in Latin and in the local language of every country he has explored. His most recent job was at the botanical garden of Cayman Islands. “It was well-paid plus tax-free! But when they wanted to renew my contract, I refused. I would be fifty years old by the end of the contract, and feared that I would no longer want to travel.”

Ferrero is delighted to find a Calyptrocalyx palm species in my garden. “It is me who brought this palm from the rainforest of Papua New Guinea to Thailand.”
Ferrero is delighted to find a Calyptrocalyx palm species in my garden. “It is me who brought this palm from the rainforest of Papua New Guinea to Thailand.”

He is a free man again and manages to live off sponsorships. When he has three or four customers for certain species, mostly palms, he’s off to the rainforest. Of course he cannot guarantee that his trip will be successful. “The sponsors know it is a risk. Nature is not a supermarket, where I can find the necessary plants on a shelf. My customers are collectors. For them the value is not in the money; they are just happy to have the plant. They often lead a secluded life. They don’t brag about their collection. If I don’t manage to return with the plant they want, they don’t bother me. Maybe next time, with good luck, or ‘with the help of God’, as they say in South America.”

Two more pieces of his jigsaw puzzle are still missing, both in Indonesia: Kalimantan and Sumatra. “Kalimantan is going to be difficult, because there is hardly any local knowledge of the forest. And it is going to be a race against time. Massive land clearing is rapidly destroying the primary rainforest. I hope to go next year."

March 2016, text and image by Karolien Bais




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.”