Lookfad Panan, breeder of fragrant trees:
“I like to discover rare items myself”
“If I can buy a plant in a shop, anybody can. I prefer looking for rare items.” Lookfad Panan collects plants with a pleasant fragrance and nice leaves. But not only that, the plants also need to be unique. That is why she searches for them in forests, not in nurseries.
After strolling through her huge nursery with thousands of flowering plants and trees, we settle down at the table in the workshop, surrounded by her husband, her twin daughters, my translator and of course some dogs. Soon the table is filled with a pile of books. These are the reference works Lookfad uses to identify her catch. She is a selfmade botanist. When she started roaming the forests of Southeast Asia, some 24 years ago, she came across plants that were hitherto unknown to her. She brought home seeds and cuttings, and together with her husband started growing and propagating.
Now, at the age of 52, the former garment factory worker is a well-known breeder with a large international clientele. The beauty of the Rubiaceae, Annonaceae, Magnoliaceae and Lecythidaceae species in her collection are sought after by the Botanical Garden and the Garden by the Bay in Singapore. Her shop in the famous Chatuchak market in Bangkok, where she has been selling for the last ten years, attracts people from countries like Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, many of them recurring customers.
“My passion always was in plants,” Lookfad says. “My first shop was a small space in front of my house in Chanthaburi. I started buying and selling regular plants, nothing special. Everybody sold the same plants. So I decided to discover rare plants myself.”
Later the family moved to Tha Mai, a nearby village, where Lookfad and her husband finally have enough space to propagate and experiment.
This is a family business, not unusual in Thailand. Both daughters have finished a university education in Bangkok, one in genetics, the other in economics, but before pursuing a masters they were called back home to learn the profession and trade of their parents.
One of them tells proudly how her mother always has good luck when she is in the forest. “She is a Buddhist, so she prays to find a certain plant, and when she opens her eyes, she finds it. That is her personal ability.”
Does Lookfad have any dreams left? “Oh yes. I would like to build a house, a resort and a coffee shop, make a beautiful garden and sell my plants there.”
And in terms of finding plants?
“I am still looking for a certain Magnolia species that doesn’t exist in Thailand, but I know that it grows in Indonesia. When the Covid pandemic is over, I want to go and look for it.”
From top left to bottom right: 1. Gustavia longifolia 2. Gardenia volkensii; 3. Mitrephora tomentosa; 4. Polyalthia evecta; 5. Duperrea pavettaefolia (Kurz) Pit; 6. Portlandia grandiflora
April 2021, Karolien Bais, image Lookfad Panan and 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.”