Nopchai Chansilpa, breeder of water lily and lotus:
"It is more an art than a science”
Monsoon rain has been tormenting the area for days. Now, in a short dry spell, the water lilies and lotuses dance in the wind, their leaves sparkling with drops. Although the nursery of Dr. Nopchai Chansilpa has an industrial layout of tanks and pipes, the view is enchanting. It is not hard to imagine why water lily and lotus appear in ancient myths, nor why they have inspired so many poets and painters. The elegant flower rising from the mud on a graceful stem symbolizes purity in Buddhism and Hinduism. The abundant seeds of the lotus stand for fertility.But Nopchai’s urge to create ever new varieties stems from a worldlier motive. “My father used to have a water lily pond. As a kid I put my fish in his pond, but they damaged the plants. So my father said: ‘Either you find a solution, or your fish will have to go.’ That is when I started to be an expert on water lilies,” he grins from ear to ear. At the age of twelve his experiments began. Fifty years later he is a distinguished breeder, whose new varieties have earned scores of international awards. In 2004, after years of research in breeding water lilies that survive in cold winters, his Nymphaea Mangkala Ubol became a world champion. His creation Nymphaea Wanvisa won the title of Best New Water Lily for 2010. The International Water Lily and Water Gardening Society praised it as a prolific bloomer, and stated: ‘The flower is variegated unlike any hardy water lily in existence. It features a salmon-orange background richly speckled with creamy yellow. The leaves are predominately burgundy-brown with green spotting.’
Dr. Nopchai Chansilpa is a plant pathologist by education. He studied in the Philippines and in Germany, and now teaches this subject at the Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok in Bang Phra, Thailand. It comes in handy to have extensive knowledge of pests and diseases, but his passion is in breeding and hybridizing. A passion that appeared to be so fruitful that he is now director of the Water Lily Institute at Rajamangala University and chairman of the Thailand Network for Lotus and Water lily Research and Development.
At 65, he has surpassed his official pensionable age with five years, and he has signed for another four years. “After that I will stop. I have already realized my dreams; eleven of my plants are prizewinners, which is more than one can aim for. I would like to go travelling, to the Amazon and Madagascar.”
Travelling has always been part of his life, as he is eager to find generic material for his cross-breeding. China, a country with some 1,000 varieties of lotus, is one of his favorite destinations. “In Thailand we have only four varieties: single, double, pink and white. China is more advanced in lotus usage, both for ornamentation and for food.” In India ─ its national flower being the lotus ─ he gathered DNA to compare it with the Chinese. “I try to cross seeds with Chinese seeds that are already improved. But lotus blooms only a short while. I would like to extend the harvesting time. And I also try to make a different color.”
Dr. Nopchai: “I like to experiment. With any property of the plant: the leaves, the color of the flower, the stem, the hardiness, the life span of the flower. Hybridizing is not so much a science as an art. Your imagination is the art; breeding is the technique.”
And thus his imagination has led to water lilies with a striped stem, with flowers that open day and night, with flowers that last seven days, or flowers that change color every day. “You name it, and I can make it,” he says jokingly. But only half-jokingly, because now he is even working on water lilies with green and black flowers. “Well,” he adds, “I cannot make everything, but I do want to be the first to make it.”
On the grounds of the university, right next to Nopchai’s nursery, a multistorey-building is under construction. From next year on, this will be his tissue culture lab for water lilies and lotuses, financed by the Thai government. He is excited about it, although he still faces the problem of finding employees with the right expertise.
Nopchai: “Here I can make tissue cultures of plants from all over the world. Tissue culture is a simple technique, but most people cannot do it, because they lack patience. It can take one or two years before you know the result of hybridizing a hardy type of water lily. Some other types take six years.”
June 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 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.”