Collector of shade plants Surath Vanno:
"I have no favorite plant anymore. I love them all.”
A canopy of flowering rain trees covers one of the finest private plant collections in Thailand. Surath Vanno, highly esteemed among experts from all over the world, has gathered plants ever since he can remember. His father grew orchids, but that was not Surath’s cup of tea. As a youngster he was fond of Caladiums, the plant with the heart-shaped leaves that come in all mixed shades of green, white, pink and red. “When I was 15 years old, I already had almost 150 species. I collected them in nature, found them in nurseries, propagated and exchanged with friends.”
Now, at 75, he has earned fame as a landscape designer and as a collector of palms, ferns, Anthurium, Philodendron, Bromeliad, Colocasia, Aglaonema, Agava and hundreds of other species. Oddly enough, there is hardly any Caladium to be seen in his greenery. He laughs when I point this out to him: “I have no favorite plant anymore. I love them all.” His collection is beautifully displayed in his garden and nursery in Bangkok, called Bankampu Tropical Gallery. His motto, “All trees are treasured as great works of art, created by the world’s greatest artist – nature,” is written on the sign that greets the visitors. His dedication to this ‘work of art’ is reflected in the two volumes of Surath Vanno’s Plant Collection. His books ─ written in Thai, except for the botanical names ─ contain stunning pictures and precise descriptions of all his plants.
Surath Vanno is an industrial designer by training. After having studied in the Philippines and the United States, he started teaching industrial art at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Meanwhile he leased an abandoned rice field at the outskirts of the city. Surath: “There was no road, no electricity. We pumped water from a well. In a short time the land was full of plants. All my colleagues at the university liked plants and collected them, so we could exchange samples. My wife Tassanee and I started propagating. We had to find a permanent place and bought the plot where we live now.” On this plot, a little over one acre, he planted the rain trees, 38 years ago, that have grown into giant shade providers. Here he could also indulge in his capacities as a landscape designer, decorating the grounds with waterfalls, sitting areas amidst lush green, and elegant stone walls for hanging or climbing plants.
Surath and Tassanee have come a long way since they started propagating Caladiums in the seventies. Surath: “At that time, as a teacher in industrial art, I had a very modest income. For some extra money, we tried selling our plants on the market. In one weekend we managed to earn almost half my monthly salary. We were so proud and excited!” No wonder that, after finishing her studies in education, Tassanee never looked for a job, but dedicated her life to plants. And so did both their daughters. One of them runs the restaurant amidst all these plants and trees, where food connoisseurs can also get a taste for botany.
Loyal to his skills as an industrial designer, Surath Vanno has installed a fiber workshop where two employees manufacture light weight flowerpots in every desired size. Surath: “They are very practical for gardens on rooftops or balconies.” He applies them in his landscaping for clients, but they are also for sale at his garden shop. After retiring at 55, Surath concentrated on landscaping. He was mostly sought after by offices and hotels, among which the Grand Hyatt Erawan in Bangkok. But nowadays he prefers spending his time wandering through his garden, sometimes with groups of botanical students. However, he seems inexhaustible. At the time of our interview he is hosting Thailand Best Fern Show 2017, a four-day event where fern growers bring their most impressive samples before an international jury. He remains calm and amiable, greeting old friends and new acquaintances, showing people around, willing to pose for pictures over and over again.
When he sees me off, I ask this nature lover why his garden is strewn with statues of Ganesha, the deity of fortune and success, the patron of arts, sciences and trade. “Because I pray to him,” he answers.
April 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.”