Plant collector Visuth Phoktavi:
“I go for the rare and difficult exotics”
“It’s a blistering hot afternoon in Bangkok. Mr. Visuth Phokthavi welcomes us on his shady terrace with a traditional Thai dessert, the bowl filled to the brim with shaved ice. A fountain in the bordering pond spreads cool droplets. Majestic freshwater fish lazily ripple the water. While getting acquainted, we enjoy the view of sturdy bromeliads against the background of elegant palms.
As Mr. Visuth attended schools with foreign teachers from the Catholic brothers of Assumption school, he is fluent in English. This has been a great advantage in his professional career. “Financially speaking I have been very lucky. First I had a monopoly in buying and selling a certain type of electrical sheet steel that was in high demand in China. I earned enough money to acquire an extensive collection of exotic plants that became much wanted by, again, the Chinese.”
Lately the value of exotics has exploded worldwide, especially of rare variegated species. The price of a plant is determined per leaf. A beautiful leaf with a certain variegation can cost tens of thousands of dollars. And people are willing to pay it. This craze has been his second financial luck, although he admits that he is now stuck with some plants that have cost him a fortune but have lost their value. The hype seems to be past, and some species have become available in such quantities that they are no longer rare.
Now, at 72, he can indulge infinitely in what started as a hobby, half a century ago. “I graduated in banking and commerce at Thammasart University in Bangkok, but I have always collected plants, even when I hardly had space to store them. I started with buying common plants at the market, but as my horticultural knowledge expanded, I started concentrating on the more rare and difficult exotics.”
He no longer visited nurseries, but started contacting renowned Thai plant collectors, who travelled from Madagascar to Mexico to introduce exciting new species. An important person for Mr. Visuth was the Bangkok-based plant collector Sappasiri Chaovanich. “In the beginning all my money went to him, because I was eager to get exotic plants. At that time there were still few hurdles for imports. He carried his boxes of plants into the airplane himself. Not only did he bring many varieties, he also taught me how to grow them. He still does. Whenever I have a problem with a plant, he knows what to do about it.”
Mr. Visuth’s premises show that he is not only an avid collector, but also a successful trader of plants. No expense is spared to create what essentially resembles an estate: residential buildings with a neo-renaissance emanation, a greenhouse worthy of a royal botanical garden, carefully landscaped thematic grounds, like an agave garden and a Chinese garden. Yard and nurseries are impeccably maintained by three fulltime gardeners.
Mr. Visuth: “I design the gardens myself. Of course I look for inspiration in books, but I have my own criteria. I love Japanese gardens and in my designs I want to keep that Japanese feel. I don’t like messy trees or messy gardens. I like to preserve the nice lines of branches and leaves. And I keep a proportional contrast between the hard and the soft, let’s say one third for paths and stones, and two thirds for plants.”
Although his collection ranges from ferns to orchids and from agaves to cacti, his passion is with cycads and palms. Mr. Visuth: “I love palms and when I started growing this garden some thirty years ago, I planted many species. Unfortunately I am losing the battle against the palm weevils. I have tried every remedie against this pest, but they keep coming back. Lots of my palm trees have died.”
Mr. Visuth’s favorite cycad is Encephalartos eugene-maraisii. But it is no longer in his garden. “It is a pity, because my clone had very silvery leaves. What happened? I sold them all to a Chinese buyer!”
Now one of his favorites is Zamia pseudoparasitica (see photo on top of page). This plant, about five years old, has a prominent spot in his garden. Placed high on a pedestal it shows its elegantly drooping leaves.
But, as much as Visuth is focused on aesthetics, in acquiring plants he will always go for the rarity, even if it concerns an ugly species. “If I have to choose between an ugly and a beautiful species, I choose the ugly. Because if it is beautiful, it will become popular and no longer rare.”
May 2022, 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.”
The garden, greenhouse and nursery of Visuth Phoktavi, are chock-full of rare plants. He collects, breeds and trades exotics from all over the world.”