321st Meeting – Tuesday, April 20th 2010

 Dokmai Dogmas and the Joy of Monsoon Gardening

A talk and presentation by Eric Danell

Present: Reinhard Hohler, Ketsanee Danell, Janet James & Illegible name, Mark and Dianne Barber-Riley, Sjon Hauser, Matt Reeder, Glyn Morgan, Pat Corey, David Steane, Louis Gabaude, Richard Haugland. An audience of 13  

 A summary of the talk and presentation written by Eric:

Dokmai Dogmas
The Joy of Monsoon Gardening

Eric Danell


Is there a need for another public garden in Chiang Mai? We have Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Tweechol and Rachapruek to name  a few. Some events at Dokmai Garden assures me we are needed. On one occasion I showed an adult American a small field of corn (maize). Our guest remarked that although she knew the USA grow a lot of corn, she had never seen it grow. Then she asked me if we could pull up some to see if they were ready. I was puzzled by this proposal, but I soon realised she thought the corn cobs are underground, like potatoes. An Australian asked ”What part of the rice do you eat?”, and then we showed the rice field and we discussed cereals and grass in general. On another occasion, a volunteer reported to me that a guest had been very confused when the volunteer showed a pomegranate with remnants of the flower. The guest had never realised the connection between a flower and a fruit!

Although we may smile when we hear such stories, they show that indeed there is a need for a garden where people learn about the plants, not just look at them. We feel happy and proud when we can significantly elevate the degree of knowledge among our guests. This is what Dokmai Garden is about, and therefore our slogan is ”Make friends with tropical plants”.

Aims of the talk

1. What is Dokmai Garden?

2. Discuss monsoon gardening, giving examples.

The importance of Education

Dokmai Garden is a private botanical garden established in 2006 and open to the public since 2009. We believe education is very important. The major environmental problem on earth is overpopulation. Most man-made environmental problems can be solved if the human population decreases to 92-94%. The way to do this is by fighting poverty and superstition. The methods to achieve this are education and female liberation. We know this from promising results in Japan, Sweden and Germany.

The importance of gardens as arks

It may take 200-300 years to lower the human population by the method of 1-2 children per couple. That means it will be much worse before it gets better, and there will be a tremendous pressure on plants and wildlife. Gardeners worldwide have an opportunity to save as many species as they can within their gardens. A network of millions of gardens on earth, can, in addition to national parks which are not as safe, provide refuges. Dokmai Garden tries to create habitats suitable for plants, fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds, and then communicate this know-how to our visitors.

Dokmai Garden’s three groups of visitors

The first group of visitors are the foreign tourists. They are usually well-situated middle aged or retired people with their own gardens at home. Their contribution in the form of tickets, foods and souvenirs help us covering the running costs. The investment costs can never be paid by tickets.

The second group of visitors are the volunteers. We provide food and lodging, and they provide labour, and quite often expertise skills within fields such as photography, marketing, forestry or agriculture. Our volunteers are generally very well educated young people.

The third group of visitors are the Thais. Here we have an exchange of ideas. We try to promote love and care for the heavily battered Thai flora and fauna. We try to show that there are alternative garden designs, not only golf courses and resorts. We work hard against the practice of burning garden waste; we try to teach composting and organic cultivation. In return, we learn a lot about cooking, craft-making and uses of plants.

Dokmai Garden’s special pedagogic methods

Dokmai Garden hosts at present 900 plant species. Of these, 500 species are presented on signs. Most botanical garden’s have signs with scientific names. However, even if you are a biologist, such names may mean nothing if you come from a temperate climate, where the genera and families are totally different from the tropics. Therefore, in addition to scientific names and family names, our signs contain short but interesting texts about the plants. We do not say what they look like, because you already see them, but we wish to create an interest by stating if a plant is delicious, poisonous, has a valuable timber or magic uses. These facts are presented in English, Japanese and Thai.

The second unusual pedagogic method is that we try to talk to every visitor. That enables a visitor to ask questions, and we can show highlights on that occasion. The chatting is essential for both exchange of knowledge, and for enjoying a family touch, which a large corporate or governmental garden cannot provide.

Dokmai Garden’s shop

At our shop we do not sell plastic key rings or teddy bears, we try to appeal to the educated mind. Although we have high quality souvenirs, most visitors buy books. Among our books we provide two titles which are hard to obtain elsewhere in Chiang Mai: Tem Smitinand’s book on Thai plant names, which provides a checklist of all Thai plant species, and some of their Thai names, and Mabberley’s Plant-book which covers all plant families and genera in the world.

Dokmai Garden’s Fauna


So far we have recorded 72 wild bird species at Dokmai Garden. Together with Tony Ball we arrange excursions and sell CDs with Thai bird calls. We plant special plants to attract many birds, such as bamboo, shrubberies, fruit trees, nectar plants, old hollow trees. We also keep water pots and a pond. We do not set fires, unlike all the surrounding land owners, which is why everything which can move seeks shelter with us. The chicken fence provides a barrier keeping cows and bird-hunting dogs out, and still makes us feel free without a wall.


To attract free-living butterflies, we plant host plants for larvae (Aristolochia tagala for birdwings and swallowtails, citruses, legumes) and nectar plants for adults. The best nectar plant in the garden is Duranta erecta, the golden dew drop, from South America. We have tried other species such as the indigenous Buddleja paniculata, but if D. erecta is present they go there. Some butterflies prefer water, some salt, some dung.


Amphibians seem to be in decline worldwide due to habitat loss, pesticides and even disease. Some species like Microhyla pulchra are edible, and has been hunted to extinction in many Thai villages. Amphibians benefit from ponds, but even small pots with water are appreciated. A garden without pesticides provides insects (food) without poison. Again, shelter from dogs and cats is important. Pots half-filled with damp soil, or a pit in the ground, provide shelter from the roasting sun.


We have at least four species of geckos, two agamid species, numerous skinks and the long-tailed lizard. Leaf litter, trees, stone heaps, tall grass and shrubberies help them. By keeping an untidy perimeter, only a meter wide along the fence, you create a nice environment for lizards. Like chicken and pheasants, they do provide help in removing pest insects and small scorpions, and they bring colour and action to the garden. Again, keeping dogs and cats away is essential.


If you have a lovely garden vibrant with a variety of life forms, you will also have snakes, just like in paradise. Some snakes are indeed good at removing rats that spread disease, but some come to hunt amphibians and lizards, and some are indeed venomous. You need to keep doors and windows on the first floor closed, to avoid surprises. The pale monocled cobra is common around Chiang Mai, but it lacks the characteristic ‘monocle’ marking and does not necessarily show its hood. Identification can be hard, but if there is only one scale between the eye and the nostril scale, it would indicate a member of the cobra family.

Our driving force

We wish to emphasize that we run Dokmai Garden because we think it is fun. One should not do this to make money. Especially since October 2008, we have had three serious riots scaring off the tourists, reducing our income significantly.

Why would a farang come to Dokmai Garden?

A farang who lives in Chiang Mai may pay his Thai gardener 1000-5000 Baht a month. Still, they might not be satisfied, but do not know what to do. With some basic knowledge about monsoon gardening, the farang can supervise the gardener and create a garden that suits the farang. Such knowledge can be obtained from us.

It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong in gardening design. It is an art form, and whatever makes you happy, is correct.

Also, it is useful to at least have a good book with the scientific names. If you do not know the scientific names, you do not know the plants. If you know the scientific names, you can always Google your favourite vernacular name in your language, and you will have access to the world literature about that plant. If you only know a local name, it might either be totally unknown to others outside that village, or be used for 20 other species, causing total confusion.

It is also important to understand that we live in a monsoon climate, not in a rain forest. That means that if you want massive blossom of monsoon trees such as Cassia fistula or Lagerstroemia macrocarpa, you need to allow them at least two months of drought. Although rain forest gardens are always green, they rarely have majestic blossom, just one flower here and there. If you wish to grow rain forest plants in Chiang Mai, such as cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), you need to water daily. For Mediterranean plants, the heat is no problem, but the rain is. Growing Mediterranean plants in pots which you can move out of the way of the rain, and which dry out quickly, is one option. Another option is elevated flower beds, with gravel and drainage outlets.

It is also important to know your soil. Find out where in your garden you have poor drainage and either plant accordingly or improve drainage. The pH may play a vital role for some species, which is why an analysis using pool equipment is an option you should consider. The organic top soils are usually thin or non-existing due to fires and to rapid degradation. To improve water-holding organic layers, do not remove grass cuttings or leaves, mow them and let the worms do the job!

When planting a plant, you must always screen it from the sun, immediately! Use a stick to mark where your plant is, label it or add it to your map, and water generously.

Some examples of interesting plants in a monsoon garden

Barleria cristata is native, and a strong survivor not needing much of attention. It is rarely affected by insects, and easy to propagate via cuttings. Garden varieties may have white stripes on blue background.

Bixa orellana is a South-American tree with lovely cherry-like flowers. The fruits look like dry rambutan, and inside you find red seeds that, mixed with water, gives a red dye you can use for food colouring.

Uvaria lurida is a Thai climber with fantastic red flowers. It is still surprising why most dealers sell American plants, when such gorgeous native plants exist.

Garcinia schomburgkiana has funny-looking bent fruits. They are so glossy that you can see your reflection when looking at the fruit. The taste is sour, which is lovely on a hot day.

Butea monosperma is the Chiang Mai University symbol, and the province flower of Chiang Mai. It is a native monsoon plant with lovely orange blossom in February. The tree’s shape is very untidy, which is why you should grow it in a remote corner, just visit it during blossom time. Today I managed to obtain seeds of B. superba, a medicinal liana that has been collected to extinction in many areas in Chiang Mai. The aim is to propagate it and sell it to preserve it from extinction.

Dipterocarpus tuberculatus and Tectona grandis (teak) are often confused. D. tuberculatus is the most common tree in the Chiang Mai province, and is used for timber and resin and the leaves are used for roof thatching. It has fruits with two prominent wings. Teak has fruits without wings, and the leaf margins run down along the leaf stalk, while in D tuberculatus the leaf margin forms a heart.

The Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia) and The Queen of flowering trees (Amherstia nobilis) are each other’s opposites. There is nothing wrong with the Mexican sunflower, but it is launched as a tourist attraction, “Wild Sunflowers”. What the tour operators do not tell the innocent tourists is that unscrupulous people have clear-cut a mountain and wiped out 2,200 indigenous species, and then left the mountain so that weeds such as the Mexican sunflower move in. It is the province flower of Mae Hong Son. A. nobilis was only found at two places in nature, in Burma. It seemed to be growing in lowland teak forests. It may have existed in Chiang Mai too, but since the loggers came before the scientists, we do not know. The tree is probably extinct in nature, but remains in gardens. In fact, it is not rare in gardens, but I fear that if gardeners shelter their seedlings too much, they unconsciously select for strains that will not survive in nature. The best way of re-establishment is to throw out handfuls of seeds in a lowland teak-forest. Survival of the fittest!

Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus, is popular in Chiang Mai gardens. Many farang want large fruits, but they get very sticky fingers from the white latex if they prune away small fruits. The trick is to wash your hands with cooking oil afterwards, and then use soap and water. Otherwise your hands will stick to anything they touch. Do not prune away small fruits at an early stage because fruit flies will infect small fruits. Wait until the surviving fruits have a peel thick enough to withstand the fruit flies. Then you can select your 1-2 fruits and grow them into gigantic proportions.

Plumeria obtusa is the national flower of Laos. However, it is not even native to Asia. At Dokmai Garden we teach the origin of plants, so that you can create a favourable environment. The South-American Plumeria is very easy to grown, simply make a cutting of 3-4 dm, let it dry, plant it and water.

The native lacquer tree, Glua usitata, provides beautiful red-winged fruits, but the latex is irritating. Lacquer is important to cover baskets to make them insect-proof.

Many native orchids such as Ascocentrum ampullaceum provide lovely colours in the hottest time of the year. It is important to know the biology of each orchid species, to give it a favourable environment, and eventually lovely flowers.

One orchid is Vanilla planifolia, the source of natural vanilla flavouring. It is a Mexican species, successfully grown in Indonesia, why moisture is important. It is fully possible to grow it in your Chiang Mai garden too, if you water the whole plant every day, or every second day. The roots must make contact with the soil, and then it will climb up the tree or post. Shade is essential too.

There are many nice grasses suitable for Chiang Mai gardens. Axonopus compressus, ya malesia, is one favourite of mine. In addition to this there is commercial South-American grass, which you simply mow whatever it gets tall enough. Eventually you will create a nice herbal floor, full of lovely little flowers such as the blue Linderna crustacea.

Mushrooms are usually a forgotten aspect of a garden. In the rainy season, they provide colours and interesting shapes, and if you know the species, they also provide delicious food. Chanterelles (Cantharellus sp.) can be found in September where Dipterocarpus tuberculatus grows. It is perhaps the best edible mushroom in Thailand, and should be gently cooked with cream to extract the flavours.

Weeds and pests in your garden

Mikania or “Mile-a-minute” is a South-American vine introduced by the British to cover airfields during World War II. In 60 years it has managed to cover most of tropical Asia, Indonesia and even Queensland in Australia. It is particularly vigorous around Christmas, so do not leave your garden for long, or your fruit trees will be entangled. This is a serious weed!

Dendrophthoe is a genus of parasitic plants, resembling mistletoe. If you observe normally deciduous trees, such as Cassia fistula, and discover that in spite of the dry season, you have a perfectly green bush in the tree, beware! The leaves look different from the host, and the sole cure is to prune away the whole branch. Too many parasites may weaken or even kill a tree. They attack many tree species, so you need to inspect all your trees carefully and regularly.

Pesticides are quite unnecessary in home gardens, as we do not depend on crops for survival. Unnecessary use of pesticides could harm the health of your family as well as the health of the wildlife. Still, we cry when precious plants die. A biodegradable and mild pesticide is permethrin, which does not kill the insect, but it prevents long-horn beetles from laying eggs inside young trees. The chemical is destroyed after 6-8 weeks, which is why regular sprays are necessary until the tree is big enough. The chemical was originally discovered in European Tanacetum flowers, i.e. it is a natural insecticide. It is not known to rapidly harm most mammals or birds, but is highly toxic to cats.

Activity on the 28th of April 2010, at 17.00.

Garden Discussion and Full Moon Cocktail Party. Buy a cocktail as a lottery ticket, and you may win a lifetime membership at Dokmai Garden (value 3000 Baht). We also have a sale (10-50%) of luxurious products such as silk, Maiser hats, ray skins and Mother of Pearl. Contact us for your participation: info@dokmaigarden.co.th

Further information




Future Speakers 2010

322nd Meeting - Tuesday, May 11th – Film – Burma VJ - The Saffron Revolution in Myanmar introduced by Ashin Sopaka

323rd Meeting - Tuesday, June 8thRoger Casas talking about Tai Lue monks in Sipsong Panna

324th Meeting – July 13th 2010 – The Walls of Chiang Mai. Andrew Forbes will be talking about the mysteries surrounding the fortifications – northern "earthen ramparts" and the Finlayson Map showing two moats and triple walls around 1820.

Next Meeting

322nd Meeting - Tuesday, May 11th 2010

Movie: Burma VJ - The Saffron Revolution in Myanmar with Ashin Sopaka, a Burmese monk, introducing the movie and answering questions

Going beyond the occasional news clip from Burma, the acclaimed filmmaker, Anders Østergaard, brings us close to the video journalists who deliver the footage. Though risking torture and life in jail, courageous young citizens of Burma live the essence of journalism as they insist on keeping up the flow of news from their closed country. Armed with small handycams the Burma VJs stop at nothing to make their reportages from the streets of Rangoon. Their material is smuggled out of the country and broadcast back into Burma via satellite and offered as free usage for international media. The whole world has witnessed single event clips made by the VJs, but for the very first time, their individual images have been carefully put together and at once, they tell a much bigger story. The film offers a unique insight into high-risk journalism and dissidence in a police state, while at the same time providing a thorough documentation of the historical and dramatic days of September 2007, when the Buddhist monks started marching.

”Joshua”, age 27, is one of the young video journalists, who works undercover to counter the propaganda of the military regime. Joshua is suddenly thrown into the role as tactical leader of his group of reporters, when the monks lead a massive but peaceful uprising against the military regime. After decades of oblivion - Burma returns to the world stage, but at the same time foreign TV crews are banned from entering the country, so it is left to Joshua and his crew to document the events and establish a lifeline to the surrounding world. It is their footage that keeps the revolution alive on TV screens all over.

Amidst marching monks, brutal police agents, and shooting military the reporters embark on their dangerous mission, working around the clock to keep the world informed of events inside the closed country. Their compulsive instinct to shoot what they witness, rather than any deliberate heroism, turns their lives into that of freedom fighters.

The regime quickly understands the power of the camera and the reporters are constantly chased by government intelligence agents who look at the “media saboteurs” as the biggest prey they can get.

During the turbulent days of September, Joshua finds himself on an emotional rollercoaster between hope and despair, as he frantically tries to keep track of his reporters in the streets while the great uprising unfolds and comes to its tragic end.

With Joshua as the psychological lens, the Burmese condition is made tangible to a global audience so we can understand it, feel it, and smell it.