Global Garden: The water lily from South America and the crown of thorns from Madagascar are only two of the many immigrant plants you might find in your garden.


Pretty immigrants

This is Thailand. Youíve probably noticed that life here is pretty damn good overall. There can be one of several reasons youíre reading this, come to think of it: 1) You live in Phuket; 2) Youíre on holiday in Phuket; 3) Youíve visited Phuket and rather like the place; or 4) You want to live in Phuket. Have I missed anyone out?

The point is that itís not a bad place to be. But there is a problem. Branston Pickle. You canít get it here, as far as Iím aware. Any non-Brits will have absolutely no idea what Iím talking about, but trust me when I say that this is the stuff that cheese was invented for. Itís the food of the gods that makes a cheese and pickle sandwich a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Iím sure Iím not the only person on the island who hands a shopping list to anyone going back to the UK for a visit; Branston Pickle is always on it. As are several bags of Liquorice Allsorts and a couple of jars of pickled onions. Anyone visiting the other side of the Atlantic is given a request for Reeseís Peanut Butter Cups. You just canít get any of those things here, which really is a bit of a problem.

The few less-mainstream Western consumer goods that you can buy over the counter here are ludicrously priced. Kettle chips at 50 baht a pack. Theyíre good, but 50 baht? A few micrograms of imported cheese for several hundred baht? An Italian office chair I saw recently in Index for 40,000 baht? What are they on?

At least I know that itís not the shop owners themselves who are lifting my leg Ė thatís ďripping me offĒ for any confused Americans reading; Iíll draw you a picture later. No, the fault lies solely and squarely in the hands of Thai Customs. Duty is whacked on at such a high rate that all imported stuff costs a fortune.

Have you tried to buy a jar of real English marmalade in Thailand? Or Vegemite (only Australians truly appreciate that bizarre stuff), or a decent bottle of wine? How about a Land Rover Discovery, or a La-Z-Boy reclining chair? All of these will cost you two to three times the price of an equivalent that originates in Thailand Ė all these products are imported.

Monstrous duties on imported products certainly makes things fairly clear; when it comes to parting with your cash youíre in little doubt about which products werenít made locally.

This country has done at least one sensible thing; they make their own version here. No confusion; itís simply a product originally from overseas thatís now made in Thailand. And itís dirt cheap, as it should be.

Plants are no different in some ways; many of the plants here arenít native to Thailand. The clever thing is that it doesnít take international conglomerates consorting with diplomatic missions, or multi-million-dollar factories and government incentives to get them going. Once here, they just quietly get on with the business of growing, looking good and reproducing.

It would seem that it was the Europeans who started importing plants. The first international botanist, by all accounts, was a bloke called Christopher Columbus. The attempted avoidance of import duty is nothing new Ė that was the original reason he went off in search of plants to bring home, to try and lower the prices of existing imported spices from India.

What he first ďdiscoveredĒ were pineapples and chilies, neither of which were unknown to the locals of South and Central America, who already had been enjoying them for thousands of years. They were certainly new to Europe, whose later explorers introduced them to Southeast Asia soon afterwards, where they flourished for years to come.

The ti plant, or cordyline (maak phuu maak mia in Thai), with its green leaves, originally came from Polynesia, where the locals made skirts from the leaves. At some stage, somebody obviously thought it would be a good idea to start introducing the ti plant to other tropical parts of the world. Today, the original long green leaves have become a multitude of shapes and colors, to the extent that itís now barely recognizable as a single species.

In 1768, a French sailor called Admiral Louis de Bougainville began his long journey to the Pacific Ocean and discovered the vine that now bears his name Ė bougainvillea. Thais know it as fueng faa. He brought it home and it quickly spread to just about every warm corner of the globe.

Through the following years, this distinctive Brazilian beauty has assumed its place as one of the most popular tropical plants in the region. Itís everywhere. Nobody seems to know how it spread so far so quickly, but itís not a bad looker, which is probably a big part of the reason.

The same mystery surrounds the king of the scented trees, the frangipani, or Plumeria (lanthom or leelawadee). Perhaps a Portuguese or Spanish ship brought over the first cutting from Central America, but over the centuries it has become a common sight in Buddhist and Hindu gardens and temples all over Asia. It was named after French botanist called Charles Plumier.

The two best-known members of the euphorbia family are immigrants to Thailand. The poinsettia, or kissemass in Thai, which we looked at recently, is originally from Mexico Ė even less of a reason for it ultimately to become the Christmas plant. Its far uglier cousin, the euphorbia millii, or crown of thorns plant, started out life in Madagascar. Same family, different homes.

Even the water lily didnít originate here. It was originally found in South America. Again, nobody knows how it made its way over here.

Gardens in Thailand really donít care where their inhabitants originally came from. Weíre just as likely to find heliconia from South America, plumbago from South Africa or peacock flowers from Madagascar as we are to find something that is native to this region, such as the ixora.

To be honest, nobody really cares. Does it really matter where a plant originated? Weíre probably best keeping fairly quiet about this. Who knows, if we ask too many questions, we are likely to find that we owe import duty on our gardens. Letís keep all this between you and me, shall we?



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