Despite development, Phuket's botanical bounty remains
The emerald isle has managed to keep much of its legendary floral majesty, but with luxury condos and villas crowding the hillsides it's time to start thinking seriously of conservation measures
The once sleepy tin-mining town of Phuket is now a thriving metropolis, with traffic jams a regular feature of every day. If the intrepid tourists who fell in love with the natural beauty of a deserted beach called Patong, where they stayed in 25 baht a night bamboo huts in the early 1970s, were to return today, they would not be able to recognise the place with its many five-star hotels, bars and shops. In Patong the only place not overrun with buildings is the beach itself, but even this is covered from tip to tip by reclining chairs for rent.
SEASIDE SPLENDOUR: Beach morning glory, or ‘pak-bung talay’, add colour to the coast near Karon beach.
Every inch of land in Phuket is worth its weight in gold, but I wonder how some people can claim ownership of plots on hills and mountains which are supposed to be public property. One by one these are being carved or levelled for the construction of luxury condominiums and villas for sale or rent to long-staying tourists and foreign residents. With 4.2 million visitors last year, Phuket's native population of about 320,000 is outnumbered by tourists and migrant workers, especially along its many beaches, and every year when I visit new developments have sprung up on the landscape in a bid to attract more tourist money.
Despite the environmental destruction in the name of development, Phuket retains the richness of its native flora in pockets along the road from Patong to a hilltop viewing point overlooking the picturesque Kata beach. Just outside Patong, the wild ornamental bananas which gave the place its name (bpa tawng means banana forest or grove) still grow profusely on hillsides. And nowhere else have I seen beach morning glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae, known in Thai as pak-bung talay, covering such a vast area of shoreline as on Karon beach. Their beautiful violet flowers add colour to the seascape.
Colocasia macrorrhiza, or giant taro, grows wild in thickets along roads and hillsides. With heart-shaped leaves on long petioles that emanate from an upright tuberous rootstock, or corm, this herbaceous plant belongs to the Araceae family, which also includes aglaonema, alocasia, anthurium, caladium and dieffenbachia. It has beautiful dark green, shiny leaves, and can easily dwarf a tall, adult person if grown in suitable conditions.
In Phuket I've also seen Caladium bicolour, or bon see, growing wild. This attractive plant, with vein-like red patterns on its heart-shaped green leaves dotted with white, is no longer seen in the wild elsewhere as collectors take it to grow in pots. Phuket's plant enthusiasts find it too common to add to their collections, however, and instead go for the countless fancy-leaved cultivars, which, as their name implies, come with fancier leaves in a multitude of patterns and colours. These can't be enjoyed year round, however, as the plants go dormant after the cold season in December, and come back to life at the start of the rainy season in May.
Despite the destruction of its hills and mountains, and the disappearance of the provincial tree, Pterocarpus indicus, or pradoo, from its roadsides, Phuket is still essentially covered by greenery. This is partially thanks to its rubber and oil palm plantations, but most of all, its townspeople and public officials, who should be lauded for preserving centuries-old trees in their compounds. Phuket has a land area of only about 570 square kilometres, yet nowhere else have I seen so many huge, old trees. These could have been planted by settlers when the island was a booming tin-mining centre in the 19th century.
Mimusops elengi, or pikul, for example, is a slow-grower and usually gets no higher than 4m, but in the compound of Phuket's district police station I saw a tree with a trunk so huge that I could not encircle it with my two arms, and with a sprawling canopy higher than the two-storey station.
Old trees in Phuket commonly have ferns growing naturally on their trunks and branches, adding to their ancient demeanour. All look grand, especially those on the grounds of Vajira Hospital. But if I were asked which is the grandest of them all, I'd pick a ficus tree in the compound of a four-storey building across the street from the district police station. It looks majestic as it towers over the building, commanding attention from all around as it stands alone on raised grounds in the spacious compound.
The wild ornamental bananas and colocasia plants may pale in comparison to the grand old trees, but they, too, must be preserved, preferably where they are now or in their natural habitat. Conservation is essential to keeping Phuket's richness in wild genetic resources.
GREEN GIANT: Above top to bottom: One of Phuket’s many grand old trees towers over a four-storey building; ‘Colocasia macrorrhiza’ growing wild in thickets; ferns commonly grow on the trunks of Phuket’s old trees, adding to their ancient demeanour. Below and below right, two cultivars of ‘Caladium bicolour’. The one on the left grows wild, while plant enthusiasts typically go for fancy-leaved cultivars like the one on the right.
About the author
- Writer: Normita Thongtham