Casting a dry spell: Moist not a must for plants
Dried flowers can make for fine decorative additions and following an initiative started in the early 1980s to assist a Royal Project for hill tribe people they have also played a key role in bettering the lives of the less fortunate
Call me ignorant, but I was already an adult when I realised the value of dried flowers for interior decorating. Until then, the only flowers I had seen, in my native Philippines as well as in my adoptive home of Thailand, were fresh, plastic or made of cloth or paper.
COLOURFUL WORKPLACE: From upcountry hills and plains to the processing factory in Bangkok, dried flowers are a source of income for many people.
It was at the airport and in shop windows in Copenhagen in the early 1980s that I first saw dried flowers in vases. At the time I thought it was strange that the Danes kept flowers until they were dry. At first I surmised that it was because they did not have many flowers to enjoy, Denmark being a cold country. However, during my visit geraniums with their bright red flowers brightened up window sills and window boxes of private homes as well as public places such as train stations. Colourful tulips, rhododendrons, pansies and myriad other flowers made public parks a heavenly place to be for someone like me who loved flowering plants.
It was only after subsequent visits to Australia and New Zealand that I realised the appeal and natural beauty of dried flowers for people in various countries. It was October when I visited Western Australia, and meadows and plains were a sight to behold as they were covered by many different species of wild flowers. Despite this, or probably because of it, I noticed that dried flowers were popular decorative items in many Australian households. Some flowers, like statice, were dried just by hanging bunches of the flowers upside down, then put in vases without further processing; the colours faded only a little if at all.
LASTING LOVELIES : Top to above, a selection of dried flowers, which keep their beauty a long time.
When ML Charuphant, my husband, began drying fern leaves in the early 1980s, his objective was not to beautify our home but to tap the potential of flowers and leaves as money earners for hill tribes on the highlands of northern Thailand. His work was part of the efforts of His Majesty the King's Royal Project to wean the hill tribes from growing opium poppies by teaching them how to successfully plant fruit trees, vegetables and cut flowers as cash crops.
When His Majesty started the project in the 1970s, many countries provided help. Some gave financial assistance for research work, while others gave equipment, seeds and tree saplings. When the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture gave US$75,000 to cover ML Charuphant's three-year research on ferns between 1981 and 1984, the department had no way of knowing that the money would go a long way to help not just the hill tribes of Chiang Mai but also impoverished families in other parts of Thailand.
"Bracken ferns grew like weeds on land tilled by the hill tribes," ML Charuphant recalled. "Even burning could not get rid of them." Believing that even weeds have their uses if one knows how to utilise them, he asked the hill tribes to collect the leaves, which he dried for use in flower arrangements. He then learned how to bleach them, and the leaves sold like hot cakes when they first made their appearance at a Royal Project fair at Suan Amphorn in 1985.
Encouraged by that acceptance, he began drying many different species of foliage and flowers, and experimented with dyeing. What started as a research project is today a source of extra income for hill tribe families in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, as well as villagers in Ubon Ratchathani in the Northeast, Chumphon in the South, and Kamphaeng Saen in Nakhon Pathom in the central region, who grow flowers like statice and gypsophylla or collect flowers, fern leaves, pods, bamboo flowers and grasses from the wild, then dry them before selling them to the Royal Project for further processing and marketing.
The cottage industry which ML Charuphant started at Kasetsart University with three helpers in the early 1980s is now the main source of income for 45 workers who bleach, dye and dry the plant materials, and arrange them in vases and baskets and into floral wreaths for Christmas as well as funerals. In addition, it has regular workers in Chiang Mai and Kamphaeng Saen. Apart from orders from customers like Tesco Lotus and private individuals, the finished products are sold at a shop beside the processing factory at Kasetsart University, at the sales of Royal Project products which Central Department Store organises annually at CentralWorld and its branches in the provinces, and at agricultural fairs in Bangkok and upcountry. The products have also been exported to France, Britain, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, India, Myanmar and countries in the Middle East.
Sudarat Pansorn, 39, and Sompong Boonkum, 44, have been with the dried flower project for 25 and 23 years, respectively. "I have been working here since I was 14," Ms Sudarat said as she expertly arranged flowers in small baskets. "I finished only grade school and this is the only work I know," she said, adding "besides, I love working with flowers". Ms Sudarat is supporting a 19-year-old daughter who is a fishery sciences student at Kasetsart University.
"All of us have been here for more than 20 years," Mr Sompong said. "I don't know what I would be doing now if I did not work here, as I am not educated either." The doyen of the workers is an old-timer whom everybody calls "Pa Uan" and was one of three helpers when the project started. She retired two years ago when she was 70 years old, but still occasionally comes to help out when there are large orders to fill.
ML Charuphant himself is past retirement age, but although no longer a professor at Kasetsart University, he continues to do his volunteer work with the Royal Project; he just would not abandon his workers. Only flowers and leaves that retain their form and durability after the drying process can be used, so he is always on the lookout for new materials to add to their livelihood.
One thing good about dried flowers is that they are natural and you won't have to replace them every week. I have had my flowers in vases for nearly a year and they are still as good as new.
About the author
- Writer: Normita Thongtham