Roots run deep for tree enthusiasts

For the city's tree lovers, it's important to understand that planting them takes special care _ a lesson that goes back to the 1970s

It is common knowledge that the Chatuchak Weekend Market takes on another identity as a plant market every Wednesday and Thursday. What most people do not know is that they can go shopping for plants as early as Tuesday afternoon, when the plants arrive at Chatuchak. The place starts to get busy at 2pm as six-wheel trucks and pick-ups arrive from suburban nurseries and the provinces to unload their cargo. By 5pm many stalls are ready for business.

FIRST DIBS: Bougainvillea, mussaenda, orchids, dieffenbachia and pandanus are among the many plants you will find at Chatuchak by Tuesday afternoon.

Many serious plant collectors prefer to go to the market on Tuesday in order to be the first to get their hands at new or rare specimens before others snatch them away. Some peruse for plants at night _ it brings back nostalgia of the city in the 1970s, when the weekend market was located at Sanam Luang and plants were sold along Klong Lod. Then as now, all kinds of plants, both native and exotic, were sold. Most were already established in their pots and many already in bloom.

For the adventurers who preferred to tame wild plants themselves, the plant section had an extension in front of the Royal Hotel on the corner of Khlong Lot and Ratchadamnoen Avenue which catered specially to buyers' needs. Here vendors sold inexpensive native orchids, ferns and bonsai materials in their bare roots collected just the week before. The vendors arrived as early as Thursday evening and as they unloaded their wares Bangkok plant-lovers were already waiting _ some with torch in hand as this section of the market was poorly lit at night.

ALL WRAPPED UP: Balled and burlapped trees from Prachin Buri.

The vendors in this section of the plant market were mostly villagers who collected the plants themselves or bought them from fellow villagers during the week. Orchids and ferns from the forests near the Cambodian border in Prachin Buri were sold side-by-side with miniature trees dug from the hills and plains of Lop Buri and Ratchaburi. The trees might be tiny but digging them was no easy task _ their roots often went very deep and they must have been dug carefully if they were to survive. But for these villagers it was a means of livelihood. Selling for just 50 baht per piece, the miniature trees were snapped up by bonsai hobbyists who enjoyed the challenge of growing them in shallow trays or small pots.

Every week crates of plants collected from the wild were brought to Bangkok and plant collectors looked forward to hunting forest plants without having to leave the confines of the city. The business had the blessing of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, which allocated the pavement for use by the out-of-town vendors. At the time conservation and environmental awareness were not priorities _ but even then, I often wondered whether there would come a time when Thailand's forests and hills would run out of these valuable natural resources.

Today you can still find wild orchids at Chatuchak, but you can count the number of vendors on one hand. Long gone are the likes of Khunyai Thongsook, the doyen of the pavement plant vendors at Sanam Luang, who was eagerly awaited each week by her regular customers. Ms Khunyai, 76, became too old to farm so she turned to selling plants collected from nearby forests by her neighbours in Prachin Buri. She sold them cheaply at three to 10 baht per plant. But speaking for herself as well as for her neighbours back home, Ms Khunyai said earning a few baht was better than staying home and doing nothing.

Ms Khunyai's regular customers were seasoned gardeners who have had success in growing wild plants, but there were also those who were attracted by the cheap price. These customers did not realise that the plants needed more than soil and water. Plants collected from the wild need a cool climate and high humidity; transplanted into unaccustomed climates they invariably die.

Prachin Buri's forests have since been depleted of orchids and ferns, but plant vendors from this province are still making their presence felt at Chatuchak. Most are selling balled and burlapped trees, which bear those common names because their root balls are wrapped in burlap or plastic bags when the plants are ready to be transplanted elsewhere.

A few of the trees were collected from the wild, but most were grown in nurseries and are surprisingly cheap. Balled and burlapped trees can be found on the soi to your right if you are coming from the Chatuchak Weekend Market exit of the MRT Kamphaeng Phet station.

When buying balled and burlapped plants, be careful not to break up the root ball or let it dry out.

The best way to carry a plant is with both hands under the root ball. If you cannot plant it right away, put the plant in a shady place and cover the root ball with moist cloth.


READY FOR BUSINESS: Plants being unloaded at Chatuchak.

About the author

Writer: Normita Thongtham
Position: Writer