Thai island Koh Yao Noi is a paradise of botany
Horticulturist Hannah Gardner explores the southern Thai island of Koh Yao Noi, where she finds lush foliage, giant trees and takes inspiration from an exotic-looking ginger lily Words Hannah gardner, illustration Alice Pattullo
Inspiration for the trip
Koh Yao Noi, an island in Thailand’s World Heritage-listed Phang Nga Bay and famous for its extensive mangrove forests, was one of the areas affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of December 2004. The damage to the island included the destruction of around 118 acres of mangrove forest fringing the island. The local community of Koh Yao Noi, which depends heavily on eco-tourism and fishing, has been working diligently on mangrove restoration.
Southern Thailand, including Koh Yao Noi, has landscapes of paradisiacal beauty. Towering iconic limestone stacks and small islands scattered like rough emeralds cast into the Andamen Sea. The sheer abundance, variety and scale of the vegetation is breathtaking. There are about 2,250 tree species here, one of the richest tree floras in the world, containing 75 per cent of all native trees found in Thailand. The southern peninsula includes the transition zone between the Indo-Burma and Sundaland floristic regions, two of the six most diverse and threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world.
When to go
The region has a humid, tropical and subtropical monsoon climate with a cooler dry season from November to late March.
Where to go
Even in popular destinations, such as Phang Nga Bay, it is possible to experience solitude if you know where to go. Koh Yao Noi, a tranquil Muslim island of great serenity makes a wonderful base. The pristine natural forests that clothe most of Koh Yao Noi are full of interesting species, many of them with medicinal or edible properties. Cycling along the island’s one asphalt road and many tracks you pass through stretches of dense jungle. Among the jostling rattan palms, ferns and colourful gingers, it is the immense veined saggitate leaves of the aroids (Colocasia and Alocasia) that command attention. The handsome pristine leaves of banana come a close second, noticeably unshredded in the moist, sheltered forest understorey. Swaying coconut palms (Cocos nucifera), a tethered cockerel and a modest stand of slender, rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis), with black tapping cups hanging from their trunks, signal a farmstead. Herds of steaming water buffalo linger in the cooling mud of Koh Yao Noi's drained paddy fields that lie between the verdant mountains and the mangroves of the glittering coast.
Be sure to head, in a traditional long-tail boat, to the remote north of Koh Yao Noi to pay homage to the celebrated Big Tree, home of the female spirit Nang Da Kian. The girth of this towering Hopea beccariana (in the Dipterocarpaceae family) is a staggering 24.2m; it is 64.2m high.
There are many massive trees in Koh Yao Noi with wondrous, sinuous, buttress roots, an adaption to the shallow soils and ambitious reach of these species. Growing up to 75m it is a struggle to see the pendulous leaves and yellow flowers of Shorea laevis (another dipterocarp), unless they drop to the forest floor, nor evergreen Neesia altissima, each leaf an impressive 25-30cm long. Anisoptera costata is also found here, an endangered species in the Dipterocarpaceae family, its Latin name descriptive of the prominent venation of the leaf blade. Wild orchids and ferns exist both as terrestrial plants and as epiphytes ornamenting the trees.
Across the bay from Big Tree is Koh Roi. At low tide, walk through a low natural gap in the rocks into a sanctuary-like inner mangrove forest, home to thousands of restless bats and enclosed on all sides by high protective cliffs. Gravity-defying trees and shrubs cling to all but the most exposed rock faces, voracious climbing species rampaging through their branches. In the tropics mangrove ecosystems occur along the muddy tidal shores of sheltered coastlines and river estuaries. They are an arresting site, the full glory of an extensive arachnoid root system mostly visible above ground. Mangrove species, such as the fish-killer tree (Barringtonia asiatica) have structural adaptations allowing them to thrive in these challenging anaerobic conditions. They develop aerial roots (pneumatophores) for ‘breathing’ and their seeds tend to germinate while attached to the parent plant (vivipary).
Plants to grow at home
If you have a sheltered location it is exciting and achievable to recapture a sense of the soothing, lush jungle back home in temperate climes. Top of my hardy exotic list is the yellow ginger lily Hedychium gardnerianum. Discovered in Nepal in the early 19th century by a Mr Gardner, but also native to Thailand, this handsome and erect rhizomatous perennial can reach almost 2m. Stiff stems anchor large, glaucous, fleshy leaves that have an architectural lanceolate-elliptic form. It is a vigorous grower so a few rhizomes planted quite shallowly in spring will soon achieve an impressive clump. In early autumn showy lemon-yellow flowers with prominent scarlet stamens, form a terminal bottlebrush inflorescence. Each exudes a transporting heady sweet fragrance, conjuring the atmosphere of tropical forests and especially potent on the evening air.
Given the right conditions this ginger lily is winter hardy and easy to source and grow. It requires moist, but well-drained, humus-rich soil and a site in full sun or partial shade. Primarily, it requires shelter from cold wind. Cut back to the base after flowering and cover with a deep mulch (leaf mould or garden compost is ideal) to see it through the winter. Good planting partners include punchy foliage plants, such as Fatsia japonica, Miscanthus species and the hardy Japanese banana (Musa basjoo), as well as jewel-coloured dahlias, salvias and cannas. In partial shade pair with statuesque ferns, such as Dryopteris filix-mas. Tropical plants do not appreciate drought so ensure you water well, especially during the first year.
Where to stay in Ko Yao Noi
The Simple 86/21 Moo 1, Koh Yao Noi, Ko Yao, Phang Na, 82160, Thailand. thesimplekohyaonoi.com Boutique hotel with loads of contemporary style located in a charming laid-back village.
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