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The Development of the Mae Sa Botanical Garden, Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

Volume 2 Number 4 - December 1994


In 1992, the Thai Government set up the Botanical Garden Organization (BGO) and in September the cabinet proposed the establishment of the first new garden - Mae Sa Botanical Garden. This garden was created in honour of Her Majesty, Queen Sirikit, on the anniversary of Her Royal Highness's 60th birthday. The BGO is part of the Prime Minister's Office which is a measure of the importance of this initiative to strengthen botanical research and to conserve and propagate rare and endangered Thai plants.

At present, the protected areas system in Thailand conserves more than 13% of the area of Thailand in the form of National Parks and wildlife areas. However, the Thai Government believes that plants are a very important natural resource of Thailand and require thorough systematic investigation if they are to be properly utilized and managed, especially in view of the fact that the forested areas have been depleted at an alarming rate.

The Mae Sa Botanic Garden is north-west of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and is situated in an important centre of biodiversity. The garden has enormous potential for conserving and managing the flora of the region. The site is in the beautiful Mae Sa Valley which has several tourist attractions such as an elephant camp, butterfly and snake farms, orchid nurseries and there are Hmong and Karen villages in the hills above the valley. The botanic garden is approximately 300 ha. and the dominant vegetation type is deciduous dry forest with a spectacular waterfall. There are approximately 700 taxa in cultivation with special collections of native gymnosperms, Musaceae, ferns, orchids, bromeliads and bamboo. A nature reserve of about 100 ha. of the less disturbed dipterocarp forest is proposed within the garden. There is a small herbarium (480 specimens of 86 families and 285 genera) collected from the garden. The herbarium will be increased and activities will also focus on the neighbouring forested areas of Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon. A detailed map of the garden has been produced based on surveys and aerial photographs. The first priority is a nursery and a tissue culture laboratory for the propagation of plants, especially those that are endangered. The garden is open to the public at no charge and the present education programme includes public lectures, booklets and display labels. A new access bridge is being built over the Huay Maesa which will form part of the main entrance to the garden.

The three major goals are:

  • to gather fundamental knowledge of Thai plants
  • to conserve their genetic diversity, particularly of species of economic importance such as rattans, bamboos, trees, medicinal plants, ferns and orchids which are being taken from the wild at an alarming rate, and
  • to strengthen studies and research on Thai plants.

The Director of BGO and Mae Sa botanic garden is Dr Weerachai Nanakorn who has done postgraduate work in systematic botany in the City University of New York and has worked on the Flora of Thailand as well as visiting the major botanic gardens and herbaria of the world. The Forest Herbarium (BKF), Royal Forest Department in Bangkok has provided technical support and advice in developing the garden and many other contacts have been made nationally and internationally in the fields of horticulture, ethnobotany, economic botany and taxonomy.

Professor G.T. Prance, Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew visited the site in 1992 which led to a visit by a team of three from Kew to help with the evaluation of a master plan for the garden. They made many useful recommendations from the development of the Mission Statement, to practical points to avoid destruction of the natural vegetation during the landscaping process and zoning the garden into areas of high and low maintenance. They thought it was particularly important that the hill tribe people who are settled in the garden and other local citizens should participate fully in the development of the garden. The present intensive cultivation could be switched to a more sustainable cultivation with watershed and water quality management, environmental friendly cropping, and trial cultivation of different species and cultivars of economic plants such as medicinal plants, with the help of the hill tribe people. This will have long-term effects on the conservation of the environment, the flora and fauna, the nature reserves and the botanic garden as well as Thailand's rural people. This would help to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity which came into effect on January 1st, 1994 and "Agenda 21" for the management of sustainable communities.

At present, the garden is being funded by the Thai government and the AJINOMOTO Foundation (Thailand) has given funds for the floristic study of the plants in the garden. The garden currently has two research projects with local universities, one on the biodiversity of lichens at Mae Sa Botanic Gardens, with the Faculty of Science, Ramkamhaeng University and the other on a study and collection of rattans in Thailand, with the Faculty of Forestry at Kasetsart University.