Documenting the plants of a tropical Asian country

In September 2014 over 130 delegates gathered at Kew for the 16th Flora of Thailand Conference. Dave Simpson describes this ambitious project and Kew’s role over the five decades since it began.

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Thailand is famed for its tropical climate, its culture and its food. It is also highly biodiverse, with around 10,000-12,000 plant species. Like many tropical countries, knowledge of its plant diversity is still fairly patchy but it is clear that the diversity is seriously threatened.  Forest once covered much of the country but over the years, and especially since the 1940s, vast expanses of the forest have been converted into secondary vegetation through logging, urban development and the expansion of agriculture. Natural forest cover is now estimated to be around 25% of the total land area but some of this is quite degraded and is subject to continuing threats such as illegal logging, encroachment, fire and now climate change. 

The Flora of Thailand project

The Flora of Thailand is a long term project to document all the flowering plants, gymnosperms, ferns, and fern allies of Thailand. Current estimates suggest there are between 10,600-12,000 species although we won’t know the exact number until the project is complete. The project was initiated back in 1963 as a collaboration between Thai botanist Tem Smitinand, then Director of the Forest Herbarium in Bangkok, and Kai Larsen, a botany professor at the University of Aarhus. It was soon realised that international collaboration would be needed to ensure the project had the range of botanical expertise needed to complete such a mammoth task. An Editorial Board was set up with expertise initially drawn from the Thailand, Denmark, France, The Netherlands and the UK. It currently has representatives from these five countries plus Germany, Ireland, Japan and Singapore. Botanists from much wider range of countries provide their specialist knowledge to write up accounts of the families, genera and species occurring in Thailand. To date, around 5,000 species have been completed and published in 11 volumes.    

The first Flora of Thailand Editorial Board Meeting was held at Kew in 1965. Subsequent meetings have been held every 3 to 4 years, alternating between a Thai and European venue and in the past 20 years they have expanded into full-blown conferences. In September 2014 over 130 delegates gathered at Kew for the 16th Flora of Thailand Conference, with the theme ‘Thai Botany and the European Connection - Building on 100 Years of Collaboration’. The conference was opened by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, a member of the Thai Royal Family who has long-standing interests in plant conservation and has visited Kew a number of times. Talks and posters covered a broad range of topics, from progress on the families still being written up to conservation planning and restoration of habitats.  The next Conference will be held in Bangkok in 2017.

The Editorial Board meeting ran concurrently with the Conference and set itself an ambitious target of completing the Flora by 2021, with much greater emphasis on electronic data gathering and dissemination. With careful planning it is felt that this target can be achieved, especially as there is a young generation of talented Thai botanists who are leading and contributing to family accounts.

How is Kew contributing to the Flora?

As well as being represented on the Editorial Board, we are a major repository for plant specimens from Thailand and the surrounding countries. Key elements in this are the early collections made by Arthur Francis George Kerr (1877-1942), an Irish medical doctor who became Thailand’s first government botanist. Kerr undertook a series of botanical expeditions around the country in the early 1900s, amassing over 20,000 good quality specimens. He also produced meticulous notes about his travels and took numerous photographs, all of which form part of his extensive archive which was generously left to Kew in his will. Both collections and archive are a must-see for any botanist working on the Flora.

Thailand continues to be a focus of research for our botanists. A number of expeditions have been undertaken over the past 25 years, collecting plants in parts of the country that have previously had little or no botanical attention. These have yielded new genera and species, as well as new records of plants previously unknown from Thailand. We have also co-supervised a large cohort of Thai PhD students (and continue to do so) who have gone on to have successful careers in academia and continue to contribute to the Flora project.

The Flora of Thailand is a prime example of a long term, multinational collaborative Flora project which has clear aims and goals and is working to a given deadline, providing essential baseline data about plants for a whole range of potential users. We can be confident that the Flora of Thailand is in good hands to reach a successful conclusion.