The Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden at Mae Rim in Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand is an interesting garden for tropical gardeners to visit as it’s in the high latitudes of the tropics and sits at elevations around 600-900 metres. This means that there are many species of sub-tropical plants as well as tropical plants that are grown there.
In fact, because of its elevation and cool winters, there are even some species of temperate climate plants growing there. Another indication of its difference is the fact that many of the species of rainforest plants that we normally see in botanic gardens in the tropics have to be grown inside a large glass conservatory at the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden.
Not only does its location and climate mean there is a wider range of tropical and sub-tropical plants to see, but during the cooler months it’s a more comfortable garden to visit because the temperature and humidity is not as high as at most other tropical botanic gardens.
The Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden is one of two ‘showcase gardens’ in northern Thailand and is about a 45-50 minutes’ drive from Chiang Mai. To see everything that the garden has to offer, you’ll need to plan to spend a whole day there because the garden is spread over a very large area, and it would take 3-4 hours to walk all the trails.
For those shorter on time, there is a loop road around the garden on which you can drive your own car or take a tram between the sections of the garden that interest you most. It’s best to take the loop road in a clockwise direction because most drivers do that, as well as the tram.
The first stop after checking out the Visitor Centre near the main entrance should be Banana Avenue about a third of the way up the loop road on the left-hand side. This wide gravel track off the loop road has over 200 species of bananas growing along both sides – most of them from Southeast Asia. You probably never realised how many different species there were in this part of the world until you see them here.
The next stop should be the White Flower Collection a little further up the loop road – again on the left-hand side. This area has mass plantings of Spathiphyllum wallisii (peace lilies) and Hedychium coronarium (white ginger lilies). The peace lilies are in flower throughout the year whilst the white ginger lilies bloom mostly from August to February. There are many different varieties of scented gardenias and jasmines, and over 150 other different species of white flowering plants.
There’s not a lot to see from the canopy walk, which is the next stop up the loop road from the White Flower Collection, but it’s an enjoyable stroll along the canopy walk to the valley viewpoint through the native forest. Where the gardens start getting really interesting for gardening enthusiasts is the glasshouse complex at the top of the gardens.
The glasshouses are located below a large car park adjacent to which there is a small plant nursery and souvenir shop. Walk down the steps from the car park and you’ll be underneath a large archway over which Macuna bennettii (red jade vine or New Guinea creeper) vines are growing. If you are at the gardens between July and September, you’ll enjoy the beautiful sight of these magnificent plants in flower. They are usually at their peak in early September.
There are also Strongylodon macrobotrys (green jade vine) climbers planted on these arbors, so if you are at the gardens earlier in the year around January to March you will probably see some of these in bloom too. The green jade vine tends not to flower as prolifically as the red jade vine, but it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful flowers in the tropical world.
The largest of the glasshouses is the tropical rainforest conservatory, which is over 30 metres high, and in here you will see a lot of plants that are familiar to gardeners living in equatorial lowland regions. Mature specimens of Cyrtostachys renda (sealing wax palm), Heliconia species, ornamental gingers and decorative flowering bananas provide a splash of colour to the rainforest conservatory.
You may be lucky enough to see a specimen of Dichorisandra thyrsiflora in flower there. In the plant world, there are not a lot of blue-flowering plants, but this is one of the more spectacular. It’s commonly known as the blue ginger, but this lovely ornamental plant from Central America is not part of the ginger family.
After the rainforest conservatory, the next most popular glasshouse is the Orchids & Ferns House which is beautifully landscaped with ponds, small waterfalls and water fogging machines. It’s a very ‘Instagrammable’ location although some orchid growers might find it disappointing that there are not many rare Thai orchids on display. These tend to be kept ‘back of house’ at the gardens for conservation purposes.
For much of the year, various Phalaenopsis, Vanda and Oncidium species are used to provide colour in amongst the native ferns, but if you are in the gardens around August or September, you should not miss the opportunity to see the Grammatophyllum speciosum (tiger orchid) in flower. This is the largest orchid species in the world, and the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden has a considerable number of superb specimens that it is able to bring out for display.
The Bromeliad House is another popular spot in this part of the botanic garden, but this is more of a shadehouse than a glasshouse. The bromeliad displays are well maintained and updated throughout the year to exhibit what’s looking best. For example, when Aechmea fasciata plants are displaying their lovely pink and blue inflorescences during the rainy season, the curators will move more of those into the displays.
However, as many bromeliads produce their most striking leaf colours during the dryer months, you can be sure that the display house will be photogenic throughout the year. You’ll also see many Tillandsia species (air plants) in the Bromeliad House along with foliage plants that prefer dryer conditions to break up the displays.
Another favourite is the Carnivorous Plant House which has extensive plantings of Dionaea muscipula (Venus flytraps), and many different species of Nepenthes (pitcher plants) and Drosera (sundews). Often public gardens have difficulty growing these if they don’t have a right expertise on hand but those at the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden are thriving.
Next door is the Medicinal Plant House which, whilst not as colourful or photogenic as the other glasshouses, is an interesting one to visit. You might be surprised to see how many of these plants you already have in your own garden and didn’t know what they were. Or you can take notes of what you might like to acquire when you get home as most tropical medicinal plants are easy to grow.
There are also display houses containing aquatic plants, water lilies and lotus plants, but these tend to be mainly of interest to specialist growers. On the way back down the loop road on the other side of the gardens, after passing the National Science Museum and before reaching the Visitor Centre again, you’ll see signs to an Orchid House off to the left and a Fern Pavilion off to the right.
The Orchid House is where plants are taken from the glasshouse complex when they are not in flower, so there’s not a lot to see there unless you are hoping to persuade the gardens staff to let you have a peek at some of the rarer Thai native orchids being housed there.
The Fern Pavilion is definitely worth visiting though. The fern garden around it is very picturesque and there is a lovely cool walking trail through it. However, it can become slippery during the rainy season because there are green mosses growing on the pathways and steps.
For those who have time to walk more in the gardens, the nearby Arboretum Trail is worth doing to see the many different species of palms and cycads. During the rainy season you will see some mass flowerings of Anthurium species along this trail as well as the stunning Joey palm (Johannesteijsmannia altifrons) which is native to parts of Southeast Asia but not often seen in other parts of the world.
Many gardeners say that the Joey palm is one of the most beautiful palms in the world because of its large fan-shaped leaves that grow straight up from the ground. In the mountain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia closer to the equator, the huge leaves have been known to grow up to six metres long.
Another longer walking trail is the Climber Trail and its worth tackling this if you are interested in climbing plants, creepers, and vines for the larger garden. The best time to do this is in the cooler months (November to February) because a significant number of the climbers flower during that period.
In the warmer months (March to May) you’ll usually find Beaumontia grandiflora (herald’s trumpet) in full flower along here with its very fragrant showy white blooms, and lots of brilliant red Passiflora coccinea (red passionflower) to provide some striking contrasts.
You can visit the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden any time of the year and you’ll probably want to go back more than once to discover what hidden delights this expansive garden has to offer. For example, when you are there during the latter half of the cooler months (January-February) you may stumble across specimens of Aphelandra sinclairiana (orange shrimp plant) which is a beautiful tropical shrub when in flower but not often seen in Southeast Asia.
There are three cafes and half a dozen food stalls located within the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden. These are located near the main entrance, near the canopy walk and above the glasshouse complex at the top of the gardens. There are also many local restaurants along the river near to the main entrance, so you won’t go hungry whilst visiting these gardens.
There are also several orchid farms along the road going back to Chiang Mai where you can stop for a drink or snack, but most of the orchids on display are common species of Vanda and Dendrobium. You’ll see many fruit stalls nearby selling seasonal fruits at cheaper prices than in the city, so picking up some of those on the way back is a great way to finish up a day visiting the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden.
All images: © David Astley