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Nature's Flame Red Flower , Part 1

PRESENTLY CHIANG MAI has many symbols such as elephants, umbrellas, orchids and spas. However, the overnight explosion of colors in the tall trees that takes place at the end of cool season is a symbol of Chiang Mai that has been overlooked. Anticipating the joy of the beauty of all the blossoming trees, makes it a bit easier for us locals to move into the hot season without too much moaning and groaning. The profusion of colors: yellow, purple orange and red. A lost symbol of Chiang Mai could well be two stately trees Ngiew with orange red blossoms and Tong Gwow with yellowish orange blossoms.

The first, deciduous tree is Ngiew, known as Red Kapok or Red Silk Cotton tree. It grows up to 35 meters or more high. At the moment the red flowers stand out dramatically because there are no leaves on the long spiny branches. During younger years, the side branches are horizontal and straight, usually in whorls giving the whole trees a layered appearance. In older trees the base of the trunk becomes buttressed, the side branches curve steeply upward and are often as thick as the central trunk.

If you are in town from the period of Mid-January until the ‘mango' rains, you can catch the Ngiew trail while driving from the south to the north viewing from the west side of the Mae Ping River from Sarapee north to Chiangmai City's subdistrict of Pa Daed. The asphalt pavement is in good condition and due to being a narrow road, it's OK to drive along at snail's speed to enjoy the view.

The 8-10 cm. flower appeared shortly after the old leaves fall. Calyx 1.5-2 cm., bright green, cup-shaped with 5 short, pointed lobes. Petal are thick and fresh, spreading, and slightly pointed. At least 50 pale orange stamens in whorls, fused together into 10 bundles around a long, slender dark red style with 5 short, spreading stigmas.

The towering Ngiew trees are so striking with the large bright orange red cluster blossoms during January and February and the white skinned straight tree trunks. At the moment the ‘gaysorn' (stamens and stigmas) of the blossoms are collected and dried to make the famous dish of naam ngiew (sauce) to top Thai spaghetti known as "Khanom Jeen Naam Ngiew".

The northern style curry soup, "Gaeng Kae" without coconut milk -- is full of various local vegetables. Ngiew flower is one of them. Several parts of Ngiew tree could become herbal medicines : Dried flower is used for high fever and hemeroid treatments. Leaf is used for bruised skin. Resin is used for dysentery treatment. Root is used for stimulation of vomit. Furthermore, other parts could be used -- seed for food and soap, bark for rope, soft wood for multipurpose, and fiber inside the fruit for filling in pillow, cushion, and mattress.

The most striking display of the blooming giants are on the grounds of the McKean Rehabilitation Institute. The wonderful red blossoms contrast among the emerald green treetops of other stately century old trees. In the picturesque landscape setting are seen the vintage architecture of the hospital buildings and a row of individual "hobbit" size bungalows adding to the beauty of the setting. (Visitors are welcome to drive through the grounds of McKean plus make a stop at the quaint souvenir store for handmade cards and a variety of other crafts made by the residents for their supplementary income).

The road along the river twists and turns and very often the towering Ton Ngiew trees stand so stately taking your breath away. Mother Nature has indeed generously blessed our rural area.

It would be such a fantastic tribute to our city's environmental heritage if those residents and property owners on the river would start planting young Tong Gwow and Ngiew trees for posterity and to grace our grandchildren's views of nature along the Mae Ping River in Chiang Mai.

(Read "What's that Tree" by American author David Engle for complete details about 300 commonly found blossoming trees in northern Thailand).

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