If you are trying to buy the Thailand Parrot
Flower Read this link!
Impatiens psittacina Hook.f.
Known on the Internet as
The Thailand Parrot Flower
The search for the rare Parrot Flower from Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and portions of east India
This is how the e-mail story of one of Nature's Rarest plants was tracked down and includes the original 1901 botanical documents.
Impatiens psittacina Hook.f.
Known on the Internet as
The rare Thailand Parrot Flower
Known to the people of Thailand as "Dork Nok Khaew"
Sometimes incorrectly spelled Impatiens psitticana, Impatiens psitticina, Impatiens psitticine
After you read this article, if you are still in doubt as to the validity of this species, read Ray Morgan's magazine article:
This is the story of how we tracked down the scientific facts regarding Impatiens psittacina.
The majority of the photos were provided by the Thai tour company Tourdoi.
In late April of 2006 I received an email from my friend Robert Black with 5 photos attached. Those photos were entitled the "Rare Thailand Parrot Flower" and I suspect many now reading this article also received a similar email. That email is currently on its third or fourth trip around the world since it began circulating in early 2006. When the photos of the Parrot Flower from Thailand first appeared on the internet I received copy after copy since this website features rare plants and most people wanted to purchase this plant! Sorry, we do not sell plants I simply collect rare plants. Since I'm an avid collector and plant researcher I began immediately seeking scientific information on the plant but hit dead end after dead end.
Some folks who have written about this species wrongly claimed the flower was an orchid but I knew that to be incorrect since orchids all have three petals and three sepals. The plant shown in the photos was obviously something else, but what? The search was filled with barricades since the supposed scientific name many were trying to use on the internet was incorrectly spelled. The name circulating on some plant discussion sites was "Impatiens psitticana" and others were spelling it "Impatiens psitticina" and other incorrect spellings were also in use. As a result, those incorrect spellings did not appear on any scientific research website but the name Impatiens psittacina can be found in numerous scientific source books.
I began in approximately March, 2006 to send emails to the government of Thailand and as a result was directed to the Plants of Thailand Research Unit. At first they stated emphatically they had never heard of such a plant but finally after numerous requests was told it was a rare species from northern Thailand and Thai law made it illegal to own, collect, or export plants or seeds of the species. No other information was provided.
From there I began to contact plant nurseries in Thailand for any information and received a similar response. A friend who has contacts in Thailand asked one of his associates to check on the plant species but received only similar replies. A few Thai growers were obviously unhappy with my request for information having apparently been flooded with requests from the United States and Europe asking to the plant. It appeared any information from Thailand would not be easy to locate.
I then began trying to locate rare impatiens collectors in the United States and Europe and did manage to find several but none had ever seen the plant shown in the email photos! Many who had received the photos thought the entire story was nothing more than a hoax. Finally, I received an email from an individual associated with a major seed supplier in the eastern United States. That individual was certain the entire story was a hoax and encouraged me to drop my search since he appeared to feel I was just wasting my time. He also appeared to believe all the photos in the email were created on a home computer and could not be real.
Since I am a retired commercial photographer I am trained in the use of PhotoShop and have used the program professionally for many years. At one time I was a part owner of a company that created photography and computer graphics for large hotels, government tourist agencies, clothing manufacturers, cruise lines and others. My graphic artists had created together more than one "impossible" image by combining numerous photographs in to create a single photo story. Composite photos are "faked" all the time and I would venture many now reading this have seen the "National Geographic Photo of the Year" of a great white shark jumping out of the water attacking a helicopter. That photo is a fake and the National Geographic website openly disputes the photo was taken by one of their photographers. But the photos of the rare Thailand Parrot Flower did not appear to be composite images so I began to closely examine them for traces of the signs that often accompany a PhotoShop retouched photographs. None of those signs could be seen other than the edges of the photos were "feathered" which is frequently done in PhotoShop. At the very least the creator of the Parrot Flower images was familiar with photo retouching. But was it possible these were composite images created on a home computer?
I then ran across a mention of a flower common to Canada known to science as Impatiens glandulifera. Some on the University of British Colombia (UBC) plant discussion site as well as two Canadian discussion sites felt the "rare parrot flower" was actually Impatiens glandulifera which is an invasive species common in Canada and some states in the United States. That flower actually looked a great deal like the "tail feathers" of the "Rare Thailand Parrot Flower" but bore no other resemblance. But it did make me suspicious. Perhaps some very talented PhotoShop "genius" had actually created the parrot flower by combining several flower photographs including Impatiens glandulifera.
Then, when I finally found the correct spelling, Impatiens psittacina on the International Plant Names Index which is a service of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London the information on that site indicated Impatiens psittacina was from India and not Thailand! That apparent discrepancy really made me suspicious. If Impatiens psittacina was real could someone have used the scientific name to forge an imposter that looked like a parrot? It was beginning to appear someone may have done exactly that and simply dreamed up the "Rare Thailand Parrot Flower"!
I then tried without success to find a botanically certified photo of Impatiens psittacina. I contacted the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England and several gardens in India. None had the photo on file, or if they did, were not willing to share it with a plant collector! At least for a short while I began to believe the entire story could possibly be a hoax! The more I researched Impatiens psittacina the more I began to believe this "plant" could simply be a fake. I became so deluded with the idea the photos were computer generated I actually posted a note on one garden sites saying I was "certain" it was a fake! I then went so far as to create my own "Parrot Flower" using PhotoShop with Impatiens glandulifera as the base. That post is still on the internet today, but there was still a doubt in my mind. There were at least 5 photographs on the internet taken from 5 different angles. Someone would have had to spend days if not weeks creating all those angles and still make them all look real! That would take both talent and a lot of time. Creating quality composites is an art not something anyone with an extra $1000 to spend on a copy of PhotoShop can easily accomplish.
Finally I began to receive emails from rare plant and aroid expert Julius Boos in Florida. Julius knows his plants, especially aroids. Since Julius first began to write we have become best of friends and I have been fortunate to spend time with him in Florida. We have exchanged hundreds, perhaps thousands of emails regarding aroids (a specialized group of plants) I often research for the Exotic Rainforest website. Julius was convinced the "Rare Thailand Parrot Flower" existed, and for good reason. He had seen it! At the time I trusted Julius' instincts but I was still skeptical but Julius is a much better researcher than I have ever been and his knowledge of rare plant species is almost beyond belief. I had already been trying for months to find the scientific text where the plant was first described botanically without success. but within days Julius emailed a copy! To my amazement even the original botanist described Impatiens psittacina as looking like a parrot-like bird and described it in his scientific text as a "cockatoo suspended by a string from its shoulders". The Rare Thailand Parrot Flower does in fact exist!
Impatiens psittacina is a scientifically described species from several small geographic regions in Asia including northern Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and one neighboring state in India. Some internet sources claim Impatiens psittacina is found in Vietnam, the Himalayas and neighboring countries but that cannot be confirmed in science. The Thai's have a name for Impatiens psittacina and call it "Dork Nok Khaew" which is literally translated as "parrot bird flower" (Dork or Dok = flower, Nok = bird, and Khaew = green or the word for parrot. However, this clarification came in June 2008 from Steve Myers who resides in Thailand, "I am fluent in Thai (read and write as well), so I thought I would try to clear up a small inaccuracy in your translation of the Thai name. On your webpage you write "Literally translated that says: Dork or Dok = flower, Nok = bird, and Khaew = green or the word for parrot. So the translation would be Flower Bird Parrot." He continues, "The Thai word "khaew" used in the name of the flower means either glass or crystal or a similar substance or it means something precious. The Thai word for green is usually transliterated as "kieow". (It's probably a little hard to know from looking those spellings, but the words sound - and are written - completely different in Thai.) I suppose you could break "nok khaew" apart into Bird Precious or Bird Crystal or something like that, but Thai generally doesn't work like that. Almost all the names of birds in Thai include "nok" - the general word for bird - and one or two other words that complete the name of the bird. The bird cannot be referred to by a shorter verion without the word "nok". So, the Thai for parrot is simply an indivisible "nok khaew". Steve also indicated he and his spouse would be searching for Impatiens psittacina in Doi Chiang Dao, a national forest area between their home and Chiang Mai.
Julius' research had located several people who had visited Thailand, met with the photographer who posted the now famous internet photographs and knew a great deal about the rare Impatiens species. Julius had also tracked down an Impatiens expert in the United Kingdom, Ray Morgan, who was able to furnish the sought after original botanical publication containing the description, a drawing of Impatiens psittacina, and other helpful information. There is a link at the top of this page to an article by Ray which includes information on Impatiens psittacina.
The plant was originally published in 1901 in the Curtis Botanical Journal Magazine, Tab 7809. The plant was credited as having been discovered in the Shan States of Upper Burma in 1899 by a British officer named A.H. Hildebrand who was working on a new boundary agreement between Thailand and Burma, then known as Siam. In that publication botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker described the species as resembling a "cockatoo suspended by a string from its shoulders". (You can read Hooker's entire published description below).
Hooker lived from 1817-1911 and is the botanist of record who gave this species its name. The Latin name Hooker chose, "psittacina", fittingly means "parrot like". Hooker examined specimens grown at the Royal Botanical Garden Kew in Britain but did his original work on the plant in India. It is however unclear whether Hooker drew his work from a live specimen or preserved flowers. Hooker mentions in his description plants seen at the Kew in London were grown from wild collected seed furnished by A.H. Hildebrand. The plants in England did not produce seed, possibly due to the lack of natural pollinators or by a lack of understanding at the time as to how Impatiens species can be artificially pollinated. Although unknown for certain, the seed is likely to have a long viability since in 1901 mail was done only by boat, foot and horse. However, some Impatiens experts today appear to doubt the species has a long viability.
Few people realize that nature has a unique method of pollinating species while keeping a strain pure, and pollination is required to produce seeds. Almost all plants produce a unique pheromone. A pheromone is similar to a perfume designed to attract a particular insect or animal to do the work of pollination. In most cases, that pheromone smells to the male of an insect species like a female ready to mate! That is why there are very few orchid hybrids found in the wild! The male is drawn only to a single species and won't land on any other. If you don't have the correct pollinator, you don't get seeds!
While considering the possible pollinators for this species, Invertebrate Ecologist/Taxonomist D. Christopher Rogers, who studies insects, made this observation, "looking at the plant, and the position of the anthers (arcing over the flower aperture) and the position of the nectar tube (high and down curled), I would guess that a bird or a bat pollinates the plant. It is possible a moth or butterfly with a very long “tongue” does the job, or maybe a wasp, but the size of the flower leads me towards a vertebrate. That being said the next thing to consider is the form and coloration of the flower. It could be a wasp that would come upon a bird in to capture parasitic flies or heteropterans with which to provision its eggs." Julius Boos tends to believe the pollinator is more likely to be a "large hairy bumble-bee.... with large, wide and hairy heads and bodies, seemingly perfect to collect and distribute pollen." Julius believes that insect "would have tongues more than long enough to reach the pollen source." He continued, "The flower also appears to possess and provides a basal 'petal' as a 'landing platform' for a bee to land and hold on to while feeding!" Although both Christopher and Julius are obviously forced to speculate, due to the lack of documented information, it appears regardless of which of these vertebrate, or invertebrate, species does the natural job in nature it is highly unlikely we have that specific pollinator in North America. As a result, this impatiens species is not easily caused to reproduce in captive growth.
Julius also managed to find information about the Thai grower who posted the now famous photographs on the internet (all with text in the Thai language). A Thai native, he is also an experienced photographer and plant grower. The flower, which resembles a multi-colored flying parrot has an overall "blue" flower with reds and other accent colors. Sources that preferred to remain unnamed described the flower to another rare impatiens grower as "somewhat difficult" to cultivate. The Thai gentleman also described the Parrot Flower as possibly not being tuberous. The flower is said by the Thai source to be seen in the wild in several color combinations and tuberous plants were not seen in the "blue" colored flower but mainly in the pink and yellow. Even those were reported to be "tricky to grow" in spite of having tubers.
According to an informed source in Thailand, the plant needs moist humid rain forest conditions. Far wetter than can be found in the majority of North America. An extremely knowledgeable source who is familiar with the plant has recently provided information the plant is known to grow in limestone soil with a pH that is higher than normal. That is likely the explanation for the "blue" coloration due to a botanical phenomenon known as "anthocyanins" (a condition where water soluble pigments appear red to blue) depending on the soil pH. The plant is apparently truly rare in nature and is not the "invasive vine" some on the internet who are not truly familiar with the species have speculated. As for the now famous Thailand Parrot Flower photos, those were taken by the Thai grower of a plant collected in 2001 near Chiang Mai, N. Thailand. But like many flower species, this impatiens has a limited blooming season. The blooming season for Impatiens psittacina in Thailand is October and November and this impatiens grows tall!
In his scientific description (bottom of this page) Hooker describes the species as being substantially less than one meter tall. That is likely due to the fact he never actually saw the plant in the wild and based his writings on the observations of an untrained individual, Mr. Hildebrand. Unlike the Impatiens you grow in your yard, according to the cover a Thai garden magazine (see info right), this plant grows to almost 6 feet tall (1.8 meters)! The species has a thick 1/2 inch (1.5cm) stem but normal 2 1/2 inch (6cm) leaves. We have no accurate dimensions on the bloom but a photo comparison of the flower to a leaf indicates the flower would be approximately 2 inches (5cm). Hooker's description (below) differs slightly from that when he states the plant is 1.5 to 2 feet tall (less than 60cm). Hooker admits he never actually saw the species in the wild and was basing his description partially on second hand information provided by a non-scientist.
rare plant is not the attractive
small Impatiens plant normally sold for landscaping. This
Impatiens is tall
like a bad weed and apparently will not
survive without moist, humid, tropical, rain forest conditions. The flower is
beautiful but even if you could keep it alive is not suited for the
average front yard garden unless you like weeds, high humidity, and lots
of rain! You likely would
not like the plant if you found one!
(See more photos on page 2.)
So why do so many people believe this rare Impatiens species does not exist? It appears even those who are otherwise knowledgeable about Impatiens don't know very much about the very rare species in the genus. I recently ran across a very nice website that sells and specializes in Impatiens. On it, I found this quote: "To begin with, there are approximately 36 species of impatiens in the world". I make no claim to be an Impatiens expert, but based on my limited research just trying to locate Impatiens psittacina, I knew that statement could not be correct! A check of the International Plant Names Index (Royal Botanic Garden, Kew in London) done in April, 2008 reveals there are more than 1.300 Impatiens species in their records! http://mrimpatiens.com/1389_records_found%20of%20impatiens%20sp.htm Many quite rare!
Even more important, if the species does not truly exist, someone needs to explain that to the scientists who compiled the scientific text Flora of India Volume 4 as well as the people of Thailand who have seen it, photographed it, and furnished all the photos on this and the following pages. The species has been well documented in both instances. The information in the box above came from the cover of a Thai gardening magazine! Still, I regularly receive email saying "I don't believe it".
There is a fellow in Canada who was spreading the word I personally "pasted" the photos of a "fake" flower into Hooker's botanical drawings. There are several individuals in Canada who post on a variety of sites that claim this species is not rare, can be bought at dozens of websites, and grows all over Canada! But not one link telling you where to go one has ever been posted! Not one!
I've also received complaints the drawings are not a "perfect match" to the photographs. Linnaean nomenclature, the system in use at the time Hooker wrote his description, was far from perfect. It permitted many species to be described only from preserved or cultivated specimens. There is a possibility, even though Hooker saw the plant in a botanical garden in India, these were drawn more than 100 years ago from dried specimens. It is also highly likely the inks have faded so the colors no longer match. But if you look closely the correct colors and details are still there!
Until recently, I had been led to believe by plant collectors in India the species did not occur in that country. Dr. John H. Wiersema, Ph.D., Curator of GRIN Taxonomy, (a part of the USDA) recently furnished this information to verify in fact the species can be found in only one portion of India near the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma), In an email he said, "Our data comes from volume 4 of the Flora of India (P. K. Hajra et al. 1997), which indicates the species to occur in the state of Manipur in Northeast India, as our data also indicate. The state of Manipur bs northern Myanmar, where the plant is acknowledged by you to be native. This is some 400-500 miles removed from Calcutta, which has no importance in this context anyway, since Hooker never indicated the plant to be found there, but stated simply "I found no specimen at all resembling it in the Kew Herbarium, or in that of the Herbarium of the Royal Gardens, Calcutta". Hooker had collected in India (with Thomas Thomson) back in 1847-1851, but when he described I. psittacina he was already approaching 85 years of age, and is unlikely to have been to India in the few years previous after the introduction to Kew in 1899 of this species. His comment is in reference to the Herbarium of the Botanical Garden in Calcutta, from which he had the Impatiens specimens on loan for study and verification, not the Botanical Garden itself. In any case, there were no specimens of this species among this loaned material. To sum up, it is perfectly reasonable that the Flora of India is correct in indicating that this species occurs in Manipur state."
Like most Impatiens the plant is variable. Variations within plant species are quite common! Not all leaves and flowers of the same species are exactly alike. I can show you plants in my atrium where different specimens of the same species don't look exactly alike and have a variety of coloration and growth forms. Botanists and "plant nuts" disagree about those factors all the time which is one reason why so many plants have multiple scientific names, most of them now synonyms (same plant, other name)! Please note the Thai grower (who has a botanical background) stated there are color variations within this species in nature.
This link offers a more complete explanation of natural variation within species. Click here.
In September, 2007 I met a Thai family who owns a plant nursery in Bangkok at the International Aroid Show in Miami, FL and simply by chance asked if they were familiar with Impatiens psittacina. Instantly, the entire family said "yes"! Tthey then confirmed the flower was not only common in the "blue" form seen in the photos but also in a pink and yellow version. They were also amused that people in North America believe the flower is a hoax. But if you are still a doubter, look closely at the photos and the drawing below. The curved "beak", which is the backwards pointing nectar tube at the back of the corolla, and "string from the shoulders" are there, just the way Hooker drew and described them over 100 years ago! If created in PhotoShop the person who supposedly fantasized them was not only lucky but also a botanical expert and creative genius.
I've also been accused of fabricating parts of this story because I don't name all my sources. I agreed to withhold identities and will do so until given permission to reveal names. Think about it, if you had this very rare Impatiens in your greenhouse (a very few collectors do) would you want a lot of people climbing over your fence to steal it? I receive email all the time from growers of rare species complaining how many of their plants are regularly stolen by "plant thieves". Seed sellers would pay top dollar for this rare plant so they could attempt to artificially pollinate it or clone the species! If you didn't know, plant cloning is done every day, just ask your local nursery. It is called "tissue culture".
One last fact to ponder: If someone told you there was a 20 foot tall (6 meter plus) rare plant with a 6 foot (2 meter) group of flowers known to science as an inflorescence that stunk so bad it smelled like a rotting corpse would you doubt it existed? Or if someone told you there was a plant with no stem, no leaves, no roots and a single flower 3 feet wide (1 meter) that can weigh 24 pounds (over 11 kilos) that also looks and smells like dead meat would you doubt that? Many did! Both exist!
The first is known scientifically as Amorphophallus titanum, the "Corpse Flower". Most large botanical institutions now have one as a major exhibit when it blooms. At Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami it is known as "Mr. Stinky". Thousands of visitors stand in long lines to see one in bloom! The second is also known by the common name of "Corpse Flower" and is known scientifically as Rafflesia arnoldii. So far no institution has learned how to grow one in a collection. That plant is actually a parasite and grows inside a vine. It is only visible when it blooms! Growing in the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo, the only place in the world where it can be found, R. arnoldii has no leaves and grows inside a vine which is a relative of the grape and is scientifically a Tetrastigma species. Unless you saw evidence of an old blossom, you could walk right past the host vine and never know the world's largest flower lived inside. Both species are rare, just like Impatiens psittacina. But just because you can't buy one easily doesn't mean the plant is a hoax. The world of plants can truly be bizarre.
An interesting side note. The friend from South Carolina who originally sent the photos called in early 2007 to say he and his wife had been to dinner the night before at a local Thai restaurant. He asked the waitress if she had ever seen the Thailand Parrot Flower and was politely told, No. But within minutes the young lady brought another Thai woman to the table who excitedly said, "Yes, from Chiang Mai". Just like the Thai family I met in Miami, she then went on to describe the flower unprompted and used her hands to describe how the flower had the "beak" of a parrot and was connected to the plant like it had a string from the shoulders. She knew the flower well as do many people from northern Thailand!
Enjoy Thai food? Try it yourself. Ask your server if they have ever seen "Dork Nok Khaew" near Chiang Mai, North Thailand. You may just be surprised!
The original botanical published work as well as some of the Thai collector's photos (see page 2) are included for you to enjoy. We do not have the plant and we cannot tell you where to purchase cuttings, starts or seeds. The very rare plant is not available. Due to the tropical requirements and reported difficulty in maintaining the species it is very unlikely it will ever be a common plant at any nursery! No botanical garden we can locate has one on display other than the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
For those who want to compare the drawing to the photo I've positioned the "parrot" from the upper right of the drawing beside the "parrot" from the upper left of the photo. Judge for yourself. As for me, I believe! It's simply a scientific fact.
If you are seeking information on other rare species, click on "Aroids and other genera in the Collection" at the top and look for the
If after reading all this explanation you still want to try to purchase the Thailand Parrot Flower,
click this link before you view the next page! We believe you will reconsider!
Want to see more photos?
This link will lead you to new photos and information regarding
a tour to see the plant in Thailand!