How Auspicious Trees Can Revitalize Thai Cities
In many cities across Thailand, it is common to see majestic trees hundreds of years old with colored ribbons tied around them, a remnant of the animist beliefs that pervade Thailand.
But increasingly, these ancient trees are being suffocated in concrete, ripping away much of the roots of Thailand’s traditional architecture and treasured landscapes. As more people migrate to cities and urban areas continue to grow and engulf their surrounding environment, it begs the question: what kinds of cities do we really want to live in?
Reviving the traditional belief of these auspicious trees, or mai mongkol, could be the answer to creating a future in which Thailand can both promote sustainability and preserve its cultural identity.
Here, we take a look at the different auspicious trees, what they mean in Thai society, and what they can mean for Thai cities.
How Thai Auspicious Trees Can Promote Urban Green Space
- The case for auspicious trees in green spaces
- Trees for prosperity
- Trees for love
- Trees for peace
- Building cities with Thai roots
The case for auspicious trees in green spaces
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of migration to cities in Thailand and worldwide. As more Thais move to urban centers—with over 50% of the population now living in cities such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket—concrete jungles are rapidly replacing forests and the wildlife residing within them.
If you live in any big Thai city, you may now be familiar with the rampant air pollution and extreme heat. Over the past century, shopping malls, parking lots, and other urban developments have replaced a lot of the natural greenery that would have mitigated these problems.
In cities, green spaces not only help to purify the air and provide cooling, but also create spaces for recreation, places to gather, and a sense of community in an increasingly individualistic world. Equally important, they provide opportunities for people to connect with some of the natural flora that has defined Thai society for centuries, from trees like tamarind and Malabar almond to aquatic plants like the iconic lotus flower.
Well into the modern era, certain trees have enjoyed cultural and spiritual associations in Thai society. For instance, there is great worship for the Bodhi tree, or “tree of awakening,” under which Gautama Buddha is said to have meditated and gained enlightenment. Thus, the ordination of trees has been a longstanding tradition in Buddhist-majority Thailand. However, Thais also relied on trees for their medicinal properties, giving rise to a common belief that auspicious trees provided both spiritual and physical healing.
By bringing more auspicious trees to Thai cities, whether it be through public green spaces or private gardens, we can nurture a more balanced urban landscape that respects Thai culture and nature.
Trees for prosperity
Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) – The Thai name for Jackfruit is khanoon, where noon means “to support.” Therefore, it is believed that those who grow jackfruit trees will bring prosperity to those around them. In the Lanna tradition—rooted in the ancient kingdom situated in what is now northern Thailand—newlyweds eat jackfruit on their wedding day to represent their lifelong support for each other.
Lanna households also have jackfruit curry during Songkran, the Thai New Year festival, in the hopes of bringing lifelong support, prosperity, and success. Oftentimes, a Buddha image is carved onto the trunk of the tree and used as a place of worship.
Jackfruit trees don’t require pesticides or chemicals and can survive in very high temperatures, making them ideal for Thailand’s climate. As a shade crop, they can be intergrown with other plants, increasing biodiversity and enriching the soil. Its large fruits hold many seeds and the trees themselves are easily replanted, making jackfruit one of the most widely cultivated trees in Thailand.
Jackfruit itself is rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, and vitamin C and has been shown to prevent various types of cancerous cells. Traditionally, it has been used to alleviate insomnia, due to what we now understand is the fruit’s tryptophan content. From this, we might conclude a pearl of Thai wisdom: the key to lifelong prosperity is getting a good night’s sleep.
Bougainvillea – Typically used as ornaments to adorn gardens and buildings, the bougainvillea or paper flower tree bears clusters of leaves and vibrant, paper-thin flowers. The blossoms range from pink, purple, and red, to orange, white, and yellow. Usually blooming during Chinese New Year, the bougainvillea represents joy, brightness, and prosperity.
This colorful plant is highly tolerant to air pollution, making it ideal for dense urban areas like Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Despite their sweet appearance, they are hardy plants, being naturally pest-free and requiring very little water to bloom. In warm, sunny climates, they tend to grow rapidly and flower all year round, especially when pruned properly.
Trees for love
Thorny Bamboo (Bambusa blumeana) – This type of bamboo is called pai srisuk, which in Thai, rhymes with wealthy and happy. Because it grows in large, dense clusters, the plant symbolizes family unity and harmonious growth. Because of their versatility and strength, the plant is often used in construction, traditionally to build fences in front of homes and usher in peace and happiness. They are usually planted on the southeastern side to help block morning sunlight and reduce heat.
Bamboo extract, made by mashing its leaves with oils, have traditionally been used to purify blood, relieve menstrual pain, alleviate uterine inflammation, cure fevers, treat high blood pressure, and aid kidney dysfunction. These effects have since been explained by bamboo’s antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
Technically a grass and not a tree, bamboo grows rapidly in marginal lands and is perfect for restoring natural forests. With the ability to produce 35% more oxygen than trees and also absorb more carbon dioxide, they are particularly useful in climate mitigation and can also help combat air pollution. Bamboo also helps sequester nitrogen and other kinds of pollutants in water.
Unlike the majority of softwoods which are only harvestable after 10 to 20 years, bamboo can be reaped within three to five years and replenished relatively quickly, making it a renewable resource which can help reduce timber consumption.
Star Gooseberry (Phyllanthus acidus) – Its Thai name, mayom, also rhymes with niyom, which means popular. Therefore, it is believed to bring popularity and help you maintain a good reputation and social status. This tree, grown all over Thailand, has rough bushes that produce a sour, yellow fruit in large, dense clusters. The fruit is edible and can help reduce blood pressure, relieve headaches, and balance blood sugar levels.
Star gooseberry trees have a fairly low water footprint, only requiring 63 gallons per kilogram of fruit. Its seeds grow rapidly, flourishing in areas near canals, which can help improve water and air quality in cities. It can also be used as an ingredient in organic pesticides to avoid using harmful chemicals that can contaminate the soil and water.
Trees for peace
Orange Jasmine (Murraya paniculata) – Called dok kaew or “glass flower” in Thai, this plant has delicate white flowers that represent purity and virtue and are used to pay homage and respect in various Thai rituals. It is believed that planting this tree at home will cleanse and brighten the souls of those who reside there, instilling good morals and making them loved by those around them.
This shrub tree bears fragrant blossoms that can be boiled into a tea to aid relaxation. Its roots can also be crushed into a powder to use on fresh wounds, improve circulation, relieve dizziness, treat diarrhea, and reduce coughs, bloating, and pain caused by inflammation.
Read More: The Resurgence of Thai Herbs
The leaves of orange jasmine trees absorb airborne heavy metal pollutants, making them useful indicators for air quality tests. Furthermore, they also act as “trap crops,” meaning they can attract insects and serve as an effective insecticide to control pests for other crops.
Golden Shower (Cassia fistula) – Living up to its name, this tree bears long bunches of brilliant yellow flowers hanging from its branches, often seen blossoming all at the same time in parts of Thai cities during Songkran. Its Thai name, ton rachapruek, literally translates to “king’s tree,” as the color is associated with the late King Rama IX.
Also seen as a national symbol, the tree is planted in various public places, such as government offices. Many people, not just in Thailand but in other Buddhist-majority countries in Southeast Asia, see the tree as sacred. Traditionally, its petals are used in holy water for various ceremonies, such as to lay pillar stones for the construction of a new city or palace. Its petals are also used in rituals to expel bad spirits and omens.
Typically grown in tropical and subtropical climates, the golden shower tree usually blooms in mid-April, during which its flowers produce pollen and secrete a nectar from its bark that attracts bees and other pollinators. They are good indicators of air quality and are great for environmental monitoring, as their leaf tips turn brown when the atmosphere reaches toxic levels.
Building cities with Thai roots
As our body of scientific knowledge continues to grow, it’s becoming clear that some of our beliefs about auspicious trees are well founded. Many of these trees have been proven to enhance physical and mental wellbeing, while supporting broader efforts to reduce air pollution, mitigate urban heat islands, restore biodiversity, and source sustainable construction materials.
These trees represent a way forward to restoring our respect for the environment and building cities in harmony with nature and our cultural roots. Unless preserved, these roots will soon be lost under the pavement, disappearing with them the people, plants, and animals that make up Thailand’s rich ecosystems.
The concept of auspicious trees may be exotic and foreign to some, but it says a lot about the hopes and dreams of the Thai people, whether it be for prosperity, love, or peace. They embody the essence of Thai culture and its treasured relationship with nature.