The World’s Largest Garden Gnome

The World’s Largest Garden Gnome

The fibreglass tree-stump fountain erected on Jalan Parlimen by Kuala Lumpur City Hall.

by Angela Hijjas

for The Malaysian Naturalist vol. 52 no. 3

For gardeners (and this is the MNS gardening column), the tropical rain forest presents an ideal of wild perfection whose luxuriant growth we try to emulate on our small plots. It provides the inspiration for the landscapes of our imagination, but without having seen a forest, how could we understand the potential of the material we work with? The height of towering trees, their natural spacing and the effect of irregular features like rocks and rivers feed the well spring of illumination for artists and poets trying to recreate something of this natural wonder in their own idiom. Where do we go for inspiration when the forests cease to exist? To the saw mill, it seems.

The erection of this appalling monument (ab0ve) commemorating the destruction of forests is cause for as much anguish as the actual cutting. As a nation, we seem yet to see reason for reflection or shame at the desolation we have wrought in the name of economic growth. The survival and prospering of our own species has become sacrosanct and the rights of non humans, either plant or animal, have obviously never been considered.

The location of the monument, at the very heart of our capital city, where we revere national traditions and history with great formality, fills me with despair. I have learned to overlook the periodic concrete stump that welcomes me to small towns on the edges of recently leveled forests, but I was naïve enough to think that city people were a bit different and never imagined that such alarming ethnocentric chauvinism would mushroom on the Padang. Just as KL was reaching city greatness with the hosting of world events, the concert hall and philharmonic orchestra, a growing network of public transport and walkable foot paths, we tripped ourselves up again. How can we possibly believe that a destroyed tree is something to celebrate?

Economic development must be financed by using resources, and forests are an important source of materials and revenue, but we must acknowledge that this is a necessary compromise, an unfortunate step that has to be taken because we have no other alternative. This monolith illustrates that we have forgotten that inherent compromise. The forest is something we should use and re-use over time, but instead its best fate in the minds of Malaysians is the sawmill. This enormous concrete tree commemorates conquest over a destroyed enemy, rather than a monument to a beloved friend who died, quite unnecessarily, in action.

The belief that we have the right to destroy and then commemorate harks back to a colonial mentality where conquest was all and the rights of the native amounted to nothing. The innate sense of superiority of the Englishman over the native was not questioned until writers like George Orwell in his book “Burmese Days” placed these constructs of colonialism in a different light. What right did a white man have to determine the lives of other races? Dickens broke the same ground in the previous century by questioning the class system that denied all rights to much of English society. Surely by now we should be questioning the rights that humanity has assumed with regard to its power over other species.

We will not diminish ourselves by realizing that we are a smaller part in the scheme of things than we previously imagined. In fact our human potential would be enhanced by adopting broader goals to allow society to sustain itself within its natural environment. Dickens and Orwell foresaw as untenable a society dependent on the conquest of the minority over the majority, so must we acknowledge that our human role must integrate the natural world and ensure its survival as intrinsic to our own.

Thus the news that Belum, one of our last great forests, was to be logged stirred great discomfort. Belum, in northern Perak, was isolated by the communist Emergency for decades and was first explored by the Malaysian Nature Society expeditions only in 1993. A beautiful book published by MNS records the research, but photographs can never convey the powerful presence of old forest growth. Hopefully the book may not be all that remains in a few years time. Signs have been posted in Sungei Halong, where the first MNS expedition surveyed the forest and found many new plant and insect species. It seemed that an area of possibly 2,000 hectares was to be logged, but now the State government of Perak has responded that it was only for a stock survey and that there is a chance that Belum will be turned into a State park. This will indeed be cause for commemoration.

Obviously every government has to make use of its forest resources, and it is hoped that they become more sensitive in their policies and enforcement. We are unsure how much of Belum will be reserved, and I am concerned that logging, if it has to take place in some other area, should aim to sustain the forest for future use. Timber could be extracted by helicopter, as has already been done in Sarawak in areas that even the earth movers could not access. It can be done and it is financially feasible. Do we merely hope that the state governments will ensure that forests will be allowed to regenerate without the damaging incursion of miles of erosion prone roads with impenetrably compacted soils? Or should we express our fears and hopes to the authorities?

We do not know whether it was the timely notification of the Kedah MNS branch who first found the logging notices in Sungai Halong and the subsequent letter campaign that erupted in just a week, that changed the course of events. Perhaps the government was already acting in the interests of conservation, and I salute the change in approach.

We must acknowledge the forest as a creation of the greatest power, and recognize that it is defenseless in the face of economic development, just as our currency was defenceless in the face of speculators. Rather than pose for photographs in front of fountains, write a letter to the Mentri Besar of Perak to thank him for the promise he made in the preface to the book on Belum for sustainable forest development and for his acting on that initiative. If we applaud his efforts maybe there will be less support for garden gnomes and more appreciation for the real thing.

Tan Sri Dato Seri Ramli bin Ngah Talib,
Mentri Besar,
Jabatan Mentri Besar,
30000 Perak

The Interactive Garden

The Interactive Garden

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 52 no. 2.

Gardening is essentially a manipulation of the natural environment. We elect to save or eliminate, plant and nourish or neglect, and the result is a man made garden. For the naturalist, there is the added objective of nurturing as much of nature as possible, and this includes species other than plants. I have managed to educate the rest of the family that one does not have to kill snakes, bats or lizards; they do more good than harm, but at the same time I keep a close eye on the new puppy to make sure she isn’t taken by the biawak, the large monitor lizard that lives near the pond.

A large biawak, or water monitor, on the steps by the pond.

Birds win people over much more easily and do not evoke the same primal fear as reptiles. The brilliant flashes of colour as they swoop through the garden and fill another dimension with song ringing back and forth arouse a reaction in all humans, whether interested in the natural world or not.

I have perhaps thirty varieties of birds in my garden and they provide me with the greatest delight. The largest is probably the crested serpent-eagle, although the fish owl would be a close second. The eagles regularly launch themselves on the heat generated from a large paved area by the house, whistling to each other as they glide the thermals. The fish owl’s tawny beige is noticeable in low light and can sometimes be seen perching on the house beams over the fish pond or in the top of a flowering durian waiting for bats. Much more common are the white breasted waterhens who inhabit the pools and drains and are fascinating to watch as they hide their coal black young in bushy cover while both parents hunt for food. They breed prolifically, but numbers never seem to increase so the monitor lizards must be harvesting their share. These interactions between species make the life of a garden so interesting and reminiscent of our own lost habitat that we must unknowingly miss.

My early garden planting failed to consider other life groups so much, keen as I was to plant a forest of dipterocarps, the tallest fo rest giants. Unfortunately, most of these huge trees take years to mature and the seasons of flowering and fruiting are so irregular and unpredictable that they cannot be relied upon by wildlife for a regular source for food. Perhaps the plants that encourage birds most would be from the Ficus family, they fruit early and constantly and are sought by bats, mammals and birds. Unfortunately most planted by landscapers tend to be hybridized varieties that don’t fruit, wasting a great opportunity. Feeding animals can make a mess, but if they are well established they can also help with insect and pest control. With more predators to keep down the pests, plants and people suffer less from insect damage than they would otherwise.

Swifts and bats alternate between day and night harvesting flying insects, and the change of guard at dusk is remarkably precise: one never sees swifts in the sky with bats, nor is there a moment when there is nothing flying and swooping.

A reticulated python, in the well at Rimbun Dahan. Pythons help control the rat population.

The naturalist’s garden has to develop on the awareness that we share our space with other creatures. I may own the land, but other residents predate my claim so allowances have to be made. All species are an asset in one way or another, even the weeds in the vegetable garden can camouflage tender species. Snakes keep down the rat population and birds harvest insects and fruit, spreading seeds and fertilizing as they go as well as providing an important dynamic aesthetic. The final result may seem a bit chaotic but a growing understanding of the interactions greatly broadens the definition of ‘gardening.’

The birds are definitely the star performers. A huge colony of yellow vented bulbuls nests happily in a grove of red sealing wax palms and sends squadrons out each morning. A more individual character is the pied triller chooses to call from under a roof where its voice is effectively amplified, as it (presumably male!) competes with its own kind for dominance. The black-naped orioles offer flashes of brilliant yellow as they carol and swoop through the trees, and the white-throated kingfisher provides the contrasting blue, accompanied by its typical raucous shriek. A seasonal visitor is the tiny blue-eared kingfisher, arriving in pairs and identifying itself by its whistle but difficult to see. Only once have I seen the stork-billed kingfisher. Two varieties of woodpeckers and bee eaters, owls, swifts, spider hunters and sunbirds add to the population.

There are many shy small varieties that we occasionally glimpse but can rarely identify, and they tend to be eclipsed by the louder more spectacular species. Seeing a pair of racket tailed drongos cavorting around an old durian tree as their tails wove patterns in the air is an indelible memory. We also have a family of hill mynas, only visitors before but now resident, whose calls whistle and echo throughout. I occasionally see malkohas and the greater coucal, the former very discrete, the latter lumbering through the foliage in a rather ungainly manner. Often we get swooping formations of long tailed parakeets, shrieking loudly, and reminiscent of my ‘great parrot homeland,’ as David Attenborough called Australia.

Recently I visited Endau Rompin and was overwhelmed by the vegetation in the forest, especially seeing trees that I have as saplings and being able to identify the mature specimens. Bird life, though, was not visible although very much in evidence from the morning calls; the forest was too dense for a good view. A well established garden can be very rewarding for bird watching, especially if it is close to forested areas. Recently a sighting of a vigorous patch of brilliant red feathers sent me scrambling for the bird book; I fear I saw a trogon, an inhabitant of primary forest, and I can only surmise why it was in my garden. I have not seen it since and fear for its welfare, but I guess I must focus on what I can provide and keep planting as much as possible.

So many ills of living in a developed society seem to stem from losing touch with natural surroundings in terms of sharing one’s habitat with other species. Whether it is the occasional whiff of perfume from a flowering tree, the sight of a biawak catching the morning sun on a coconut trunk, the texture of a leaf or the flash of a bird swooping past, the experience tends to place one’ s sense of being into primal mode; another part of the brain takes over when recognition takes place.

The solely urban habitat does not seem varied enough for healthy populations of birds or humans. To belong to a place that i s sufficiently diverse and to interact with our environment seems to be intrinsic to the healthy ‘lifestyle’. How I hate that word, but perhaps it reflects the loss of our own habitat, to be replaced by a mere style, a loss that takes its toll on us as much as it does on the rest of creation.

Naturalist Gardening Tips: I have had trouble establishing a Cassia fistula for its wonderful cascades of golden flowers. Every time a new show of leaves sprout, white moths appear and lay eggs. Within days the leaves are destroyed by caterpillars. For some reason the garden birds have shown no interest in grooming the tree or catching the butterflies, but a recent innovation at organic pest control was to introduce a nest of kerengga, the large red ants that inhabit fruit trees. The ants attack the caterpillars and although there is still some damage, the trees are doing much better.

To move a kerengga nest requires determination, as they bite. Our method is to pull it off the tree with a fruit harvesting hook, and tie it in a plastic bag (as quickly as possible!) Hang the bag in the caterpillar infested tree and then break it open. The ants will quickly establish their territory. Should you wish to remove the ants, the nest can be burned by tying oils oaked rags on a bamboo pole, and setting it alight under the nest.

Birds are just as useful, but they cannot depend on a few plant species as food supply is too cyclical. A good variety of birds requires a wide variety of plants. The booklet produced by WWF Malaysia, ‘Bring Back the Birds’, is an excellent guide on what species will attract birds, either because they provide nesting materials, fruit or insects on which the birds can feed.

Plant Indigenous

Plant Indigenous

by Angela Hijjas

With the accelerated loss of forest habitats gardeners can try to make a difference to the survival of birds and other small creatures by selecting indigenous species to enrich urban habitats. Most Malaysians only have small gardens or make do with a few pots on a balcony, so making the planting choice is critical, plants should be an appropriate size and be ‘interesting’ to human and animal alike.

The joy of gardening is not merely ‘growing’ plants and savoring their flowers. Living with plants is about seeing the wider world as birds catch pollinating insects and collect fruit, or butterflies and moths feed on nectar, as well as the shade, perfume, colour and texture of plants that we particularly enjoy. Sharing a garden with other species gives us a real sense of our place on earth.

Malaysia has some of the greatest biodiversity of species known anywhere in the world, but we are in danger of losing much of it before we even know about it. The easiest way to learn something of this richness is to live with some of these plants, read about them and observe. Enriching the soil with kitchen waste and watering when necessary give us an active role, but humanity is part of a much larger scheme that we appreciate better as we share our space with other species.

The plant offered for sale to raise funds for MNS on World Environment Day ‘98 is Murraya paniculata (above), kemuning or Mock Orange. This single example provides lessons in Malaysia’s culture, history and the diversity of life. It is a shrub or small tree, of the same family as the curry leaf plant, that is occasionally seen wild in the drier parts of the north and on the east coast, or on limestone hills. Because of the fragrance of its flowers it is often planted in kampong gardens. The dense erect leaves resemble citrus, and the yellow root wood is favoured for making kris handles because of its beautiful figuring. The name apparently is derived from this yellow colouring, kemuning from kuning or yellow.

Kemuning has medicinal uses as well. An infusion of the leaves is included in a tonic for ‘young women’s irregularities’, or a decoction of the leaves may be used for toothache. The flowers used to be sold in the markets to perfume women’s hair, much as jasmine is sold today. Their fragrance, particularly in the evening, is magnificent and attracts pollinating insects. The red berries are relished by birds and bats.

As a garden species, kemuning makes an excellent single or hedged specimen for screening that can be heavily pruned with no ill effects. It quickly generates new growth and a flush of flowers if there is generous watering and composting after the cut-back. It is not attacked by munching insects, never needs chemical intervention and possibly protects tender species planted nearby.

By learning about Malaysia’s own plants we learn to recognise the individuals and families that make up the primary and secondary forests. Unique plants help us develop a sense of place which will be all important in the coming age of globalisation when standardisation will diminish the particular for the sake of world wide uniformity. To understand our own place in the universe means to appreciate the uniqueness of this particular land and have a strong sense of belonging here.

It is mainly an awareness of plants and landscape that ensure this continuity. The hillside kampongs shaded by tall fruit trees interspersed by riverine padi fields, much of which is already lost, the miles of rubber and oil palm estates and the forested hills as a backdrop, are a landscape made of the geography of plants. Place names in Malaysia are generally named after plants or characteristic geographic features. Street names follow this tradition, but rarely today is the named tree included in the landscaping. With the rush for foreign/exotic species such as traveler’s palms (from Madagascar), and heliconia (from central America) it is easy to forget the plants and landscape that have shaped Malaysia’s culture and traditions. When we learn how to name the trees we will know who and where we are, an important rediscovery with globalisation upon us.

For a wealth of information on all things related to Malaysia’s indigenous species, two excellent reference books on the importance of Malaysia’s plants should be included in every home library. Professor E.J.H. Corner’s Wayside Trees of Malaya and I.H. Burkill’s Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula have been reprinted by the Malaysian Nature Society and the Government Printer respectively and give rare insight into forests, plants and Malaysian economic history.

Join the Malaysian Nature Society and take advantage of members’ discounts to buy these heritage titles.

Gardening’s Current Affairs

Gardening’s Current Affairs

by Angela Hijjas

from The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 52 no. 1, March 1998

After six years, parts of my garden are beginning to fulfill imagined promises: a wider variety of birds and insects come part and parcel with more species of plants and the growing trees stretch the canopy to greater heights, enlarging the mass and volume of the garden enormously. Fourteen acres of stunted orchard is evolving into the forest I imagine, but it will remain the human domain as long as I continue to plant and transplant, nurture and prune, select and reject; the process of gardening is very much a current affair. Shown’s article in the last issue about pruning and ‘surgery’ highlighted this role of the interventionist gardener, but so much, at least for me, is more a matter of chance rather than choice.

Pruning can have dramatic effects on tropical plants that are otherwise only affected by subtle climatic change that human minders do not detect. In anticipation of the festive season, we pruned our kemuning (Murraya panniculata) hedge at the beginning of puasa, the fasting month, hoping to revitalise its formal shape while giving it time for more leaf growth to conceal any exposed woody stems, but a fortnight later (combined with a lot of rain) the hedge flowered profusely and also sprouted new growth. Next year the time to prune would appear to be in the middle of the fasting month, so that the magnificent fragrance can be a feature of our open house; but then again the season will be a few weeks earlier and the rhythm may be different.

Part of the chance element of gardening can be reduced if one keeps records. It is essential to observe carefully a plant’s habits, how it performs in different conditions. Otherwise it is so easy to forget. This was my New Year’s resolution; keep records and update them diligently.

A plan of the garden has to be made before the records can mean much, especially if you intend to plant vegetables and follow a proper rotation of ‘crops’. The PC can be an invaluable tool in updating and referring to old records. When was the bed composted last? What was planted before? What’s the record of pests and problems? A rain gauge is a good idea, and daily records can be graphed and compared in the PC; and in no time you will have a full-time hobby, perfect for the economic downturn!

Observing, recording and remembering have developed our gardening and agricultural expertise over the millennia, but in the tropics where there are few seasonal variations, it is critical to continue recording and interpreting, especially as so little is really known about our unique conditions. Temperate gardens with their seasonal changes and preparations are more predictable, daffodils flower in spring and roses in summer and autumn is the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.

Perhaps Malay folk lore could give valuable insight into the habits of plants, but much traditional knowledge has already been lost with the changes in the kampung environment. It is barely viable to maintain the family plot when the younger generation is working in the factories that have sprung up all over the peninsula while the older generation looks after the children. A cash economy has replaced the need to depend on the products of small-scale agricultural labour, but the present crisis may re-introduce many of us to the rewards and delights of growing our won produce as we are being urged by politicians and the media.

Hydroponics seems a popular solution, possibly because of the marketing angle involved in selling all the paraphernalia that is required to get a simple crop of kangkung, but I am more concerned about the requirement for unnecessary chemical additives when most of what is needed is just outside the back door or on a piece of neighbouring wasteland that can be co-opted for vegetables. Instead of buying packaged additives for hydroponics, start a compost heap and get some exercise with the cangkul.

A single family generates a lot of vegetable refuse that can be recycled. You can use a large covered garbage bin with holes melted in the sides for ventilation. It will not be smelly as long as no animal products are thrown in, and a few shovels of soil to cover anything you suspect may attract flies will keep down the vermin. Cover the pile to prevent tropical rain from leaching out nutrients, but ensure it is just damp enough to allow the enrichment of rot. When the heap is finished, keep it for a few weeks and turn it to aerate and ensure it all decomposes evenly. Pile, cover and keep again until it is a rich black organic mass that bears no resemblance to the original material. Additives like dry chicken dung will greatly enrich the brew.

Making compost is much more satisfying that buying a produce to do the same thing, and there is nothing quite as pretty as a garden bed of vegetables rather than growing them in a plastic container. Perhaps my main complaint about hydroponics is influenced by its aesthetics just as much as by the commercialisation of something that can be a totally natural experience.

For anyone interested in growing vegetables organically, I can recommend an invaluable booklet that has been prepared by Siew of Cetdem, the Centre for the Environment, Technology and Development in Malaysia; send $5 and a stamped, self-addressed A4 envelope, for an excellent guide to growing vegetables organically in Malaysia. Siew previously ran an organic farm in Sungai Buloh and will be conducting courses in my garden later this year. In the meantime, study the leaflet, start the compost, set aside some garden space for produce and enjoy the results, which you will, of course, observe, record, assess and quantify. Good luck.

Cetdem’s address is P.O. Box 382, 46740 Petaling Jaya.

A Sense of Place in the Landscape

A Sense of Place in the Landscape

by Angela Hijjas

from The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 51 no. 3&4
The new Visitors' Centre of Kuala Selangor Nature Park

The new Visitors’ Centre of Kuala Selangor Nature Park

The new facilities at Kuala Selangor Nature Park were opened with some fanfare last month, complete with the attendance of the Minister for Housing and Local Government, Dato Dr. Ting Chew Peh. The function also served to launch Hari Landskep, and a selection of native trees were duly planted. Hopefully this choice of indigenous plants heralds a new approach by the National Landscape Department. A 1997 booklet distributed on the occasion illustrates the projects they commended in fulfilling “the Government’s vision to transform Malaysia into a garden nation by the year 2005.” Judging by the photos of severely clipped multi coloured plantings, neat edges and exotic species, we are to effect a transformation from the natural to the wholly artificial.

Landscaping competitions organised by the department covered all categories, from condo to kampong, and the winners all presented versions of the potted and de/formed interpretation of a for ceful control over nature. The towering grandeur of our natural landscape has provided no inspiration to the designers, despite the fact that we have inherited a country with the greatest biodiversity of plant material in the world. By choosing to ignore this wealth in favour of the imported and exotic, the designers are definitely experiencing the throes of some post colonial “cultural cringe.”

To develop a national concept for landscaping is more complex than merely taking elements of what designers have seen overseas and recreating it here. To recognise what is unique and beautiful in our own landscape is the beginning of the process and you build on that, assuming that the landscape one creates is intended to reinforce Malaysia’s unique sense of place, because we do have nationalistic objectives at stake.

The beautiful Saracca, definitely a candidate for the national flower.

The beautiful Saracca, definitely a candidate for the national flower.

Unfortunately, we have used foreign symbols in the past and no one has questioned those choices and in the process we have lost opportunities to present Malaysia as unique. Nationalism should be b ased on a solid understanding of where and who we are, and the place we occupy should be our source of inspiration for the symbols and images that represent us. Two examples of inappropriate and unimaginative choices should suffice.

Firstly, the hibiscus, the honored Bunga Raya, is not indigenous to Malaysia, but to southern China. When we have in our forests such magnificent botanical wonders as Rafflesia (although the name may not be politically correct) why would we select for our national flower s omething that is so pan-tropic it evokes no sense of place at all?

The flag may have got it wrong, but the crest didn't.

The flag may have got it wrong, but the crest didn’t.

My second example definitely locates our sense of place in the wider world. The new crescent moon in Malaysia is a slightly skewed smile on the horizon as it sets in the west immediately after sunset at the beginning of each new lunar month. Why, then, does Malaysia’s flag tilt the moon as if it were being viewed from Saudi Arabia? Being Australian, I can relate to this dilemma, as the British Union Jack still graces the top left corner of that flag, but hopefully not for much longer. I accept that the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam; I acknowledge that Mecca should be venerated but I see no reason why the angle of the moon should not be on the flag as we see it in Malaysia, slipping over the horizon every month, reminding us all of the passage of time and exactly where we are. And what a great gesture it would be to salute all Malaysians by realigning the sabit bulan, in acknowledgment of that special place we all occupy.

Malaysia is a tropical country, Kuala Lumpur is just three degrees north of the equator. Our sense of belonging is reflected in how we recognise where we are. To me, trees are the first indicator of location. Australia is perfumed by eucalyptus, Malaysia by durian when you are lucky and motorbike fumes when you are not, but identifying the trees that belong to this place alone confers a precise sense of place and belonging, something that our national landscaping policy should certainly address. With the relent less pressure to globalise, we surely wish to retain some uniqueness that other places do not have and landscaping with native species must enhance this.

Indigenous people have always identified location with the prevailing flora, by naming the places after the plants. Ipoh is a tree with toxic bark, used to tip hunting arrows. The Pinang palm provides the mildly narcotic fruit that has been used for centuries in South East Asia for a multitude of medicinal purposes. The feathery Melaka tree is believed to have provided the place name for river and town. The name is from Sanskrit, possibly given by visitors from the subcontinent centuries ago. Just as names keep our language and history alive, so does a knowledge of our own unique plants.

A very significant book has just been reprinted by the Malaysian Nature Society that will provide hours of fascinating browsing for anyone interested in indigenous species and their relevance on a daily and historic basis. Professor E.J.H. Corner compiled a remarkable survey of Malaya’s trees that was first printed in 1940, ‘The Wayside Trees of Malaya’, in two volumes. Its importance has not diminished over half a century and there has never been anything else close to replacing it. The contents cover a broad selection of plants encountered in the peninsula, illustrated by old but excellent photographs and line drawings that make identification easy for the amateur. Precise botanical information is mixed with interesting anecdote and opinion, and one can easily dip in and out of its masses of information. The sections on the characteristics of each of the plant families provide an easy introduction to botany, and simple keys help in identification. Particular trees are noted with an ironic eye, like this Sindora wallichii: “The tall tree at Changi that, as a feature on pre-war charts for over a century, marked the eastern approach to the Straits of Johore was felled early in 1942 to prevent Japanese forces ranging on the useless guns of the fortress of Singapore. Sic transit gloria mundi.” Corner’s immense knowledge and forthright opinions should be included on every Malaysian book shelf.

Trees and the natural surroundings mark the uniqueness of place and deserve to be noted in our man-made landscapes as they bear witness to our history and who we are. By learning about local plants and recognising them we become more aware of ourselves and our singular identity. Malaysia is unique and the propagandists would do well to draw our nationalist symbols (and our landscaping styles) from those elements that make this place so special.


The Malaysian Naturalist
vol. 51 no. 3&4

Taman Sari

Taman Sari

by Angela Hijjas

for The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 51 no. 2, December 1997.

The name ‘Taman Sari’ evokes the fragrance and grace of a lush Javanese garden, with bees probing for nectar in masses of flowers. The first Sultan of Jogjakarta, Mangkubumi, the ‘guardian of the earth,’ chose the name for the walled pleasure garden adjoining his kraton in the mid-eighteenth century. He spared no expense on walls, tunnels and waterworks, while the Dutch complained that he placed more priority on this self-indulgence than on their fortifications. If only all kings were so wise!

The intricate irrigation channels of the original Taman Sari flowed through a series of pools and courtyards, complete with a fountain of youth, the Umbul Binangan. Spice, vegetable and fruit gardens, terraces, staircases and pavilions made up what must have been a wonder of its time. But the beauty of any garden is transitory; earthquakes and neglect reduced this garden to ruin by the end of the century and today all that remains are walls and a labyrinth of sunken passages.

Two centuries later, inspired by the romance of Javanese palaces, I adopted the name Taman Sari for my herb garden. Like the Sultan, I wanted the garden to be an integral part of our home, while developing a strong sense of its place within Malaysia. The most promising site for it lay behind the house, an area of about half an acre.

The so-called ‘hard landscaping’ elements, the paths, furniture and sculpture, are an essential part of any garden, particularly a herb garden, and their added detail helps to compensate for the predominant lack of colour in Southeast Asian species. As the herb garden is a meld of East and West, the landscape design laid out the paths and beds in the European style, with crossed paths dividing the area into four quarters. Bali supplied the stone sculptures of winged lions for the entrance and a garuda to animate the garden, providing an aesthetic and spiritual link to the animist past. The pathways themselves are pure KL, the indispensable interlocking concrete pavers: cheap, durable and practical.

My criteria for selecting plants were that they either be Southeast Asian in origin, or of some culinary or medicinal significance in the region. Flowers with characteristic Asian fragrances are another feature. Half the garden was to be for useful plants, and the other for more sensual pleasure. Inevitably, this separation has become very blurred, especially since we started companion planting in the vegetable garden, using the pungency of the herbs to protect vulnerable vegetables from insect attack.

I resisted the urge to fill the space with trees as most vegetables need full sun, but some shade is provided by the garden’s main ‘structural’ trees and this creates a variety of habitats. A single tamarind tree is as the centre of the vegetable garden, while the main path is protected by rows of nutmeg and meninjau trees. The entrance is shaded by pinang palms whose narrow canopies do not block too much sun. Another row cinkeh, cloves, has been more difficult to establish and only one tree has done well, but it is backed by a hedge of kemuning, with its periodic flushes of fragrant blossoms. A row of Borassus flabiliffer, the lontar palm, will ultimately provide a source for the toddy of my old age, assuming there is someone around who can still tap by the year 2020. A row of cinnamon trees separates the garden from the old durian orchard and completes the structural framework, leaving plenty of space for the herbs, vegetables, fragrant flowers and medicinal plants that I am still collecting.

While the major plants anchor the structural design of the garden, the smaller ones provide detail and interest which can be manipulated in many way. With the larger trees providing shade, different layers can be planted through and underneath. Vanilla orchids, pepper and sireh climb the trunks, shrubby ground cover is provided by shade-tolerant pandanusi, gingers or costus, while kadok and pegaga are strong covers for shade and sun respectively.

As our land has been a coffee plantation for many years before we acquired it, and because I am interested in the continuity of landscapes, I planted some coffee as a hedge outside Taman Sari before I discovered that coffee flowers have perhaps the most beautiful of all fragrances. The blooming lasts for just a few days ever few months, but the perfume is unforgettable. Other perfumes come from the kenanga, jasmines and gingers, and the many varieties of leaves that have to be crushed to release their fragrant oils. To add to the confusion, occasionally different plants have similar smells: my plot of pandanus (whose smell is only released in cooking) is overhung by kerak nasi, whose perfume is just like pandanus. Many visitors, smelling kerak nasi mistake it for the better-known culinary ingredient.

Some foreign plants, like aloe vera, have become essential medicinal ingredients; they can tolerate full sun and a dry position. But I have given up trying to grow European herbs like rosemary and thyme, as the rain devastates them; they would probably do better in pots. Lemon balm is a useful exception. Other foreign plants that are widely used for herbal preparations, like elderberry (Sambucus nigra) have local equivalents: the entire plant of Sambucus javanica can be used for similar medicinal preparations as the European variety.

Apart from a few simple cold remedies, I haven’t made use of my plants and have collected them purely for the pleasure of seeing them all growing together, appreciating their histories (the tales about nutmeg alone fill volumes), and enjoying the delight of sharing them with others. An evening wander around the paths, interrupted by tastes and smells, is fun and enlightening, particularly for city children, and there is nothing like perfume or flavour to transport you to another part of the world. ‘My Mum uses this’ and ‘my grandfather grew that’ are frequent comments, and even I, from Australia, instantly recall the hot summer nights at my grandparents’ home every time I break a stalk of serai wangi, the citronella that was widely used as an insect repellent in the Fifties and is now in demand again with the organic revival.

We have plenty of kitchen herbs: chilli, serai (lemon grass), limau purut, kasturi and nipis, kunyit (turmeric), curry leaf, lengkuas (galingal), ketumbar (coriander) and mint all do well. Little can substitute for the pleasure of a pungent tom yam made with home-grown ingredients. If the kitchen is the heart of the home, the Taman Sari is the heart of my garden. What better occupation could God have intended for Sultan or commoner?

Transitional Landscapes

Transitional Landscapes

by Angela Hijjas

for The Malaysian Naturalist vol. 50 no. 3 April 1997

As an enthusiast of indigenous gardening, I am always interested in what everyone else plants. Tropical gardens range from the pseudo-jungle of the ‘Balinese’ style (masses of spectacular sub-tropical species) to the ‘Bandaraya’ style of intricate baroque detail, with elaborate parterres of clipped and coloured bushes tortured into anthropomorphic decorations of draped bunting and logos.

Malaysians are generally attracted to lavish detail, in enormous contrast to the natural wood and fibres wrought into the fine traditional crafts of old. From the home-made wedding decorations that used all the plants of the kampung garden to the plastic colours and glitter of today there has been a major aesthetic shift. Natural artistic judgement has been disjointed by rapid changes over recent decades and we are unsure how to see the new industrial materials.

What was carved wood yesterday is suddenly plastic today. The first reaction is to maximise this opportunity: the more colour and decoration the better. Embellishing ikat and songket fabrics used to be laborious, and yesterday’s subtle variation of natural dyes pales against today’s aniline magic. Colour and gilt can be had for almost nothing, and it will take time for the novelty to wear off, for people to conclude that, in an environment filled with so many material objects, less is more where decoration is concerned.

What is obvious in wedding paraphernalia is equally evident in garden design. The colourful and intricate landscaping along Jalan Parlimen is symptomatic of the transient state, and I await the day when Dewan Bandaraya concludes that the maintenance is too labour-intensive and opts instead for tall shady trees and a more generous habitat than miniature clipped hedges. The main objective of these baroque wedding cakes is presumably to impress the masses driving past in their air conditioned cars. The landscape was certainly not intended for pedestrians-despite the pretty pathways, there is little protection and no one likes to go out in the sun!

Garden styles are also influenced by the experiences of our parents. If they struggled to control the natural environment to survive then you can’t expect them to have much fondness for it. My father had a ‘bush block’ in Australia after the Second World War, and thought nothing of grubbing up acres to create pasture for sheep. Now Australia endeavours to repair damage to fragile marginal land that was inflicted by thousands of resettled veterans, and it took my father another twenty years to appreciate the beauty of the Australian indigenous species that now, in the PC nineties, constitute ‘forest’ rather than ‘bush’.

Similarly, Malaysian children are taught to sweep the compound every day for fear of snakes, centipedes and scorpions; the jungle must be kept at bay because neglect means rapid entombment. Hence the preference for small plants, preferably in pots, especially if they respond well to a good hard pruning to diminish and miniaturise them. A small plant is no threat, unlike the amorphous jungle that once waited at the fence. Now that the forest is long gone, I wonder how long it will take before we choose tall strong trees instead of the stunted specimens that serve to demonstrate our power over nature.

On a recent trip to West Sumatra I found a vivid example of this cultural dislocation. I visit nurseries to see what people are planting and perhaps find new varieties of local gingers. Somewhere between Bukit Tinggi and Padang, one nursery featured an intricate concrete tree stump planted with heliconia. To my eyes it was incongruous: the tree was reduced to an industrial celebration of human dominion and was planted with the latest novelty from overseas that, by definition, must be better than anything local. A garden of concrete tree stumps planted with heliconia is now my worst nightmare.

There is no beauty in the natural world unless we are trained to see it, but development is changing the face of our country so fast that the necessary cultural adjustment may take too long. By the time we appreciate our heritage it may be history.

Kuala Lumpur has some magnificent stands of older trees, and some attempts are made to preserve them. The bank of Eugenia grandis in Jalan Tun Razak was not cut down, but nothing was done either to protect the roots from construction damage so they could survive the enormous disturbance. Are we so insensitive as to believe that merely not cutting ensures survival.* The power of the jungle, I think, is overrated against the tools at our disposal.

The concept of sharing our environment with other life forms has not yet taken hold. As city dwellers we prefer our gardens to be sanitised, affirming our control and keeping the natural world at bay. A certain amount of sweeping and fogging, I agree, has to be done, but we can compensate by offering the spaces we do not need to other species. Rather than the stunted miniaturisations that we whizz past on the highways, why not trees, real trees with tall trunks, flowers and fruit for the insects, birds and tupai.

Corridors of natural planting can enrich our urban experience and help compensate for the enormous moral debt we owe to the natural world. The huge areas dedicated to traffic interchanges on our ever-growing highway system can be put to good use: plant the waste land beside the tarmac, as densely a possible, with a wide variety of indigenous species. Insect and bird life will flourish, the urban climate will be cooled a little, air quality improved and there would be an opportunity to gaze at trees instead of Toyota ads while stuck in a traffic jam.

With so much to gain, a cultural transition cannot come too soon. Malaysians need to feel comfortable with their natural heritage rather than using every opportunity to dominate it. When we substitute the word ‘forest’ for ‘jungle’, we may be on the road to recovery.

by Angela Hijjas
Malaysian Naturalist, Vol. 50 no. 3, April 1997

* Since this article was published the trees have been destroyed and a highway put in their place.


Bandaraya: Kuala Lumpur City Hall
Kampong: village
Ikat: an elaborate tie-dying process that is performed before weaving
Songket: a hand woven gilded brocade traditionally worn at weddings
Tupai: Malaysian squirrels

The Gardening Lifeline

The Gardening Lifeline

by Angela Hijjas

from The Malaysian Naturalist vol. 50 no. 1, December 1996

Some of us share a compulsion to garden and find great tranquility as we perform the apparently mindless tasks of watering and weeding. Gardening fulfills a desire to beautify our surroundings by rearranging things but there is more to it than that. Our connection to a particular place is shown by the marks we make on it: what we plant or build, or choose to weed out and destroy. Gardens reflect the world we want to see.

My personal view of the world is not particularly optimistic, and my need to focus on the positive is met by gardening. I would rather not see the natural environment diminish around me and so concentrate instead on the smaller delights of my own land: deciding were to plant a tree, finding the pigeon orchids, or catching sight of a rarely seen bird: all occupy my selective view.. Living in Kuala Lumpur, I have come to accept change as the norm, but since I started gardening in earnest I have begun to focus instead on the plants people choose and to wonder about the landscapes of their imaginations.

I know that gardening is my survival mode and I kid myself that I am developing the answer to sustainability, despite the facts that no one else I know has fourteen acres to plant and that after five years I am barely self-sufficient in anything but nutmegs! Perhaps my garden will provide sanctuary for a few plants and birds, as well.

The indigenous garden framed by coconut palms; Achasma megalocheilos has taken over the damp ground in the valley; the palm at the back is Oncosperma tigillarium, ribong, with its beautiful curtain-like pendulous leaflets. The palm on the right is Iguanura wallichiana.

The indigenous garden framed by coconut palms; Achasma megalocheilos has taken over the damp ground in the valley; the palm at the back is Oncosperma tigillarium, ribong, with its beautiful curtain-like pendulous leaflets. The palm on the right is Iguanura wallichiana.

In these articles I would also like to share this understanding of ‘occupying’ a place by gardening. What do you want your garden to say about yourself? Do you want to work in it or should it be low maintenance? Do you want fragrance or colour, or both? Are you content with just greenery? Are there any cultural icons you want to include: a shrine or a piece of sculpture? A garden gnome, perhaps? The results can be surprisingly revealing.

My own thoughts on gardening are strongly influenced by having come from Australia. In Australia, planting indigenous species has become common as people have acquired a sense of belonging to the country and their knowledge of its plants and animals has grown. I have chosen to plant and learn more about dipterocarps and dillenias, instead of the eucalypts and grevilleas of my birthplace. What I learned elsewhere, I want to apply here with local materials to create my version of a Malaysian garden.

The idea of planting indigenous species in Australia had wider implications that an emerging sense of belonging in a formerly foreign country: they are better suited to the environment, so maintenance and inorganic intervention are minimised. More important, local plants only need as much rain as they get naturally. Thus, in Australia, thirsty emerald lawns were replaced by bark chips and pebbles, simultaneously creating a sympathetic ‘canvas’ for the bluish greys of Australian bush species. Presto! A ‘new Australian’ aesthetic for landscape design!

By planting local species and pursuing organic techniques, I plan to enrich my local biomass and shape it into a Malaysian landscape of tall canopies under-planted with palms and ferns. I have compromised at times when choosing plants, particularly in the earlier years, and I constantly find myself justifying the entrance avenue of Madagascan travelers palms. The lush extravagance of the ‘pan tropic’ style was just too tempting and I was overwhelmed by such exotic choices, but as I find more suitable local species those early anomalies will be replaced.

This series of gardening articles was supposed to be packed with hands- on, practical advice and information. Sadly, I lack the qualifications to satisfy the techies who want hard data. For them, in fact for anyone interested in gardening, I would recommend the wonderful ‘Tropical Planting and Gardening’, first published in 1910 and still in print thanks to our own Malaysian Nature Society. All of its 767 pages are packed with information about plants and techniques guaranteed to be environmentally friendly, predating the age of chemicals as it does. It offers a wealth of facts and figures, a wonderful insight into a world long gone and all the how-to advice you are ever likely to need.

Unlike most MNS members, I have little desire to see the places we are trying to protect; just knowing they are intact would be enough. I have no recreational need to see them because I garden and what naturalist’s adventure could be as challenging as creating a Malaysian garden? It is an artificial construction but it is also my most important contact with the natural world. I am delighted to share the experience, but be prepared for opinionated tracts on the importance of the indigenous, the organic and the appropriate, because that is my quest.

By Angela Hijjas
Malayan Naturalist, vol. 50 no. 1, December 1996

Sustainable Architecture

Sustainable Architecture

by Angela Hijjas

Recently I was asked by a local architecture magazine to write about my house as an example of sustainable architecture. No investigation on the merits of this proposal was suggested, so I duly considered the salient points, knowing full well the outcome. If my home is considered a good example of where the building industry should be going, I hate to think what the general standing of sustainable development is in Malaysia.

Using the word ‘sustainable’ is always a bit suspect, as people apply it to justify something without really computing the environmental equation properly. The problem is extremely complex, and hinges on the materials chosen, the environmental cost in producing them and their life span. To do this properly, one needs to place a value on the natural environment, so that damage or loss is costed. If one were completely logical in computing a building’s total impact on the environment at large, then the only sustainable construction possible in Malaysia might be the Orang Asli solution of using biodegradable and short term materials. No hardwoods, no concrete, no steel, just build a new one every so often when the old begins to fail. In Australia, conscientious environmentalists build from rammed earth and hand made finishes from salvaged materials rather than new industrial ones.

I personally doubt that today’s contemporary architecture is sustainable, but acknowledge that some is more ‘environmentally friendly’ than others. In terms of domestic architecture, I look at my own home and see its many short comings in the eco-argument. It’s too big, it occupies a huge piece of land in a country where land and services are in short supply and it uses materials that devastated the environment from which they were extracted. The copper roof could well have come from the Freeport mines in Irian Jaya that are poisoning everything downstream. The concrete involves a cost in terms of lost limestone hills and caves with their fragile habitats, and the steel was made at huge energy costs that no one cares to compute in the environmental formula.

We did avoid using timber, but form-work had to be made, and the most ‘economical’ method was from plywood, made from our irreplaceable forest hardwoods. Teak parquet in some bedrooms was intended to relieve the use of ‘hard’ materials, and although no one would deny that timber is a beautiful material, it’s extraction from the forests of Burma is hardly sustainable. The inclusion of ‘standard’ features for the upper income group, like a swimming pool, tips the balance again. Chemicals such as chlorine are damaging, and are hard to justify for that occasional dip.

I love my home, but I have been trying to compensate ever since for the excessive use of resources that building it required. We moved here 11 years ago and ever since I have been filling it with artists and planting the rest of my 14 acres with as wide a range of indigenous forest species as I can find. I want to reaffirm a sense of place and cultural development in Malaysia, in the face of the devastation that commercial development brings.

In Malaysia, as in my native Australia, there may well be just one thing that we all share: this country’s land, its climate, its creatures, plants and landscape, its natural environment. This is the only thing that does not divide us from each other, and yet we embrace the foreign and diminish the local at every opportunity. My landscape design is creating a sense of place that no garden planted with heliconias and royal palms can match, even if I am the only one who recognises it.

But I diverge from the topic at hand. Now that the house is complete, it might be termed ‘environmentally friendly’ as it does not use a great deal of energy. We have little air conditioning and depend on through ventilation and ceiling fans. We have the usual overhangs for shade and pitched roofs for run off, and we are experimenting with ground tanks for water retention. We use pond water to flush some of the toilets and to water the vegetable plot during the increasingly common droughts, and therefore save on treated water from Jabatan Air. As well, from the huge storms that flood downstream, we retain water on site rather than draining it away as quickly as possible. Solar panels for heating water have been installed, but I am yet to be convinced that these are positive contributions as they have been replaced once already and the use of new materials and the disposal of the old ones are problems that skew the equation substantially.

I hardly think we make the cut, and know in my heart of hearts that the ‘life style’ that I enjoy and most aspire to is not sustainable. The machinery of the ‘market’, though, has reared us to believe that we are all entitled to aim for this, and that each new generation can expect to enjoy more than their parents did. Delusions, I fear.

The equations change, too, over time, and one should anticipate future trends in assessing whether something is really sustainable. For my home, if you discount the initial cost, at least most of the materials are long lasting and will endure, we are unlikely to change anything anytime soon. There is little that is fragile in the house, it copes with hard wear and I believe it will last at least as long as our kampong house from Parit. Rumah Uda Manap was restored because it is culturally important, but that’s another anthropomorphic equation that has little to do with environmental sustainability.

Made of hard wood and belian shingles, that house is another version of Malaysian architecture that would have been considered sustainable at the time it was built in 1901, if anyone had cared to compute. However, times change, our population has grown and natural resources are diminished, so what is regarded as sustainable now may not be so to future generations. Timber housed everyone in 1901, but it would be impossible now for all 22 million Malaysians to live in a timber house. In this case the escalation of timber prices shows that the hallowed market does indeed respond to resource shortages, but it still never computes the cost of lost trees and the damage inflicted on the forest, it merely tallies commercial shortages.

Surely sustainable development should be about building for now but without penalizing future generations, and not just generations of our own, but of all species.