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.