Gardening in the Forest

Gardening in the Forest

The early morning view from the jetty at Endau Rompin. The garden had to relate to this landscape.

by Angela Hijjas

from The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 54 no. 4, 2001.

To lay out a garden in the world’s oldest tropical rainforest is an exciting and daunting prospect. The Nature and Education Research Centre at Endau Rompin was opened in March by the Chief Minister of Johor, and the new facilities required some planting to set them off to their best.

Built by the Orang Asli of Kampong Peta, the centre is a haven far from city life and occupies a transitional space leading into the forest. The site for the Centre was chosen because it was long since cleared of the original forest by the Orang Asli for an orchard. The continuity of landscapes is important, so it was an important objective to at least keep the sense of this space being part of their culture. One of the hard decisions had fortunately been made by the Parks Director Encik Basir who had previously ordered that the vegetation between the Centre and the river be cleared. It was a good decision that forms the Centre’s sense of place by revealing the river.

As the building was finished some time ago, there was already some regeneration on site that gave clues about appropriate planting choices. The decision to restrict the range to plants from the park was an obvious one, and the Orang Asli had collected several species of gingers, melastomas, ferns, bananas and palms that were just waiting to be laid out.

We visited Kampong Peta to see what the Orang Asli planted around their homes, and found that the villagers had brought in many decorative species, pokok kampung, as distinct from pokok hutan. The yellow flowering Alamanda is popular, and things like Clerodendron, which I had always thought a forest species, but if it is, it is not from Endau, as the villagers were definite that it did not grow in their forest.

In the penghulu’s compound the white Melastoma takes pride of place. It is a rare find in the forest, but is now occasionally available from nurseries. Rarity, though, creates value and my idea to plant a whole bank of them seemed a bit excessive!

One of the prettiest plants is the peacock blue fern-like Selaginella wildenovii. It flourishes in the surrounding forest and had naturally established itself in the shade under the edges of the buildings. I decided to follow kampong practice and clear everything else well away from the structures, as maintenance of wooden buildings is a lot easier if they are not overhung or undermined by plants. The Selaginella is not invasive, and seems to cope with the dryer soil under the buildings, so planting more will create a blue field under the structures.

A feature that I wanted to highlight is the river rock walls of the main pavilion’s building platform. Rather than planting along the base that would conceal the rocks, we opted to plant the common pink Melastoma malabathricum densely along the top of the wall, outside the roof’s drip line and in full sun. When established they will display a mass of colour, and by highlighting this commonest roadside plant visitors will appreciate the potential of local plants in landscaping.

At the higher end of the same bank we planted Curculigo latifolia, where a few self sown individuals were thriving. Their pleated palm-like leaves are an interesting feature, and I wanted them massed together as densely as possible. The Orang Asli use this plant as a sweetener: the fruits are eaten and the residual sweetness flavours the next taste of something less palatable.

The rare white Melastoma was planted just opposite the pink variety, in full sun and wet soil beside the excavated pond to help conceal the damage done by digging. The plant likes full sun and a wet position, so it should do well and create a highlight.

An existing landscape plan nominated unspecified palms for the space between the pond and the dormitory. I considered transplanting five seedlings of the Livistona endauensis to line up with the building pillars. These palms are restricted to a sandstone ridge overlooking the centre and were first identified as a new species during the Malaysian Nature Society’s expedition into Endau Rompin in the ’80s. The Orang Asli didn’t think this was a problem, although sometimes palms are difficult to transplant and I wasn’t sure about removing these unique site-specific plants. In the end a more readily obtained Caryota or fish tail palm was substituted.

Another decision that related to the nature of space had to consider the large open area cleared of secondary forest and adjacent to the river view clearing. I considered a selection of indigenous trees, like Tristania that grows along the river banks upstream that would eventually be tall enough not to block the view, but decided against it. Not only would they need more shelter than the site provides, but it meant leap frogging the immediate past landscape of the Orang Asli dusun, a sense of which I wanted to preserve. There is lots of forest around but I wanted the landscape to acknowledge that this clearing and the forest have been in the care of the Orang Asli for centuries.

Several huge durian trees and a forest rambutan remain, the rambutan totally unlike the stunted bud grafted versions we see today. I suggested that the Orang Asli collect specimens of forest fruit trees, unusual things that they would relish, to plant in the space. Their immediate interest showed that it was the right choice. These trees will take years to fruit but they will form a major landscape feature and educational asset.

And there lies the difference between naturalist gardening and landscaping. Landscaping in the urban sense is about an instant transformation from one view to another, asserting the transition from one ownership to another, whereas gardening with a historical and natural perspective continues the landscape in a modified form where one makes do with what one has and improves upon it. The relentless search for novelty and fashion, not just in our clothes and home décor, but in the print we make on the land, means that we are removing ourselves further from our natural home, further from our natural landscape.

A Gardener’s Review

A Gardener’s Review

A variety of Eugenia, showing white flowers. A common belief among naturalists is that white flowers attract moths, yellow ones attract butterflies, and red ones appeal to birds.

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 54 no. 3, 2001.

I was a rank beginner when I started writing on landscaping with indigenous species. Since then my interests have broadened, and my garden has become an obsession, but why did I choose indigenous, and how far am I in achieving my goals?

The common stem fig is rarely seen ripe: as soon as it is edible it is plucked by bats.

My broad ideas were initially inspired by gardens in Australia, where there has been a growing interest in Australian plants over the last three decades. There, gardeners use local plants to create a specific sense of place, to conserve water and nutrients and to encourage native birds and animals. This same sense of place is special to me here in Malaysia, because I want my garden to reflect the fact that I am here and not in Australia, nor just in some unspecified tropical country. The garden had to assert the whole history of the place and the plants that were on the site for thousands of years before it was cleared for a coffee plantation just 70 years ago.

As well, the conservation of water and nutrients presented a challenge. An organic approach seemed the most appropriate, so we set up systems to compost and mulch, and selected hardy species that can naturally withstand insect attack or drought. As in the Australian example, this choice of local species simultaneously created an instant pallet of colour and form that is particularly Malaysian.

Here there is no drought as in Australia, but everything is relative. Deplete the soil of organic matter, expose it to the tropical sun and soon the situation will resemble drought or flood. With nothing to retain moisture and nutrients, plants have to cope with extreme conditions that flatten all but the hardiest. The instant gardener would intervene chemically to help his plants: fertilize, pesticide, herbicide and fungicide. A sure step to suicide…. for the planet, if not for the gardener. Far better, surely, to choose a wider species mix and conservative gardening techniques to create a naturalist’s garden.

In my previous garden in Kuala Lumpur, a neighbour prided herself on her roses, beautiful tall bushes that produced an amazing crop of flowers considering our location just 3 degrees from the equator, but to me the price was unacceptable as several times a week the unmistakable smell of agrocide came floating over the fence.

At that stage, I had a small garden that was low maintenance, of hardy species that screened us from the neighbours. It just required an occasional pruning, and apart from the aesthetic value of looking at green rather than street, I didn’t really think about it much. When we decided to move to our 14 acre dusun, or village orchard, the garden became a major element that had to be taken more seriously.

I wanted shade most of all, and was inspired by the arboretum at FRIM, where the massive dipterocarps soar a hundred feet overhead. Planting fruit trees was not a priority as there were already plenty, and although I had a brief fling with ‘cash crops’, like sweet corn, the returns did not justify the effort. The nice thing about trees is that once they are established they need little attention.

Once the dipterocarps were on the way, I needed bulk underneath to give form and volume to the planting, so then began the hunt for local ferns, gingers, palms and ground covers.

Searching around the nurseries in Sungai Buloh and everywhere I traveled in Malaysia became an opportunity to find new and unusual plants that had some relevance to a regional garden. My most recent find is the mauve seeds of the fish tail palm Caryota rumphiana from Gua Gomantong in Sabah. I had never seen them in fruit although this magnificent solitary palm has become common in KL planted by the roadside.

The search for plants has sharpened my awareness of species in the forest, and I was delighted to recognize, also in Sabah, the beautiful palm Arenga undulatifolia, growing on the limestone outcrops along the Kinabatangan River. I have tried to germinate seeds of this rare species that I collected from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, but failed. Now at least I know its natural growing conditions so can try again to replicate the alkaline, well drained habitat.

While many bananas are considered inedible by humans, they make excellent food for wildlife: insects visit the flowers, and birds, mammals and bats take the fruit. This Musa sp. called pisang belali gajah in Malay provides hundreds of fruits that ripen progressively over months, providing a stable food supply.

An important continuing project is the herb garden, which is more a spice garden with lots of ethno-botanically relevant plants: toddy palms, cinnamon, cloves, nutmegs, meninjau, pandan, chillies, vanilla orchids, lemon grass, pepper, turmuric and tamarind, as well as local medicinal plants. Organic vegetables make the garden useful, while the fragrant blooms of gingers and creepers provide the atmosphere of the ‘exotic East’ which is actually the here and now, not the remote and romantic.

We started Taman Sari by taking a leaf from the Chinese vegetable gardeners’ practice. We burned the clay left over from the house excavations, and if one can talk of a transforming experience, verging on the religious, this was it. Creating a garden is all about making something beautiful and productive that wasn’t there before. Burning clay, the worst kind of soil one could be blessed with, transforms it into a soil that is porous, retains and releases water slowly, that crumbles easily and is sterile and ‘sweet’, blessed as it is with charcoal fragments from the burning. Transubstantiating fire converted my gardening into a religion: to do everything as naturally as possible.

As I became more aware of birds in the garden and the processes of establishing plants, I realised how rewarding it is to share my space with other creatures. I am delighted to say that in the last month I have seen in my garden a pangolin, a two-meter keeled rat snake, chestnut bellied malkohas, crested serpent eagles getting their daily lift from the hot spot on our plaza, a blue winged pitta, large biawaks, a pair of hill mynas calling from the fruiting kenanga trees, and millions of iridescent flies attracting masses of swifts as the flies fed on a flowering Terminalia bellirica. I look forward to the spectacled leaf monkeys feeding on the Terminalia fruit in a few months time.
Not all is resounding success, though. Despite my mix of species I have recently had a plague of white ulat bulu, hairy caterpillars, that have completely defoliated several of these Terminalias. Without spraying, I just have to pray for some natural predator to arrive, but am none the less anxious about the monkeys’ food supplies. They must find enough forage elsewhere in the kampong, where trees are being cut every day to make way for more houses.

I experience a real sense of urgency about wildlife, not unlike worrying about one’s children, so I continue to plant as many species as I can to supplement available food sources. So rather than farming for people, which was the original objective of our dusun, I am now gardening for wildlife, and the animals make the seasons of my garden just as much as the plants do. When we have come full circle, I hope my garden will resemble the forest that was here for thousands of years before it was thoughtlessly replaced by a mono-cultural farm that was destined to fail.

I have one relic of that pre-agricultural era, a worn stump that has eluded all attempts to remove it, and it silently reminds me every time I pass of my mission.

Garden Colour

Garden Colour

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 54 no. 2, 2000.

As I have often noted in this column, Malaysian species are not known for colour, unless you are fortunate enough to see the huge Rafflesia in full bloom on the forest floor, or Bauhinia kockiana (left) enveloping a tree canopy on the other side of a valley. Most are more discrete in their display and the naturalist gardener has to find satisfaction in other detail of form and habit.

However, in the attempt to convert as many as possible to the naturalist approach, it is worth noting that there are some remarkable coloured features that can be introduced to a garden that are also indigenous to the region.

Tall trees, like the perah, Elateriospermum tapos, have a wonderful red flush of new leaves that immediately identify it in the forest, as does the Pometia pinnata, or kasai, but few urban gardens have the space to plant such trees and to view this colour requires a separation of distance. Mertajam, Erioglossum rubiginosum, is a smaller tree that has ruby red berries that develop after the creamy pannicle of tiny blossoms. The leaf shafts of the so-called sealing wax palm, Cytostachus renda, create beautiful columns of scarlet and a strong vertical rhythm for a planting arrangement thus providing a double contrast.

A very successful and colourful climber is the Congea velutina (left), with its pink orchid-like sprays that provide a mass of colour which actually comes from the flower bract, as the flower itself is visually insignificant. Its scrambling habit requires something sturdy to climb on and should you be tempted to cut it back, it will not flower for another year until it has developed sufficient mass to cover a whole tree. I have sacrificed a Filicium decipiens to this creeper and fear that underneath, the poor tree has quietly died, discretely taking care of a non-indigenous whim planted in the early days! I have seen Congea flowering near a salt lick in the Ulu Muda forest reserve in Kedah, an experience I recall as I see the same plant in my garden. It makes an excellent cut flower, an added bonus when most tropical flowers rapidly wilt.

On a smaller scale, there seem to be many indigenous plants that provide purple to pink hues that can be combined to create a mixed planting to some effect. The smallest and easiest to grow must be the tiny ginger Kaempferia pulchra, which can be readily divided for a low ground cover and always has a fresh display of mauve flowers each morning. It does die back for a few months during the wet season, but it will come good again. This can be planted with the Persian shield, Strobilanthis dyeranus (pictured left, which I believe is indigenous to Burma), or combined with the silvery purple leaves of Hemigraphis alternata in dappled shade. A recent find is Pyllagathis rotundifolia, which I have seen growing by the waterfalls in Templer Park. The large round leaves are a feature in themselves, but there is a pretty cluster of tiny pink flowers that emerges at the centre. Cat’s whiskers, Orthosiphon stamineus, have a lilac form and it flowers well in fairly open positions. The common coconut orchid will grow in full sun and provides a constant supply of purple flowers if it is fed frequently with chicken dung, preferably composted so that it doesn’t smell.

The humble kantan, Etlingera elatior, makes a magnificent flower and splash of colour if left to open rather than cutting it for the laksa pot. There are many varieties ranging from the palest pink to scarlet and coral red. Other Zingibers, like the shell ginger, Alpinia latilabris, have short lived flowers but the orange fruit provides a more durable display.

Bananas come in a wide range of forms, many of which are very ornamental, pink, orange or purple, but not edible except by wildlife. The burgundy splattered leaves of Musa sumatrana provide an interesting foliage contrast. Musa bactris (below), a Sabahan, has a wonderful red flower whose ‘petals’ are edged in yellow, and another variety from Endau has white flowers and white fruits…. and there lies my problem, I get carried away with so many varieties and forget about colour, but white is a colour when you consider it against lush green foliage.

From the botanical point of view, the banana ‘flower’ that provides the coloured display, is once again the flower bract. As each one opens it first reveals the female or bisexual flowers that develop into the fruit. As more bracts fall away, rows of tiny male flowers are displayed well after the female flowers have developed into the fruit further back on the stem, so the plant cannot fertilize itself.

Other foliage contrast can be achieved using Pisonia alba, although I have had very mixed results planting this difficult species. It seems to like some protection and constant dampness. The yellow Pandanus also presents its share of problems but when established it provides a wonderful contrast, not just of colour but also of form.

Leafing through the tropical gardening books at the wonderful pictures of lush gardens and planting arrangements, obviously I am not alone in finding it difficult to get enough colour to contrast against the mass of tropical green. Visual interest for the photographer is provided by coloured walls, the sparkle of water, the incredible range of plant forms providing artistic compositions, the inclusion of interesting pots and fountains, paving stones and of course the ubiquitous bougainvillea or heliconias, those foreign devils that are so tempting with their colourful splash of the exotic.

But if all else fails, a discrete piece of coloured sculpture may do the trick.

Neo-Colonisation

Neo-Colonisation

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 53 no. 3.

For the naturalist gardener to transform a bare patch of ground to forest, one needs to simulate the natural processes of plant colonization. The inexperienced gardener who plants durian seedlings and expects the fruit exactly on cue seven or so years later invariably finds that the tree does poorly unless it has lots of company around to shade and protect it. For a forest species, an exposed site has too many extreme conditions of light and humidity, as well as being the most succulent thing around for the local munchers.

In the natural system of plant regeneration in Malaysia, lalang (Imperata cylindrica) and ferns are usually the first plants to colonize an exposed patch; wind delivered seeds and spores set quickly and cover the entire area, anchoring the soil and providing an acceptable environment for the next wave of colonists, like senduduk, or Melastoma (below), which will find a niche amongst the tough grass roots to emerge another foot or so higher than the lalang. Their seeds are dropped by birds like the yellow vented bulbul that frequent open spaces. Trees that can tolerate the hot extreme conditions, like Macarangga, Malotis and Pulai, are the next species on the scene with their energy concentrated on producing soft, light timber to gain a height advantage.

These colonists are not long livers but they attain maturity quickly and can flower and fruit within a short space of time, exploiting the window of oppor tunity as well as modifying the environment for the next succession of plants. In a way, the success of the colonizing individuals does not bode well for successive generations of the same species, as the parents change the habitat so that it is not so suitable for their offspring, a process not unlike pushing the young out of the nest. The successive waves of colonizing plants are constantly on the move, seeds transported by wind or animals, distributed widely to take advantage of any suitable forest opening.

Then come the herbaceous creepers, creating a net that encloses the planting that has emerged so far, providing soil litter, shade and higher humidity for the germination of seeds blown or brought in from surrounding forest.

Like every species the creepers exploit a competitive advantage over other plants, but can only achieve it within the timetable of regeneration. Before there is any height provided by the colonizing soft woods, their climbing habit provides no advantage, and once the canopy is too high they lack the structural strength to reach the sunlight. However, within that opening they are well nigh impossible to eradicate.

In the replanting programme of the Sabah Foundation’s reserves around the Danum Valley, saplings are not planted o ut for two decades after logging, as the foresters wait for the creepers to subside, a long time when considering the growing period required before harvesting, but an essential duration to restore the appropriate conditions for soil and micro-climate.

The common simpoh air, Dillenia sufruticosa, flowers and fruits prolifically soon after planting. As a garden species, it is pretty but can quickly squeeze out less aggressive competitors and form dense thickets.

With each successive stage of colonization, there is a gradual increase in two important factors: the number of species present in the area, and the height above ground of the vegetation, representing the slow but inexorable progress back to forest status. However, this makes the assumption, not often fulfilled in the real world, that there is a source of seeds within a reasonable distance so that new species can be reintroduced when the time is appropriate.

In Malaysia, we are led to believe that we inhabit a green nation because we have a such a large proportion of country side covered by plants, but these figures include mono-cultural plantations that are mocked by the diversity of a true forest. If we are concerned about conserving natural habitats, the rule of thumb is that the height of the canopy will determine the conservation potential or the richness of species and habitat diversity present on a given site. This is the information that should be mapped, not a mere swathe of plantations, to give a true indication of how green is our country.

As a gardener, my life span cannot be measured along side the forest and I am impatient to see results sooner rather than later; short cuts are in order. I weed away the creepers and hope that lavish spreadings of cocopeat will simulate a natural environment for soil formation and water retention; I plant bananas as a ‘nurse species’ around the durian seedlings but I suspect this is not enough and that before too long I will have to relent and interplant with some ‘temporary’ shade trees.

All this leads to a ‘garden’ that could not be further from the DBKL landscape, in fact many would not even consider it to be a garden but an illogical mass of impossible mix. I plant densely in full knowledge that perhaps only a handful will ultimately flourish and carefully protect anything that somehow finds its way into the garden without me having to introduce it. So far my only prize in this category is the lembah, a small herb with palm-like pleated leaves; its fruit is eaten by the Orang Asli to stimulate the taste for sweetness.

Unfortunately my kampong is too far from any remaining forest to benefit from the natural progression of colonizing plants, so I manually introduce everything from all stages of the colonization spectrum, including the forest hardwoods that are so slow to grow as they concentrate their energy in producing the hardest timber for long term structural strength and leaves with complex chemicals that prevent insect attack. A belian tree in Rimba Ilmu that is a quarter century old is barely 30 feet high with a trunk of only 6″ diameter; its leaves are not attacked at all, but it offers a critical clue to the time span necessary to reach fruiting maturity.

My efforts are trying to short cut the natural progression of the colonizing species, even though I know it is illogical and that I am trying to control nature by eliminating even the first process of lalang: cow grass demands more nutrients than lalang and can be a major drain on the soil placing other plants at a disadvantage, so then one must clear around the saplings and ensure that there is some nutrient substitution. Gardening is all about controlling nature, but on the grand spectrum I see my process being a little closer to nature than the clipped minutiae of DBKL, my version of neo-colonization.

The round of the naturalist gardener becomes a routine one, but the rewards are immense: to enjoy the shade of a tree planted just a few years earlier, to watch birds feed on its fruit, even to begrudgingly admire the tenacity of the squirrels as they penetrate the durians or coconuts to reach the succulent flesh, provides the greatest satisfaction.

Palms

Palms

Licuala spinosa, the mangrove fan palm, known in Malay as palas, is common in open coastal areas.

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 53 no. 1.

Of all tropical plants, palms are the most mysterious. Their appearance indicates a primeval history that predates the usual trees and flowering shrubs that comprise the bulk of most garden planting. Their form and structure are exotic and offer the focal point or essential contrast that gives a garden character. Palms make excellent avenues or solitary specimen plants, and the smaller clumping varieties can be combined with others for contrast.

One of their great advantages is that growth habits and dimensions are entirely predictable; a species can be chosen with a particular requirement in mind, and assuming growth conditions are satisfactory, it will behave exactly as expected.

Malaysia is blessed with an unmatched variety of palm species that have inevitably caught the imagination of landscape designers and gardeners. Different varieties can fulfill all roles for plant mass or shape, texture and contrast, but like all plants they must be used in an appropriate fashion.

Johannesteijsmannia magnifica, the most beautiful palm in Malaysia’s forests, has leaves up to 3 meters long and a silvery, or glaucous, back to the leaves.

The palms I remem ber from my Melbourne childhood filled me with an unpromising distaste for the plant: huge, bulky varieties of Phoenix (date) palms that completely filled a suburban front garden and permanently blocked any welcome sun, but in that climate I suppose the owner regarded this as an achievement rather than a liability.

The first thing I planted in my garden was a roadside avenue of the red clumping palm, Cytostachus renda, a plant I had long admired. It was possibly the delight they provided that persuaded me to restrict my plant choice to indigenous species, although some irregularities have crept into my palm collection, often from faulty identification when the plants were young.

A second avenue that was to have been a variety of Corypha, seeds suppose dly collected in the forests of Pangkor, turned out to be a central American Sabal instead, and of course there were the Latanias I put in when I was tempted to gerrymander my geographic boundaries to include the Indian Ocean. The rhinoceros beetles resolved the indiscretion by rendering them so unsightly that it wasn’t hard to give them a final nudge.

It was not so easy with another blunder. My architect husband loves colour and form, and one of the few plants he can recognise is the Travellers ‘palm’. Closer to a banana and certainly not a palm, its leaves create a generous gesture of welcome or farewell, so they now occupy the main entrance avenue, to my continued annoyance. However, one gets one’s way eventually: They are now getting so leggy and ragged, few having suckered, that it may be possible to eliminate them, one by one, and he will never notice.

Right at the front gate are three Corypha elata that will flower just once before they die. The inflorescence is the largest of any flowering plant in the world, made up of millions of bisexual flowers in a single crowning pannicle towering about 7 meters above the top of the palm, not unlike a huge regal umbrella; these flowers could well be the original prototype for the bunga mawar, used to escort the bridal couple at a Malay wedding.

The inflorescence of the common coconut Cocos nucifera is a spectacular and fragrant cut flower.

The flowers of most palms are spectacular but not readily seen. The humble coconut has the sweetest fragrance and the whole inflorescence makes a spectacular cut flower. Most palms have separate male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious) but others have male and female on separate plants (dioecious). Where both sexes exist in the one flower they are known as hermaphrodite. Borassus flabillifer, the lontar plam, is an example of a dioecious palm, so for fertile fruit (used for making drinks and kueh) one needs several plants as the sex cannot be determined before it flowers. The flower stalk, or inflorescence, can be bound tightly, bruised and cut while still on the tree to yield a sweet juice (up to 20 litres a day for months) that can be fermented into toddy or reduced for gula melaka (jaggery). Otherwise, they are a great food source for insects and birds.

The usual species for making sugar in Malaysia is Arenga pinnata, the huge kabong that looks spectacular as a gothic avenue but less attractive as it fruits and thins. Perhaps one of the most beautiful palms amongst the Arengas is the clumping A. undulatifolia, with its lustrous blue-green fronds (silver underneath) that have wavy margins, a spectacular addition to any garden.

Licuala is another popular landscaping genus with many species, all with large fan shaped leaves. Licuala saribus has a solitary trunk with impressive undivided and pleated leaves, while Licuala spinosa, common in more exposed areas on the east coast, has divided leaves in a clumping form.

One of Malaysia’s most familiar palm fruits is known as pinang, although it belongs to the Areca genus. The Pinanga genus applies to a completely different group of palms. In the early days of taxonomy, the genus of Areca was apparently a “dumping ground for many palms which are now placed in other genera” so the result is that a particular palm’s local name now applies to another genera. In fact the name Arecaceae (or Palmae) applies to the entire palm family, just to make it more confusing.

Pinanga disticha, one of the most common understorey palms in the forest.

The members of the Pinanga genus are mostly understory forest palms that need complete shade and high humidity. The leaves are sometimes mottled in different shades of green, giving them landscaping potential for very shaded areas. By contrast Areca catechu (Malay name pinang) is the tall slender palm that provides the slightly narcotic fruit for chewing, and many other varieties in the same genus provide useful medicines in kampongs throughout Southeast Asia.

Collecting and learning about palms is a fascinating hobby if one has space to plant them. Otherwise, the best public collection can be seen at Rimba Ilmu, the botanic garden in the grounds of Universiti Malaya, where most of the plants are labeled. I constantly refer to a publication by the Smithsonian Institution Press, Palms of the World, by David L. Jones, and look forward to MNS producing a definitive guide to the palms of Malaysia.

Tropical Water

Tropical Water

Nelumbo nucifera, the sacred lotus, makes a spectacular display when flowering.

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 52 no. 4.

Water and its lack or excess has become a much debated topic in KL, where floods alternate with droughts, and taps droop to a drip when rains miss the catchment and fall in the city heat sink instead. I am responsible for the supply of and demand for water over my 14 acres and have taken a deliberate role in retaining and modifying runoff so that it does not become a problem for others downstream.

My objective is to create a garden and landscape that is sustainable and can tolerate periodic dry periods or deluges. The basic pre-requisites for a tropical garden are plenty of both sunlight and water, combined to create the natural hot house. The strength of the sunlight is modified by shady trees that shape the landscape and give an important dimension of height as well as retaining humidity, but the appearance of water is the next most important element in fashioning a sense of landscape.

Two ponds, dredged along a natural stream and dammed at one end, contain a fair amount of flood surplus and retain enough in the dry season to maintain a lotus garden. In other areas of the garden, water is directed to long ‘soak aways’, sand and rubble drains buried in the ground that encourage water to soak into the ground rather than run off too quickly.

Salvinia, the floating fern that soaks up nutrients but can easily choke a water garden.

Not only am I trying to reduce runoff, but also to contain the loss of nutrients that can be dissolved and lost in just one heavy storm. An interesting lesson about the retention of nutrients came from my unwitting introduction of a floating fern, a variety of Salvinia, a pretty thing, thought I, that innocently came along with a water lily from a nursery.

I let it float off into the sunset, never imagining that it could propagate so rapidly that in a few months my pools were completely choked. Other plants that depend on sunlight were destined to die if we did nothing, so we started to scoop it out by the boat load and were surprised to find that the water underneath was crystal clear. The reduced sunlight had restricted algae and the plants had taken up much of the dissolved nutrients washed into the water from chicken dung fertilizer. Of course it grew back again, but it seems to be seasonal and at the moment is in remission.

The lesson learned was to make use of the scoopings for compost and mulch, thus harvesting the nutrients from the water rather than have it wash away. I would imagine water hyacinth would perform the same role. The collecting is labour intensive, but as in all gardening there is something very satisfying in making the most of what is available in the garden to improve it in some way, rather than merely buying a solution.

The main water feature is in front of the house where a raised reflective pond uses water from the dam to create a more formal pool. An architectural cascade draws water through a coral filter, installed ages ago more for fish rearing than planting. As the coral dissolves it makes the water too alkaline for plants. Water lilies and other plants will not thrive in alkaline water although it suits fish well enough. By contrast, the two natural pools had acidic water so now we mix the two. Submersible electric pumps draw water from the dam to the reflective pond, compensating for evaporative loss and balancing the pH of the water, maintaining more acidic than alkaline levels. The circulating and mixing also reduces the problems of stagnation, maximizing the effect of the reed beds around the dam to clean the water.

Water lilies, Nymphaea sp., come in many forms, that are either day or night flowerers.

We made planting beds in the reflective pool, using laterite for the planting medium as water plants prefer a high iron content. Planting holes were enriched with compost and muslin bags of chicken dung provide slow release nutrients beside each plant. The water depth for plants is about 30cm, but if you want to rear fish the water should be about a meter deep to ensure that the water does not get too hot from exposure to the sun. As the temperature increases the amount of oxygen available to fish is reduced, causing distress or death.

In keeping with my indigenous theme I have tried to limit myself to indigenous plants and fish, but with the inevitable invasion of tillapia that objective has been foregone. One of the most important lessons I learned, albeit too late, was never allow anyone, no matter how well meaning , to introduce this dreaded scourge into your pond; they breed prolifically from a young age and are near impossible to eradicate. The only way to control them is not to feed the fish and hope that a natural balance will be restored. Introducing a predator such as haruan or toman into the pool may help, and take heart in the assurance that some will be taken by kingfishers.

I restrict garden watering to a handheld hose, and then only in the vegetable garden and for the ferns around the house. Everything else has to survive on rainfall. Too much watering will encourage surface rooting amongst plants that would normally dig deeper and tap into more reliable ground water supplies. Mulching is critical to retain moisture, so don’t burn off leaves: either compost them or pile around a tree or shrubs that can do with the protection. Don’t, however, heap mulch close to tree bark as it encourages fungal attack; make sure there is breathing space around it. New plantings need water, of course, so try to plant in the wet season, or if in the dry dig your planting hole and fill it with water. Wait until it soaks away and then plant; at least the surrounding ground will not draw from the plant. And don’t forget to mulch; when it rots away do it again, and again! Not only will the soil develop a higher content of organic matter, it will retain moisture better and provide a perfect environment for micro organisms that work in soil to release nutrients for the plants.

Combined with the intense sunlight of Malaysia, an ill-conceived water garden can soon become an eyesore of algae and mosquitoes, with pumps clogged and filtration overwhelmed. I have been playing around with pumps and stuff for some time, and although my water garden is not yet the show piece I hope for, I am still learning. Playing with water is such fun, as my 3 year old grandson will attest, and to nurture damsel and dragon flies, lotuses and water lilies, and to see the flash of an occasional fish, must be the ultimate gardening reward.

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.