Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ethnobotany In Action and When Fish Climb Trees

Ethnobotany In Action:
A Trip to Maludam with the TK Team--
When Fish Climb Trees -- Exploring a Mangrove Swamp

Collecting plants and stories in Maludam

These last few days were a real eye-opener, a chance to go out into the field with the Traditional Knowledge (TK) team lead this week by Mr. Tu Chu Lee. Dave and I were so fortunate to get to join the TK group and see ethnobotanical work in the field!

Mr. Tu Chu Lee at work in Maludam
We went to the village of Maludam, a hard-working fishing village perched between the South China Sea and Maludam National Park. Maludam is about 100 kms ENE from Kuching and about a 4-hour trip that included three ferry crossings! The road was a relentless green blur through secondary forest & peat swamp forest, as well as wet grasslands & agricultural areas planted in coconut palms, tapioca, rice, corn, pineapples, & (the very useful) Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans). 

On the ferry -- note the safety prayer
pasted on the motorbike!
Also, the further we got into the countryside, the more and more “swift-houses” we saw. These “houses” are designed for the birds – sparrows or swifts – who are enticed to build nests in them. The nests are harvested and sold for big money to make the famous (and expensive!) delicacy “Bird’s Nest Soup.” The ‘’houses’’ are two or three-story drab concrete boxes, with openings on one side – they are big singing barns that blast out a concentrated roar of bird songs and chirps.

Dave, Puan Dayang Hajijah, me and
Dayang's husband in the Hajijah Homestay
Maludam has about 5,000 people (composed of Iban, Malay and Chinese communities) and when our team finally arrived (there were seven of us) we unloaded our gear at the homestay run by Puan Dayang Hajijah (she teaches Zumba in Maludam!!) and her family.

The Hajijah Homestay was a roomy, comfortable Malay house, raised on "stilts" with its back legs occasionally in the water and never far from the fishing boats that chugged along the river, following it down to the sea one way or back up toward the park going the other.

I loved her kitchen!
Fishing boat on the Maludam River
TK team member Elsa recording plant
information from the community

The TK (Traditional Knowledge) group works with indigenous communities and teaches them how to preserve their age old wisdom about the plants around them and their uses. In modern times this knowledge is not always passed down to younger generations, and so it is vital to record and document this wisdom before it is gone. TK also facilitates the propagation, cultivation and management of these indigenous plants within communities where they are utilized and valued.

All over Sarawak, TK teams have been visiting indigenous communities and recording what people have to say about their local plants – how to use them, how to grow them, and how to find them.

We were fortunate enough to observe and participate in the workshop with the team, and I got to help teach the community leaders some of the basics of collecting plants.
The workshop drew about 20+ “headmen’’ (some of whom are women!) from different local communities. Everyone was brimming with enthusiasm and brought in plants to talk about and pass around.

Part of the process is to teach the community how to record the knowledge themselves. Armed with digital recorders, they set out to interrogate each other about the plants they brought in. It was a lively scene, with people good-naturedly teasing and correcting each other like a big, happy rowdy family at a reunion. It was fun to watch! You'll notice that the video does not have any audio-- we removed it so that the community gets to decide how much of their information gets shared. 

K.K. Gasing, the senior community leader
present, being interviewed by another headman.
The communities – and especially the elders – are living encyclopedias of plant wisdom and lore, and the community leaders took turns interviewing each other and capturing it on digital recorders.

Welcome to Maludam National Park:
Elsa, Tu and I and our guides
When we finished in the village, we had a chance to take a boat trip into Maludam National Park with Tu Chu Lee and Elsa. The park is famous for its crocodiles and its Proboscis Monkeys – we didn’t see either one this trip! 

I am glad we did not see any crocs!

But if you want to see the Proboscis Monkeys, just wait until the next blog!!

Pandanus andersonii
The boat trip took about two hours, through the ubiquitous Pandanus andersonii that are a big feature of this black water peat-swamp. The tide was in when we took our trip, making it easy for the boat to get around but also meaning that we could not get to any of the trails. Instead, we enjoyed a wonderful morning of boat-based botanizing!

Once we left the park we took the river out to sea. It is surreal the way that the river goes through a ribbon of mangrove swamp and then just turns into the South China Sea. 

The horizon merges into a line of river, sea, clouds and sky, with a few trees scattered around for effect!

While we were exploring the mangroves, the boat-men pointed out the Mudskippers. Mudskippers are fishes restricted to areas of Old World coastline & estuarine habitats, such as Indo-Pacific Mangrove Swamps. They not only swim as other fish do, but they can survive out of water and even climb trees! On our trip out to the Mangrove swamp, we were fortunate enough to see these mudskippers on the trunk of a Mangrove tree (Rhizophora).


Thanks for reading this far! I’ll end this blog for today, but there will be another blog soon, this time with some of the flora (Pitcher plants and sundews) and fauna (Proboscis Monkeys and Monitor Lizards) of Bako National Park!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Botanist's Dream -- Bamboo Flowers? Soldering Irons in the Herbarium? The Beloved Prince Who Smells Not so Good?

Tapeinochilos ananassae
Waxy Red Ginger
This week, still in Indonesia, we finally made it to Bogor! After a long train ride into Jakarta (a mega-huge city of 12 million people, not even counting the suburbs) we made our way south and west of the city to get to Bogor. Bogor is about 30 km from Jakarta and 1,000 feet higher, on the main route out of town that leads to the “heights,” the highlands strung between two old volcanic mountain peaks in West Java. West Java is home to the Sundanese, about 40 million or so people with their own language, foodways, and distinctive dances and style of gamelan music. In this part of Java everyone who can jams the highway to the mountains on weekends when it is too hot in Jakarta, and it is always too hot in Jakarta!

Gigantochloa bamboo
& tiny botanist for scale 

Our destination in Bogor was the fabled herbarium there – the Herbarium bogoriense and the beautiful, expansive Kebun Raya Bogor – the Bogor Botanical Gardens! They were established in 1817 when the Dutch were the colonial bosses here (and when the Dutch were forcing Javanese farmers to grow their cash crops for them) but the Brit Sir Stamford Raffles also had a hand in running the place. Today it is a huge wonderland of tropical plants, laid out in a way to please the casual visitor as well as the label-hungry botanist who wants to see things planted out by family, genus and species.

Bambusa vulgaris
Here I especially felt drawn towards the extraordinary collection of all the bamboos. These statuesque grasses are strikingly elegant, and the family consists of hundreds of species that are not at all easy to figure out.  You probably know the botanist mantra of what is required to make a proper identification -- fruits and flowers, fruits and flowers and fruits and flowers. Bamboo, though is a special case, and the identifications almost always hinges on the stems and leaves. Why not use the flowers? Because bamboos almost never flower! It can be decades before a clump of bamboo flowers, if it flowers at all! The plant lives for so long, and is so inconsistent in its flowering patterns, that even the experts have a hard time establishing many of the basic facts about its life-cycle.

But Bogor had a thrill in store for us -- bamboo in flower!

Bamboo Flowers!
It was my first time to see it, even though it was just my luck that the flowering clump was not labelled. I venture to ID it as
Gigantochloa sp., since it was within the Gigantochloa collections area and resembled its companions.  Perhaps a flower of bamboo is not great or showy enough to make you catch your breath, but if you knew how rarely a flowering event occurs, perhaps it would!
The next day also held some wonderful experiences. We made the trip out of town to visit the Herbarium bogoriense,  located since 2007 in a government science center in Cibinong. Bogor is one of the foremost tropical herbaria in the world, and the numbers alone are staggering-- over 2 million specimens, 18,000 TYPE specimens, a staff of 29 taxonomists, and one very gracious host, Dr. Atik, a mycologist, who gave us a remarkable tour.

Dr Atik leads the tour of Bogor
The Type Specimens Room:
over 18,000 types!!!

We had a terrific look around, seeing the walk-in freezers used to control specimen-devouring insects, touring the vast dried carpological collections (dried fruit!), the spirit collection, and cabinets full of seed collections.

We marveled at the special building for drying specimens, outside of the main building as a fire precaution and including both electric and charcoal run dryers. 

The electric plant-dryer at Bogor.
The charcoal-fired dryer.


Want to keep your collection safe from fire?
Isolate your dryers in a separate building!

The Spirit Collection at Bogor

Rafflesia in a jar -- part of the
Bogor Herbarium Spirit Collection

The Spirit Collection at Bogor is truly incredible. Tropical plants, and especially their fruits and flowers, are often preserved in alcohol. The Spirit collection at Bogor is a large room filled with jars and vats of this floating evidence, all fully documented and protected, with some specimens over a hundred years old!

Soldering Iron Technique in the Herbarium

In the specimen preparation room I learned a new mounting technique that I had never seen before. Lots of herbaria attach their specimens to specimen sheets by stitching them on the sheet, or by gluing them on, or by securing them with linen tape (or some combination of all three). But Bogor has a technique using small soldering irons and special heat-sensitive tape!  The tape is non-sticky, and is laid over attachment points to secure the specimen, Then the ends of the tape, which touch the mounting sheet are quickly soldered, bonding them to the paper, and NOT the specimen. This way the specimen is securely mounted on the sheet without becoming part of the tape! It took very little encouragement when Dr. Atik asked if I would like to try my hand at it!

Bogor is a wonderful place to visit and on any given day will be full of Indonesian schoolchildren on field-trips. Often, these junior high school students will be studying English, and their teachers will give them a daunting assignment: find someone who looks like they speak English, and go practice your English with them! These young Indonesians were invariably polite, cheerful, and very, very pleased to meet Americans -- far too few Americans ever visit Indonesia! They also didn't mind getting their photos taken with their living homework!

Kebun Raya Cibodas

After Bogor there was one more stop in Indonesia -- the Kebun Raya Cibodas (Cibodas Botanical Garden), about 30 kms from Bogor and over 2,000 feet higher. The Dutch added this wing of Bogor in 1852, and wanted it to be home to all the cultivated tropical plants that would flourish in slightly cooler and higher climes. They planted everything they could thing of that might catch on here, including lots of Southeast Asian plants as well as introducing New World Tropical plants like Chinchona (the old source of anti-Malaria medicine). Cibodas is on the slopes of the dormant volcano Mt. Gedes, and it is one of the most beautiful settings for a botanical garden we have ever seen. It has steep, lush green slopes, natural waterfalls and streams and it seems to float in a dream as drifting clouds of mist laze from slope to peak to valley as you climb up the mountainsides. It is a beautiful place to relax, and, of course, to explore the plants!

The fern collection there is dazzling, both for the number of different types of ferns and for their sheer size! This tree ring is the cross section of a fern! And the exquisite patterns on the this fern "trunk" are from where its branches were trimmed!

Cross-section of a Fern.
Patterns left on a Cyathea trunk.

The herbarium too was a delight to see. The staff gave us a great look at their seed and spirit collections, and showed us how they maintained their specialized collection.

Every curator wants to show off
their specimens!
The garden also boasts this amazing path lined with mature Araucarias! They call it "Araucaria Avenue" and no wonder -- these splendid trees, imported from  Australia and New Caledonia are a joy to behold!

Araucaria Avenue

Araucaria rulei

The Titan Arum

The garden also has a small colony of Amorphophallus titanum, the fabled "Titan Arum" that some say is one of the single largest flowers in the world. It's not though -- instead, the giant rocket-like bud produces one great inflorescence -- a cluster of small flowers -- that is its claim to fame.

The other side of fame is not so grand, as it is also reputed to be one of the worst-smelling flowers on the planet! The plant here is still months away from producing its wonderful flowers and its less than wonderful scent!

Back to Sarawak, and the Prince Arrives!

When we got back home to Kuching and the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre we barely had time to get into our SBC routine when Margarita Naming gave me some thrilling news: there was a Rafflesia tuan-mudae in flower about 60 km away at Gunung Gading National Park!

Rafflesia! The genus with the largest flowers in the world!  Notice that the genus gets its name from Sir Stamford Raffles, who we mentioned earlier in connection with Bogor Botanical Garden.   The species name "tuan-mudae" is  taken from Malay and means "Beloved Prince."  This real wonder of nature is a true parasite -- it has no stem, no leaves, no roots of its own! It grows exclusively on the Tetrastigma vine (in the grape family). 

The bud starts out as golfball-sized but over 9 months grows into a pink, basketball-sized (or larger!) bud.  It bursts into flower that, in this particular species, can be a meter in diameter! The flower lasts only 5-7 days before it starts to decompose, leaving behind a ring that looks like a blown-out tire. 

Inside the 'Window' of
Rafflesis tuan-mudae.  
It has liquid pollen and attracts Carrion flies who are drawn to its famous and distinctive odor. Some call it the "corpse flower'' and one British commentator sniffed that it smelled like the 'carcass of a water buffalo in an advanced stage of decomposition.' However you slice it, this Prince's fragrance is less than charming!

Dave and I get a chance to see and smell a Rafflesia for ourselves!
Thanks to Luming Chen for the photo!

The truth is, despite what they say, it didn't smell all that bad!  If you are from the SE USA and have stepped on or crushed an earwig, that is what it smelled like to me.

Monday we go out into the field for several days with the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre's Traditional Knowledge Team to a Village called Maludam. I am really looking forward to this first experience of Longhouse culture and meeting the people and plants there!